Growing up surrounded by food, Shun Sato seemed destined to become a chef. His father owned an izakaya (pub) in the northeastern Japanese city of Sendai. Local workers and businessmen would come for simple fare such as fried or grilled meat and seafood to wash down with beer or sake, and Sato would sometimes help serve customers or do the dishes. But, if anything, it put him off following in his father’s footsteps. “I grew up eating a lot of sashimi,” says Sato. “We would eat it all the time. My dad would bring sashimi home to eat. I got so sick of it, I couldn’t stand it any more.” The last thing he wanted to do was work in a Japanese restaurant. And yet, the idea of being a chef appealed to him, so at the age of 18, he moved to Tokyo and worked in a French restaurant, determined not to be like his dad. Fate intervened however, and a year later, he found himself in Sydney, Australia, working at acclaimed restaurant Yoshii’s Omakase, known for serving some of the best sushi and sashimi in town. Where to eat and drink in Taichung, central Taiwan’s fine-dining hub With chef-founder Ryuichi Yoshii as his mentor, he learned technique and the importance of handling produce properly, with tips such as plunging his hands into ice-cold water before touching fish. This was followed by a stint at another lauded Sydney restaurant, Blancharu, where under the tutelage of chef Harunobu Inukai, he learned the nuances of fusing French techniques with Japanese ingredients. Sato first came to Hong Kong in 2015 and worked at Armani/Aqua restaurant in Central. He then had a brief spell in London, which he disliked, so he returned to Hong Kong and joined Black Sheep Restaurants, opening Fukuro, in Central. It was his first head chef role, and he developed his own style of modern Japanese cuisine marked by bold flavours and international influences. It’s a style he has brought to Censu, his debut restaurant, which opened last July, after Hong Kong’s fifth wave of Covid-19. “Every chef dreams of opening their own restaurant,” he says, but the opportunity came for him sooner than expected, as he took advantage of a rise in vacant sites and reduced rents to go out on his own. With a clear idea of what he wanted to offer, Sato says that the most stressful part of opening the restaurant in SoHo was the red tape around securing licences for everything, from the renovation to the charcoal grill and alcohol. “The design and finding staff was easy, but the licences were super stressful because that was out of my control.” He admits that being his own boss for the first time was also challenging, because he was now responsible for the welfare of his workers, a concern exacerbated by the uncertainty of the pandemic. Censu, which means “folding fan”, is inspired by the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which embraces imperfection and transience in life. It pays tribute to his grandmother, who he spent a lot of time with as a child while his parents worked. I want to be seen as more than a chef; I want to be known for my creativity Shun Sato The interiors are modelled after her house, with a slatted wooden facade and noren curtain at the entrance, concrete floors, exposed timber beams, paper lampshades and a large wooden communal table in the centre. While the pandemic has taken a toll on Hong Kong’s hospitality sector, Sato considers himself lucky that the restaurant has thrived, with two dinner sittings the norm even on weekdays. The atmosphere is lively and loud, and the food comes out at a cracking pace. Most tables start with Japanese oysters as big as your hand, dressed with yuzu vinegar and banana shallots. Signature dishes include tempura of zucchini flowers stuffed with scallop, prawn and three-cheese mousse served on a bed of earthy truffle purée, and roasted, aged, three-yellow chicken, which he says is “the best chicken in the world”. Also popular is the hearty udon tossed with crab miso and topped with shredded crabmeat and egg yolk. Sashimi is on the menu, too, Sato having made peace with raw fish. Perhaps influenced by his French training, what binds many of these dishes together is the sauce, which Sato says is “essential to any meal or dish. It adds umami and flavour, and is how we differentiate ourselves from other restaurants.” Sato describes his food as simple, a departure from his fine-dining days in Australia. “I want everything on the plate to be edible, including the garnish,” and he limits his ingredients to four per dish. Drawing further on the idea of wabi-sabi, he says that “every dish can be improved, it’s never perfect […] today is good, but tomorrow can be better.” That’s not to say diners will be getting less than the best, but rather that he is constantly looking at ways to build on his knowledge. You could be forgiven for thinking that Censu sounds like a modern izakaya, but Sato says that the restaurant is more than that. “We are an international team with different influences, backgrounds and cultures, and we want people to experience that, not somewhere bound by tradition.” He also sees the space as embodying a lifestyle – part gallery, concept store, meeting place and cultural exchange between Hong Kong and Japan. The art on the walls is created by friends and available to buy, as are the ceramics and other objects. Following the success of Censu, Sato is on a roll, with the recent opening of Enishi, a teppanyaki restaurant in Sheung Wan, and a second Censu due to launch in Japan in the coming months. Enishi, which means “fate”, alludes to the circumstances of how Sato came to meet the restaurant’s co-founders, husband-and-wife chefs Toru Takano and Ami Hamasaki. The trio met and became friends while in Australia and a chance encounter in Hong Kong several years later saw them reconnect and end up working for Black Sheep Restaurants at the same time. They took this as a good omen to open their own place together, and the chefs receive equal billing. While Enishi follows the same wabi-sabi principle as Censu, it is the grown-up, higher-end sibling. Where the latter is brighter and more relaxed, “like a party with friends in my living room”, the former is moodier and more intimate. Guests can eat from set menus at the 11-seat counter, where Takano and Hamasaki are in charge of the hotplates, or sit at stand-alone tables and order à la carte from a menu overseen by Sato. In addition to opening new restaurants, Sato is also pursuing his passion for fashion. A huge fan of trainers, he was forced to sell most of his 200-strong, mint-condition collection to help fund the opening of Censu, a painful necessity. Now he is collaborating with artist and designer friends to create a range of clothing and accessories. He asks them to take their cues from Censu and gives them freedom to interpret that into T-shirts and jumpers, earrings, jeans, even incense. Once again, wabi-sabi comes into play, with frayed collars, patchwork textiles and unpolished jewellery. A website is well under way, and several items can already be ordered in-person by diners. Sato clarifies, however, that the line is separate from the restaurant. “I want to be seen as more than a chef; I want to be known for my creativity.” And so, it seems that Hong Kong’s next fashion success may well be cooking up a storm in one of the city’s most popular kitchens.