Chef Mads stands in the Japanese inspired interiors of Sushi Anaba
Sushi Anaba, Copenhagen: An Interview with Mads Battefeld
Along the quiet streets of Copenhagen’s Nordhavn district lies Sushi Anaba, an omakase restaurant on a mission to introduce the authentic flavours of Japan to Europe. Dreamed up by Danish chef Mads Battefeld in the kitchens of Tokyo during his year of sushi training, its eight seat counter provides an intimate setting to enjoy how the team transforms quality Scandinavian seafood into traditional Edomae sushi, a style of cooking with its roots in the Edo period.

What’s your earliest food memory from your childhood?

My earliest memories are from my grandparents’ house, having traditional Danish food. They always had good homemade meals. We stayed there a lot as kids on the weekends, and I guess it stuck in my head because my parents have never been that great at cooking so my grandparents’ food felt particularly special. They lived close to the harbour so we used to have a lot of fried flatfish like plaice, which is similar to hirame (Japanese flounder). You turn it over in flour, fry it whole with butter, and then you have it with a parsley milk sauce with potatoes. That’s a very basic, traditional dish in Denmark that you have with homemade pickles on the side. I just remember how good it was to have a fresh, fried fish - it was so smooth and so juicy, because it was picked up like 100 metres away in the morning. If you need to eat fish, you need to have it fresh.

My grandfather also raised rabbits, and he joined competitions to show off who had the biggest or most beautiful. But there were always some who wouldn’t make it, so growing up we had a lot of rabbit instead of chicken. Two very classic ways of eating this in Denmark are in a fricasse of French sauce eaten in a vol-au-vent, which is like a puff pastry bun, and also as a ragu (Italian meat-based sauce) of rabbit and vegetables.

Tell us a little about your culinary background? How long did you spend in Japan?

I’ve been a chef now for around 15 years. Chef education in Denmark only takes three and a half years; you start at school, then you have a restaurant where you train. You go to class for 10 weeks, and then you’re back at the restaurant to train again. When I finished that in 2010, I moved to Spain and lived in Barcelona working at Dos Palillos, or ‘two chopsticks’ in Spanish. It’s an Asian fusion restaurant with Japanese and Spanish influences.

After a year, I returned to Denmark - I’d been working for free in Spain and didn’t have any more funds, so I just needed to start making money again. Since I’m classically trained in the French kitchen I ended up joining Henne Kirkeby Kro, a two star Michelin French inn on the west coast of Denmark. I worked there for 6 years, most of the time as a sous chef. I’ve always been fascinated with Asian cuisine though, especially Japanese, but in Denmark, in Europe, it’s very difficult to find high-end Japanese restaurants - so during the winter off season I always went travelling, every year going to Japan for a month. From there I just got more and more into Japanese food, and I started to do more test dinners at home to see if it was something I wanted to do in the future.

At one point, I wanted to see if sushi was ‘my’ kind of cuisine. I went to a place in Sweden that had recently received a Michelin star, and I really liked the setup of the sushi restaurant itself but found that I was just very, very disappointed with the products that they were using, and the style of cooking there. So I said to myself, I need to learn the classic way of preparing sushi. From there, I began looking for a restaurant in Tokyo where I could train and a good friend of mine had connections to a place in Ginza called Sushi Tokami. I headed there and spoke with the master, which is what we called the head chef. He said I could come for 14 days to see the restaurant and to meet him, so I agreed and began working in their kitchen at the start of 2017. At the end, the master invited me to return later that year because he was going to open up his own restaurant. I convinced my fiancée to move to Japan - at first for half a year, which became a year - and returned on a working holiday visa. It was 100% more ‘work’ than ‘holiday’ though.

When we arrived in October, the restaurant hadn’t opened yet due to delays with the building and so the master offered me an opportunity to train at his favourite sushi restaurant in Toyama instead. I headed to Sushijin and trained there for 3 months, and after that I continued in my master’s new Tokyo restaurant, Hakkoku, for 9 months. It was tough, very tough work.

What sparked your interest in Japanese cuisine?

Back in 2008 I went on my first trip to Asia - China for three weeks - and I really became interested in Asian flavours as a whole at that point. Later, during my training to become a chef, myself and the other members of the course would save up our tips every year to go on a culinary trip. One time, we visited Barcelona and ate at a restaurant called Dos Palillos, a place that I actually ended up joining as staff. Their head chef had fallen in love with a Japanese waiter and sommelier during his time heading the kitchen at El Bulli. Eventually they opened up Dos Palillos together, which has Japanese-Asian flavours but with the philosophy of Spanish tapas. It was a big menu - 18 courses that you would share - and from there, I just totally fell in love with flavours that I never thought existed. I’m from the countryside of Denmark so it was very traditional - Danish potatoes and pork - food that we had for many years, so my culinary scene was very restricted at that time. Here, in Spain, was my first real exposure to Japan, and after my trip I travelled to Japan for a month and a half with my now-fiancée. We didn’t have the money to go out to high-end restaurants but it was just really life-changing, and I fell in love with the simplicity of Japanese food.

I think what stood out to me was the umami that was brought into dishes without making them fatty. I’m used to a French kitchen, where they use a lot of butter and cream to create umami; to create a lot of flavour. But in Japan you have all that dashi and soy sauce - you don’t need fat on your palate to savour the flavours. For me, that was the biggest change in realising how clean a dish can be.

I don’t know if my first [Japanese culinary] interest was sushi, but its simplicity is what really attracted me. I also like how difficult it is to make. It’s so simple that you need it to be perfect - you have to make sure the rice is at the correct temperature, the fish needs another temperature, it needs to be fresh, and you still need to communicate with your guests and perform for them. In many ways it’s a very difficult craft, compared to just cooking in the back of a kitchen.

How did you come to start Sushi Anaba?

The sushi aspect was inspired by going to Japan and learning the craft. When I began, I didn’t even know how much the head chef wanted to teach me or if I was just going to spend the whole time doing dishes, but I went in with an open mindset of trying to see how much I could learn in a year and subsequently how far I could take it in Denmark.

On a personal level, Sushi Anaba was a chance to make a Tokyo-style sushi counter with a touch of Scandinavian design and simplicity. I basically tried to take all of the good stuff that I’d seen in Tokyo, and build it into something that reflected my tastes. I also wanted to use the freshest Danish seafood around, but still incorporate rice, wasabi, sauces, and all of those basic sushi staples from Japan.

What would you say your concept is?

I would describe Sushi Anaba as a traditional Danish bar with high-end food. That’s how I want people to feel - like they can relax and have a good conversation, but still have a super sophisticated meal. They can have an open discussion with us over the counter while drinking beer, or whisky highball, or expensive wine. A lot of our guests say that it’s like going to a ‘food spa’ because they can relax so much, and just enjoy the atmosphere of the restaurant. We are situated by the sea on the outskirts of Copenhagen, so when you walk into the restaurant all you hear is the train at the back of the property, and the water in the harbour to the front. There are no cars - maybe a few bicycles or people - but it’s really quiet. You can see the moon and the skies, and you just leave the restaurant feeling very calm.

For me, Sushi Anaba is a restaurant that provides a small educational experience for the guest. It’s super important for people to know about the fish we have in our seas, and learn what they are like when prepared in an authentic Japanese way. I continued on the tradition of saving tips to venture out on culinary trips with my team from the restaurant. The money always goes towards a staff trip to Japan. We were supposed to visit last September but unfortunately couldn’t due to the pandemic, so instead we travelled to Paris and Sweden to check out some high-end sushi restaurants there instead. I really want to go back to Japan soon though to learn and be inspired more.

For our team’s style of cooking and the time we have available to travel, Tokyo is the perfect location for compact culinary trips. I really like it there; you can still go to areas and not see any tourists, or it feels like you’re the only one around. In comparison, the last time I was in Kyoto I was a bit overwhelmed by how many visitors there were versus how small the city is. There’s just so many of them everywhere. I didn’t like the feeling of being seen as a tourist when I was living in Japan. I liked the feeling that I was actually living there, and I still experience that whenever I go back. I like to be seen as a member of the ‘club’ and not just another tourist, which I know is sometimes how locals feel about them; I want to go a little bit deeper than that. When I travel, I try to go in the off seasons like January, February, September or October, when there’s not as many visitors.

How important is decor as an extension of a meal?

I think it’s super important. My brother is a trained furniture maker, and I developed a lot of love and understanding for Danish design thanks to his influence. To me, it’s essential that things are made from good materials instead of needing to replace or rebuild everything in five or ten years time. Then the design can mostly speak for itself - you don’t have to dress it up.

I designed everything in Sushi Anaba. From the beginning I already had some basic ideas on what I wanted it to look like, and if we couldn’t make it that way then it was not going to happen. While I was training in Japan I had so much time to think, so I spent ages considering how the restaurant should be, and sketching how it could be. It’s always difficult to draw up a restaurant when you don’t have a location, but I found that creating ideas over time was very important.

When my fiancée and I returned from Japan in October 2018, I began looking for locations straight away and an architect company were looking for renters in a new district in Copenhagen called Nordhavn, or North Harbour. After many meetings and nearly nine months of construction, we eventually opened Sushi Anaba in October 2019.

A good thing about our location was that it was an empty shell, so we could do all of the design and architectural aspects from scratch. I also felt it was very important that people could sit on good chairs, and for me a good chair is not too high. The seating needed to be traditional, but we had to be able to look guests in the eye while they dined - good eye contact means good communication. This is why we lowered the floor in the kitchen by 25 centimetres, so that when I’m behind the counter I’m almost at eye-level with our guests.

All of the wooden elements in the restaurant are built from a single tree - a log of Danish Douglas fir from Langesø forest in Funen. I was lucky that my brother had good connections with a very good Danish carpenter, Andrea Stokholm, who runs bespoke furniture and interior design company Stokholm Normark with partner Anton Normark. She draws a lot of inspiration from Japan, and visited several times to learn the craft of kumiko, a traditional woodworking technique. She’s the person who crafted the counter, bathroom furniture, and tatami room including its bench setup, shoji screen doors made of paper, and ceiling for us, with the tatami mats themselves sourced from Japan.

How important are natural, seasonal ingredients to you?

Seasonality is the most important thing. Especially when using vegetables and fish, the effect of micro and high seasons is crucial. Dried elements such as our rice, soy sauce, wasabi, and kombu (kelp seaweed) are always sourced from Japan because they’re the best quality, and our fresh ingredients, like fish and vegetables, are always Danish.

People always ask us, ‘Are you using Japanese fish?’ But it doesn’t make any sense to fly in fresh produce because it would not only raise the costs involved, but degrade the quality of the product as well. It would take three or four days to arrive, and by then it would not be in great condition anymore. In Denmark, we’ve always been a farming country and there’s a joke that there are four times as many pigs here than humans. Fishing has always been a big industry of ours too, but I think 90% of the fish we eat is imported, while 80% of what we catch is exported. It’s very bad. Danes always say that we eat the worst products ourselves because we’re too greedy for the money we make through exporting. One thing that I do think is getting better is that more people are starting to invest money into buying local products rather than always opting for imported stuff.

The first green and white Danish asparagus just popped up and the first mackerel have been caught. Soon, the first small mushrooms will come too. I’m always super happy when I see a good product, and when things come into season it’s like falling in love.

The mackerel that just arrived are very lovely. People have a negative opinion of mackerel in Denmark because it’s something that we used to eat a lot in canned soup. Usually it has a very strong taste associated with it, though when you eat it super fresh and in the Japanese way with just vinegar and salt, the flavour becomes very clean. I like that a lot. Another fish available to us in Denmark is called garfish - similar to a very big sayori (Japanese halfbeak). They’re only in season for around three weeks, and they’ll leave their roe during this time. Right now they’ll taste super refined, super clean, but in autumn they’ll return from eating herrings and other small fish out in the deep waters, and will be super fatty by then so we’d usually grill them. With that fattiness in the autumn, they’re similar to Japanese sanma (Pacific saury).

What’s the difference between preparing sushi in Copenhagen vs. Japan?

The biggest difference is that there’s literally just one restaurant here doing sushi in a traditional way. In the future I think there will be more to come, but it would be better if there were just a few more right now to help increase the demand for good quality seafood. That’d be super helpful, especially because we need to use a lot of raw produce, such as fish. Denmark already has a high level of quality fish, but I think that this would increase even more if there were other sushi restaurants to drive greater demand.

In Denmark, sushi is never nigiri, which is bite-sized vinegared sushi rice topped with raw seafood. It’s always maki, or rolled sushi. Always maki - just shitty American rolls. You never eat nigiri in Denmark. But we [Sushi Anaba] only do nigiri. Consumers here don’t have sushi the correct way, as it was intended by sushi chefs, it’s always made for takeaway. People take it home and it sits out for a long time so the rice is always too sweet and always overcooked; it’s usually just a bad product in Denmark.

What are some of the restaurants inspiring you right now?

I think most Japanese restaurants are very inspirational in their use of seasonal products. When we [as chefs] make dishes, we want to make it as clean as possible and try to push the produce so they speak for themselves in the best way - we don’t want to change the flavour too much, but we just enhance or push their own flavours. I think that’s very inspiring, and some Japanese restaurants are very good at doing that. But you need quality ingredients to do that, you can’t just do that with average produce, otherwise the food will just fall flat.

Apart from Sushijin, I’d also recommend Sushi Arai and omakase restaurant Higashiazabu Amamoto for some fantastic sushi. For seasonal Japanese style meals with a carefully selected variety of wines, check out Bunon, housed in a quiet corner of Tokyo’s Nishi Azabu neighbourhood inside a renovated traditional Japanese home. If you’re into meat then Kirakutei is known for their yakiniku, while Toriyoshi Nakameguro* and Osaka-based Yakitori Ichimatsu are delicious options for yakitori. For those in Kyoto I’d recommend Taiho for tasty, good value Sichuan cuisine, and back in Tokyo, Ginza Kazami is serving a unique take on ramen which involves infusing sake kasu, or sake lees, a white paste-like rice byproduct from sake production, into their dishes. Another great place is Menya Fukumaru, which is best known for its flavourful duck ramen.

Editor’s Note:

Toriyoshi Nakameguro is temporarily closed until August 22, 2021 due to COVID-19. Please check the website for future updates.

Staff Writer
Brand's Own