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Mostly Food & Travel Journal

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Ryosuke Mashio – UMU Head Sommelier

Ryosuke Mashio – UMU Head Sommelier We are spoilt for choice in London. We have restaurants of every ethnic hue. It’s a cosmopolitan city and food reflects our diversity. Japanese restaurants are more in evidence that ever, and acknowledged as one of the finest is UMU of Mayfair.

The very address hints at the quality to be found within. Chef Yoshinori Ishii has a deservedly high reputation as the skilled exponent of the elaborate, beautifully presented and seasonal kaiseki cuisine. Not all Japanese restaurants are created equal. One can snack on sushi on almost every corner, it seems; ramen noodles are providing big bowls of steamy comfort; but UMU is polished and extraordinary.

Along with exquisite food, UMU diners are invited to peruse a creditable wine list but there is also Japanese sake …and a lot of it. Sommelier Ryosuke Mashio is the man in charge of the sake cellar as well as the wine cellar, and the wall at the end of the dark wood-bedecked restaurant is decorated with coolers filled with sake bottles sporting attractive and, for me at least, indecipherable labels. UMU does, in fact, boast the largest selection of sake in Europe.

Many sommeliers are old, dusty and intimidating but Ryosuke Mashio is part of that new breed of beverage specialist. He is young, enthusiastic, energetic and knowledgeable. He didn’t have a passion for sake from babyhood. His family don’t own a sake brewery, and his career in sake started, ironically, in London.

Ryosuke came as a student with very little English. ‘Seven years ago I came to London with just one guide book about the city. I checked where I had to go from my arrival at Heathrow to the youth hostel where I was going to stay. It was at Canada Water.’ He still remembers the route and recounts that he was relieved and happy when he reached his own little room.

What had encouraged Ryosuke to come to London? ‘I wanted to live and work in an English-speaking country. I chose the UK for no particular reason. It was my first time outside Japan. My family didn’t have anything to do with sake or wine or even the restaurant industry and, to be honest, at that time I didn’t have much experience either. But when I came to this country I really wanted to be a sommelier. I had good bar-tender skills as I had worked in a bar in Tokyo when I was 20 so I had knowledge of spirits, gin, vodka and cocktails but I didn’t know much about wine and sake.

‘I was looking for work and I noticed an advert from this restaurant. They were looking for an assistant sommelier. I applied for the post but they were looking for someone with experience to fill that high position. I didn’t have the appropriate knowledge but I still wanted to be a sommelier. Naturally the restaurant management refused me so I started working as a commis waiter instead, to gain some relevant work experience in the restaurant. I was not even a proper waiter! I was just moving the food from the kitchen to the table where the real waiter would serve the guests. It was boring and it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to be involved in the drinks side of the business.

‘I asked if I could extend my hours. I was a student and was only allowed to work 20 hours per week. I spent extra non-work hours at the restaurant to learn more about drinks. I started with bar-tending and joined the team at the very bottom, and after four years I had the position of sommelier; then I became assistant head sommelier and then head sommelier.’

Ryosuke Mashio – UMU Head Sommelier That really seems good progress through the ranks but it takes hard work as well as passion to become a respected sommelier. ‘I went to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust for wine study and then I took a Sake training course as well. Serving wine and sake in the restaurant relies more on my experience from working here. Talking with my group head sommelier and assistant head sommelier has given me lots of knowledge. We have very good clients and they always order something special so I have had the chance to try exceptional sake and wines that I have never tasted before and thought ‘Wow, this is the wine I have read about in my books and now I am trying it here in UMU.’

‘I think it’s most important to actually taste wine. If you go to school you are given 3 or 4 different types of sake or wine to taste but every day on the restaurant floor I have the opportunity to try 10 or 20 different bottles of sake or wine and you grow to understand how it tastes, how it looks and you can make comparisons.

It’s difficult even for sommeliers to recognise the different styles of sake sometimes. It’s easier with traditional European wines. We often have sommelier competitions between us here in UMU. We have blind tastings and with wines it’s not hard to recognise what they might be. But it’s a different matter with sake. It can be quite tough to recognise a particular bottle from a particular brewer. I can tell that the sake is a specific style like Daiginjo (super premium sake) for instance but it’s much more difficult to define where it was brewed. It’s easier to recognise a vineyard and winemaker.’

Diners at some chain sushi bars sometimes only have the choice of a couple of different styles of sake: Hot or Cold. Things are improving and now more Japanese restaurants are offering sake lists. I was curious as to whether UMU guests were adventurous with their choices. ‘To be honest I think that 75% of sales are still for wine, and only 25% for sake. The customer has usually already decided what he will drink before he reaches the restaurant: “Tonight I am going to have a nice bottle of white wine,” although sometimes it might be “Whenever I go to UMU I always drink sake.” It’s more expensive than wine so it’s quite a challenge for me to sell sake to people who know nothing about it. I suggest a bottle at a reasonable price but good quality. Everyone knows what to expect from wine but they don’t have much idea about sake, they might have heard about it from a friend but often people don’t want to take the chance. What I try to do is allow people to try just a little sake that I would offer as an alternative to their usual wine.’

UMU is famed for its food and selection of the finest sake. At the last count they could offer more than 130 bottles of sake. Ryosuke hopes to increase that already-creditable number to between 150 and 160 bottles in the near future. But have attitudes in the UK to drinking sake changed over the years? ‘Gradually things are changing. We at UMU offer plenty of opportunity to taste sake. Unfortunately there are some restaurants that stock inferior quality sake. It can be easy to drink but the next day might find the drinker with a headache. That’s how the myth has evolved that sake is as strong as vodka: they think it’s distilled, and will likely give them a hangover, so they avoid drinking sake again.’

Ryosuke Mashio – UMU Head Sommelier Sake is misunderstood. It’s called rice wine but it’s brewed, more like beer. The first-time sipper might well expect a fruity ‘wine’ as that would be their only point of reference, but it has a distinctive flavour derived from rice and other ingredients, along with the famously soft water of Japan. It’s difficult to describe. Ryosuke agrees. ‘People don’t know what sake is. It’s described as rice wine but it doesn’t taste like that and it’s not an easy comparison. When we talk about sake we must use wine terms. The wine industry is long-established here. For me the characters of wine and sake have to be described using the same terms.

‘I have a combined sake and wine list. When I have new sommeliers at UMU they have good knowledge of wine but they don’t know much about sake. I always tell them to use the same terms they would use when talking about wine – aromatic, dry, sweet – all the words we use for wine we can use for sake. We can close the gap between wine and sake by education and promotion. The first step is to allow people to enjoy, and then encourage them to return and perhaps try another variety of sake.’

Ryosuke Mashio is a quietly spoken young man with an engaging manner. He is a sake match-maker and educator. He understands UMU diners, his cellar and the striking food of Chef Ishii. Sake might not be the cheapest meal partner but a perfectly chosen sake enhances food in remarkable fashion. A good sommelier can transform a delicious dinner into a memorable experience, and in this Ryosuke has his unique niche.

14 - 16 Bruton Place
London W1J 6LX
Phone:+44 (0)20 7499 8881
Fax:+44 (0)20 7016 5120

Monday to Friday
Lunch 12.00 - 14.30
Dinner 18.00 - 23.00

Dinner 18.00 - 23.00

Visit UMU of Mayfair here

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