Reinventing sushi in Brixton
Chris Restrepo spent years working in his parents' kitchen, ate his way round Tokyo and studied with the masters. Now he’s back in south London making Japanese food like no-one else.
There’s nothing I could tell you about Chris Restrepo that you wouldn’t learn after a night of eating his sushi.
Chris, a 28 year-old Thai-Colombian son of Brixton, practices the art of omakase – a form of Japanese cooking where the chef hosts you, takes control of your menu, and makes it in front of you, piece-by-piece.
Traditionally, it’s one of Japan’s most formal ways of eating, but at Kurisu Omakase, it becomes a raucous retelling of Chris’s life and loves: part-performance art, part-stand-up routine. “Being in Brixton, I have the space to be as crazy as I want to be,” says Chris, “and reflect who I truly am as a person. I don’t have to worry about the professional pretence, I can be me.”
Chris serves four diners at a time (pre-Covid it was double that), three times a night, in the closed dining room of his parents’ Japanese restaurant, Ichiban Sushi – a restaurant he grew up in, served in and cooked in, from the age of seven upwards. It’s very much a family affair. Chris’s mum even stands alongside him as he cooks, helping him serve the 18 intimate courses.
From a baseline of flawless Japanese technique, his food and stories take you to hazy summer barbecues, home-cooked Thai dinners, trips to Colombia, France and Italy. His nod to Brixton is a spoon of CBD caviar on his mackerel nigiri. “I’m putting myself on display, I’m putting myself out for judgment, I’m putting myself out for opinions. And that’s scary. But this is something I wanted to do for so long, and I’m here for it.”
Sushi is in Chris’s blood. His father fell into the trade after emigrating from Colombia to the UK in the 1980s, picking up work as a potwasher before climbing up the ranks and finding a master to train him. “I went to his workplace one day,” says Chris, “and he gave me some tuna sashimi. I still remember it – it’s like in Ratatouille, where the critic eats the dish made by chef Remy at the end, and has that flashback to when he was a kid! That’s where tuna sashimi takes me.”
Chris’s parents opened their restaurant in 1999, and from there onwards, he was fully immersed within Japanese cuisine, testing out the menu and following his parents when they visited competitors. He started in the kitchen at 16, learning his craft and doing his best to study the traditional methods.
But in the back of his head was a desire to be tested and taught by his own master. To find that, he had to train in Japan. “When I went to Japan, that’s when it all blew up. I realised how Westernised our Japanese food is – it was like landing on another planet.”
Chris found his master at the prestigious Tokyo Sushi Academy, joining an intensive course that took him through every fish – and every way of handling it – that you could think of. More than this, however, he learned as much of the “why” as the “how”, learning the principles of Edo-mae (which means only using fish from the Edo River) and being a shokunin (a dedicated craftsman) from his teachers.
“You see the quality of fish,” says Chris, “and they teach you how it’s because of the water, and because of the diet they’re fed. And then it clicks: you start to really notice the differences between a fish from here and a fish from there.”
Being in Japan taught him more than just fish. He threw himself into Tokyo city life, eating everything he could find: from ramen, convenience store sandwiches and takoyaki, to raw chicken sashimi and cod sperm tempura. “The cod sperm was actually good! The chicken was… weird.”
He experienced his first omakase, and saw how it allowed the chef to express himself in a completely different way to traditional sushi – the chef was free to tell a story with his food, directly to the diner. A fire was lit. Chris came home with a laser focus to keep working, training, and honing the story he wanted to tell.
He found work in other Japanese restaurants across London, but saw that while there was always more to learn and improve on, there was little space to pitch ideas and break from convention. So whenever he had a shred of free time, he worked on dishes at home, over and over again until they were perfect.
“There’s a hundred ways to do one particular thing,” says Chris, “and it’s about trying every last one and seeing what works. You can’t help but get creative.”
The result of this graft is Kurisu Omakase. His cuisine is his own – Yoroppa-mae, as he calls it; everything sourced from Europe – and his unique way of hosting has built him a cult following as one of the city’s most exciting chefs.
He has had everyone from first-timers and sushi sceptics to some of London’s most revered sushi masters eat in his parents’ dining room, and stumble back out onto the chaos of Atlantic Road, several sakes deep, after an unforgettable experience.
“The experience I create here allows people to be who they want to be,” says Chris. “As soon as you walk through this door and start serving, your worries get left at the door. You have the theatre, the show, the comedy of what I do, the cuisine, the way things are plated in front of you. It’s so fun.”
Chris is opening up again after lockdown, still putting himself on display, and getting back into the swing of serving customers in a time where dining out holds far more risk than it did last year. “I care too much, I’m even scared to reopen right now! But you need that, I think. Fear keeps you sharp.”
What is certain, though, is that for as long as there’s a space to serve out sushi, Chris will keep telling his story in wilder, bolder ways, as only he can.