Being pushed to think differently in new role as Saké Brand Culinary Chef, Shimpei Hatanaka

Born in Japan and raised in Australia, Saké Restaurant & Bar’s Brand Culinary Chef Shimpei Hatanaka is a second-generation sushi chef who has been working in kitchens since the age of 14 and has spent over a decade working with Saké.

Shimpei was part of the launch team at Saké The Rocks in Sydney in 2010, where he stayed for five years, working up the ranks to become Executive Chef. He then moved to Saké Hamer Hall in Melbourne where he led the kitchen team for five years.

In May 2022, he came full circle, returning to Sydney as Saké Brand Culinary Chef which sees him manage all four Saké restaurants: Saké The Rocks, Saké Double Bay, Saké Manly and Saké Hamer Hall.

Cooking is in Shimpei’s blood. At the age of 18 he was cooking alongside his father at Shiki Japanese Restaurant in The Rocks. He went on to earn his stripes at Sushi-e in Sydney and Nobu Atlantis in the Bahamas.

Shimpei says the opportunity to work across all Saké restaurants presents a new challenge and greater diversity in his career.

“I’ve always worked at one restaurant, which is great, but it can limit what you do: working with the same produce, suppliers and customer tastes,” he explains.

“Working across all Saké restaurants will challenge me to think differently, cook with different produce, explore new menu ideas and absorb learnings from the Head Chefs and culinary teams at each location.”

Produce is Shimpei’s biggest source of inspiration, especially seafood, the quality of which has improved dramatically in the past five years, he says.

Toro Nigiri

Toro toro toro Nigiri

His culinary philosophy is to cook the flavours he enjoys eating, or dishes he has cooked for others, and which have been thoroughly enjoyed, rather than replicating dishes from elsewhere.

One of his first projects as Saké Brand Culinary Chef is to add a new robata section to the menus at each Saké restaurant. A traditional Japanese robata grill is used to cook produce over binchotan – traditional Japanese white charcoal – which infuses ingredients with a beautiful smoky flavour.

“My main focus is on the produce, rather than overpowering it with sauces,” he says.

Robata Grilled Lobster with kombu butter, sudachi, rayu, crustacean oil

“Lots of restaurants cook over charcoal but use really heavy sauces so you can’t smell the flavour of the charcoal or taste the flavour of the produce,” he explains.

“With a robata you mostly cook over high heat using the smoke, not the flames, to infuse produce with incredible flavour, so it’s important to let those flavours speak for themselves.”

While he says there is no limit to what can be cooked on the robata grill – meat, seafood vegetables – his favourite item is chicken skin, which he says crisps up delightfully and is supercharged with flavour. Other favourite produce to grill on the robata are squid and calamari, which Shimpei says take on incredible flavours.