Tsukiji was about the fishmongers as well as the fish, says Michelin chef Lionel Beccat


When two-starred Michelin chef Lionel Beccat reminisces about Tsukiji, formerly the world’s biggest fish market, it is not the ocean’s bounty that stirs memories, but the fishmongers themselves.

“The story of Tsukiji is quite simply a story about human relationships,” Beccat says as he browses through the Tokyo market’s offerings at the crack of dawn in search of prawns and fish for his lunchtime service.

Beccat, 42, is executive chef at Esquisse, a restaurant in the capital’s ultra-chic Ginza district, and he has been making the short journey to the market for the past 12 years.

But all that came to an end Saturday when Tsukiji closed after 83 years, moving to a purpose-built site at Toyosu, just 2 kilometers to the southeast.

Now a veteran of the market, he says it took several years to establish a trusting relationship with the merchants.

“I quickly had to get used to the idea that I knew nothing about fish,” said Beccat, even though he comes from the French fishing port of Marseille.

At Tsukiji, “it is the fishmongers who choose their clients. Not the other way around,” he said, adding that even the top chefs showed deference to the vendors and their knowledge.

The market, which was a rabbit warren and tourist magnet of tiny shops selling every conceivable type of produce from the sea, could not fail to inspire a professional chef, Beccat said.

“Tsukiji is a world unto itself.”

He found inspiration in the range of the produce, the expertise and advice of the fishmongers, and even “the smell, the movements, the light.”

“Coming here, day after day, week after week, month after month, gradually changes the way you cook, even without you noticing it.”

One of Beccat’s suppliers, Masatake Ayabe, enjoyed a 30-year career in Tsukiji. He fears business might suffer after the market moves to Toyosu.

“There is no other market in the world which brings together so much fish, and people do us the honor of coming to shop here,” Ayabe said.

“But I am sure we will have fewer customers at Toyosu.”

He said he was sad to leave Tsukiji and “was not really looking forward to going to Toyosu.”

“It is further away for customers, we wonder how we will have such good relationships with them. There are also quite a few question marks over deliveries, access,” said Ayabe, who runs the Kamemoto Shoten fishmongers.

Tsukiji critics say the 83-year-old market is no longer fit for the modern world, pointing to questionable hygiene standards in the narrow streets and insufficient protection against fire.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who signed off on the move, says the new market, on the site of a former gas plant, will use cutting-edge technology to provide a modern environment for selling fish.

Beccat acknowledges that “it will be better from a sanitary point of view” and that the fishmongers will suffer less from extremes of cold and heat, but he is more concerned about the difference in atmosphere.

“Tsukiji is addictive: If you do not go in the morning, the day is not quite the same,” he said.

“It is the place that has taught me most in my life. A page of my professional life is turning.”