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Published:  23 July, 2008

Sayaka Watanabe, Sake sommelier, Zuma, London, Interview: Anastasia Edwards

Zuma 5 Raphael Street London SW7 1DL Tel: 020 7584 1010

Sayaka Watanabe was born in Tokyo in 1979 and studied hotel management in London in 2000. After a stint as a bartender at The Park Hyatt in Tokyo (where she never met Zuma's chef-proprietor Rainer Becker, despite the fact they were both working under the same roof at the same time), she moved back to London. Her extensive sake knowledge enabled her to join the team at Zuma as the UK's only sake sommelier, a post she has held since 2003. She regularly holds sake tastings and training sessions with staff at Zuma and has recently begun to organise sake and food pairing lunches. Her suppliers are Tazaki Foods, Harro Foods and JFC.

Tell me about your connection to London. Because of my father's business we moved to London when I was seven and stayed until I was 12. In a way, England has always been like my other home country; a place that was easy for me to live in, a place that was familiar. I always hoped that I would be able to come back one day.

How did you get into the trade? The first restaurant that I worked in was a Californian cuisine restaurant in Tokyo, and I loved it. At that time I was studying nursing, but I decided to quit school and came to London to study hotel management. When my student visa expired I went back to Japan to work for the Park Hyatt Tokyo. I was the only girl bartender in the hotel at the time - I believe I was only the second ever to have worked in that position at the hotel. It was very, very hard because it was more of a man's society - shaking a big Boston shaker, for example, was really hard for me. It was tough as a girl, but they gave me a fair opportunity to prove myself.

How did you get the job at Zuma? While I was working at the Park Hyatt I got to know about Zuma. I put myself forward, but Rainer said, I can't promise you anything, but if you pop in' - to London! - we'll see.' So I took a one-week holiday to London, not knowing what to expect. I still remember the first day that I came into the restaurant. It was so inspiring! They had this whole space devoted to my country's culture; it was created by foreigners but done so well. After a trial I went back to Japan so that they could organise my visa. But it was very difficult for the Home Office to recognise the occupation of sake sommelier. I think they wondered, What the hell is sake in the first place? And a Japanese sommelier?' It didn't make sense to them, but Zuma really pushed for me.

How do you train the staff? I present them with extremes: I bring them two very different sakes - say ones as different as a Californian Chardonnay and a German Riesling. I also bring them different temperatures of sake. I say, Look: if you chill it, you get the harshness; if you warm it, you knock the corner off and it is a bit softer.' I also try to use pictures showing the process of making sake. I want the staff to understand why sake is so precious.

How do you translate the culture of drinking sake? The beauty of sake is that it is made from rice, which is so important in Japan. Rice is presented at religious offerings; it is at every meal Sake was first made when a female deity was chewing rice and then spat it out. Even in the kitchen, staff are used to pressing the rice into a bowl because it makes a nice shape. I say to them, Don't! You can't squash the rice - not even one grain! It has got to be softly presented.' When they make a batch of sushi rice, you get a lovely smoke - a steam like you get on the nose of sake. I tend to react a bit too much to this, but I want the staff to know how precious and delicate the process of sake appreciation is.

How do your customers respond to you? To be honest, some of them say, Oh what a bother Why can't we just have your house sake?' What is amazing, though, is that some customers come wanting to try sake but also wanting to have wine with their meal. They say, Why don't we start with a hot sake and then have some white wine?' That gives me a chance to say, Well, why don't you try a cold sake?' It's not too much to ask. My style of service is to shadow the customer's feeling. That's a very Japanese way of serving customers: being there and not being there. Western service is more about showing how good you are, how friendly you are, how impressive you can be. I will at first try not to say a word and to listen to what they know. I will try to sense what sort of price range they want to go for. Some customers have been to Japan, where you sometimes drink sake from a glass placed in a box, and I hear them describing this to their clients or friends. We don't always have the necessary things so I improvise by using small soy-sauce bowls so that they will not be embarrassed by what they are saying because, at the end of the day, all the things that they say give me a very warm feeling.

What are your goals? There are so many things that I still want to do - I feel that I have only done a fraction of them. My passion is to tell the story of my home culture. I always thought because I was brought up abroad and speak two languages fluently, that would give me the chance to do something that no one has ever done. If one day sake drinking becomes natural for English people and Europeans, and if they look back and ask themselves who was taking part in all of this when it started, and if I could say I played just a tiny part, that would be so rewarding. And then the younger generation in Japan could say, Wow, our sake is drunk so naturally and normally in England, why don't we drink it more?' If I am able to trigger that whole process and the market moves that would so fascinating, you know what I mean?