The chef will not pose for photographs.
Masaki Saito, a 35-year-old sushi chef, has just arrived at his eponymous restaurant in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood, and immediately huddles in a corner, speaking in hushed Japanese to his handlers.
One member of his entourage, who introduces himself as a translator, comes over to explain that Saito doesn’t want the restaurant photographed while it’s messy. The chef won’t have time to pose outside either, the translator says.
A few moments later, another man – a second translator – explains the actual reason behind the chef’s reluctance. Saito didn’t come dressed for photographs, he says. He only wants to be captured looking his best.
Finally Chef Saito walks in. Despite his apprehensions, the cherubic-cheeked chef looks sharp in head-to-toe black: a stylish ballcap, matching OVO sweats and, on his feet, a pair of fashion slides. We’re standing in a dimly-lit tatami room, but he’s wearing dark aviator sunglasses.
How does he feel?
Just a few weeks earlier, Sushi Masaki Saito, where the chef specializes in Edomae-style sushi (which uses aged or cured fish), was awarded two stars by the prestigious Michelin guide. It’s the culinary equivalent of an Olympic medal. And, after Michelin’s release of their first-ever Canadian guides – in Toronto and Vancouver – Saito has become Canada’s first and only chef to hold two stars.
He leans toward his translators. “Happy,” one of them says.
Can he elaborate?
They talk for a few more seconds. All three men are nodding.
“Very happy,” the translator says.
The interview continues, with each of Saito’s answers carefully discussed by his entourage before it’s translated. Often, both of them jump in with slightly varying responses. All the while, Chef Saito sits watching, a look of amused detachment on his face as the staff weigh his words – dissecting, editing, then editing again.
This is the nature of Saito’s world now. With the Michelin announcement, he’s cemented his place in the Canadian culinary landscape. He’d earned Michelin stars at his previous restaurant Sushi Ginza Onodera in New York. But in New York, he was one of dozens. Now he’s done it again. And in Canada, he’s the first and only.
With that will come the spoils. Even before the news, it was a challenge to get a reservation at Sushi Masaki Saito. These days, it feels near-impossible.
But a Michelin recognition can be a mixed blessing. Now the stakes are higher. And so are the expectations. It magnifies the pressure – the expectation for discipline and excellence – in an industry already known to be cruel and unrelenting. And because of the nature of the Michelin process – restaurants don’t submit themselves for consideration; they’re simply chosen by inspectors – it’s a spotlight that’s thrust on to restaurants whether they want it or not.
For Saito, it means that, at least on this day, his words and image are closely monitored. After his restaurant first opened in Toronto three years ago, the chef was known to speak freely in interviews – sometimes without the aid of translators (he speaks English, although not fluently), and with a sense of humour that could verge on inappropriate.
When asked about the future of the restaurant, Chef Saito pauses to confer with his staff. They speak back and forth, debating how to answer. (The Globe later had the audio of the entire interview translated through a separate translator).
Chef Saito asks his translators to deflect. There’s something he’s not supposed to reveal.
“It’s a secret,” he reminds them in Japanese.
Mystery has always been a part of the Michelin appeal.
Throughout its 122-year-old history, the Michelin Guide (published by the French tire company) has been shrouded in secrecy. Little is known about the identity of the inspectors, the amount of knowledge they have of local cultures or, ultimately, how they make their selections. That secrecy has only added to its prestige.
For many chefs, a recognition from Michelin – even one star, let alone the maximum of three – is a huge honour. Only 139 restaurants around the world have three stars. In addition to stars, the guide also features Bib Gourmands (”value for money”), as well as a longer list of restaurants that they recommend generally.
So when Michelin announced its plans earlier this year to expand into Canada, speculation abounded over who might receive honours.
Ultimately, only Sushi Masaki Saito was awarded two stars. Twelve Toronto restaurants each received one star. In Vancouver, eight.
“It’s not like other awards,” said John Bunner, operations director at the Alo Food Group, which includes Alo and Alobar Yorkville. Each of those restaurants was awarded one star in the Toronto Michelin guide.
With other well-known awards, said Bunner, there are ways for a restaurant to increase its odds: travel, holding collaboration dinners and paying for PR. “The Michelin Guide isn’t like that.”
Earlier this year, The Globe requested an interview with a Toronto Michelin inspector, with the promise to keep their identity anonymous. That request was declined.
Information about the judging process is similarly elusive. But what’s obvious from the institution’s long history is that there are clear preferences.
“They might give certain restaurants recognition,” said Soleil Ho, a former cook and now restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, “but it’s so pregnant with history, with their own preferences, and their own origin as an authority in itself.”
A typical three-starred Michelin restaurant, for instance, almost always offers a tasting menu with a high price point. Dinner at Sushi Masaki Saito costs $680 a person. Most of the other Toronto starred restaurants, too, have tasting menus with three-figure price tags.
Luxury ingredients, extravagant decor and extensive wine lists all require significant investment, which is why restaurants that land on the Michelin guide are almost always well-funded, said Ho.
Often that means the backing of wealthy benefactors. Sushi Masaki Saito is financed by William Cheng, who owns Mississauga-based Premier Candle Corporation, which makes candles for brands like Estee Lauder and Ralph Lauren. Cheng also owns Shoushin, a Toronto sushi restaurant that received one star.
“The values of: ‘What is high end?’ ‘What is worth it?’” said Ho. “Those are very subjective things.”
Routinely, Michelin ignores so-called “ethnic” cuisines in favour of European (and increasingly, Japanese) restaurants. Of the 139 Michelin three-starred restaurants around the world, more than half are in Europe. Another 30 are in Japan.
With the Toronto guide, for instance, most of the starred restaurants are Japanese or European-influenced, and located in downtown Toronto. Almost half are concentrated in the tiny (and tony) neighbourhood of Yorkville.
The Vancouver guide offers slightly more variety. When considering all of Michelin’s recommendations for the city (and not only the eight starred restaurants), the list reflects at least some of Vancouver’s rich culinary diversity.
“If there’s nothing in Markham,” said Ho – referring to the Toronto suburb where many of the region’s best and most diverse restaurants can be found – “they’ve failed.”
Then there are the Puerto Bravos.
When Puerto Bravo was named onstage at the Michelin gala at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks in mid-September, the restaurant’s owners, Luis Bautista and Viridiana Cano, were nowhere to be found.
Instead, the couple was 20 minutes away, working in their kitchen in the city’s East End. A week earlier, they had received a phone call from a woman from Michelin. “We’ve been trying to reach you since June,” Bautista recounted the woman telling him. “Check your e-mail.”
He looked and found several messages saying the restaurant was under consideration for the Toronto Michelin guide.
Still, Bautista shrugged it off. Theirs was a small, casual restaurant, selling tacos over a counter to mostly neighbourhood locals. Nothing on the menu costs more than $20. It didn’t fit in his mind what Michelin represented. “Under consideration” for a Michelin, he thought, wasn’t a sure thing. They weren’t about to shut down the restaurant for a night if it was only a small chance.
Instead, they played the Michelin live webcast in the restaurant as they sat down for their family meal.
“Then our names came up, and it was just ‘WHAAAAAAAT!’” said Bautista. Puerto Bravo was now a Bib Gourmand.
“My wife, she just cried a lot,” he said. “I cried too.”
Both Bautista and Cano had worked in restaurants across Mexico (including in their home town of Tampico) before coming to Canada in 2013. After arriving in Toronto, Bautista worked his way up to the role of executive chef at Chúuk in Pickering, Ont., and Cano at Bloom in Toronto.
But when the pandemic happened, they were suddenly unemployed. They decided to start Puerto Bravo, without understanding the challenges they were to face.
“It was a mess,” he said of the licence and permitting process. “You called the city, nobody answered,” he said.
The process of building the restaurant took eight months. They were bleeding money. As soon as he was able, Bautista went back to work at Chúuk, running back and forth between the two businesses.
They finally opened in August, 2021. By that time, the fine-dining, sit-down restaurant they’d originally envisioned had morphed into a much more casual taco and tostada counter.
And then the Michelin news happened. Since the announcement, business has skyrocketed. Sales have increased by about 45 per cent, said Bautista. They’ve had to hire more staff – up from two to four.
It’s stories like these that cause even the most ardent Michelin critics to waver.
The Michelin spotlight can provide a huge boost for small, independent restaurants such as Puerto Bravo. At Wynona, a nearby neighbourhood restaurant which was also recognized with a Bib Gourmand, reservations are up about 50 per cent.
The Michelin guide exposes these small businesses to a global market of diners. It’s marketing they would never be able to afford on their own. The designation also draws tourists to a city – some travel the globe specifically in search of Michelin-starred restaurants.
So for an industry that’s faced enormous challenges over the past several years – from pandemic lockdowns, to labour shortages, and rising costs for rent and food – it’s a boost that comes at a welcome time.
But that recognition also comes with new expectations.
At Alobar Yorkville, which before the Michelin announcement was more of a neighbourhood restaurant, Bunner said they’re already seeing small changes.
Customers are now coming in from all over the city, who treat the restaurant as a destination.
“What we’re seeing little glimpses of is people for whom this is an experience,” he said. “This is the big night out. It’s a different energy. They’re coming in with different expectations.”
And managing expectations from new customers can be a challenge, said Roland Lindala-Haumont, the general manager at Wynona. The Michelin news, he said, was a very nice surprise. “But it’s definitely a little trickier when people are coming in the door knowing this praise we’ve received,” he said.
“We have received a few reviews from customers who have been like, ‘I don’t know why this restaurant was a Bib.’ We can’t be everything to everyone.”
Bautista echoed this.
Many of the new customers at Puerto Bravo, said Bautista, “they’re expecting to see a more fancy place.”
And though he’s thrilled with the recognition, he’s also cautious about the possibility that it could be limiting for their future.
After all, Puerto Bravo was never meant to be in the “cheap eats” category that Michelin’s Bib Gourmand confers – where two courses and a glass of wine costs less than $60.
Their goal over the next few years is to develop the fine-dining restaurant they’d originally planned, inspired by the seafood dishes of their home town of Tampico. But doing so will mean they risk losing the Michelin recognition.
“We are willing to take that risk,” he said. “Because we want to get a star.”
Still, the pursuit of a Michelin – and the pressure of the Michelin system – has, in the past, taken a dark turn.
In the early 2000s, a flurry of chefs made headlines for renouncing their Michelin stars – some of them citing the costs associated. Several of them publicly cited the enormous emotional pressure of “keeping” their Michelin stars, questioning whether the recognition was worth the mental toll.
This discussion intensified after the suicide deaths of at least two high-profile chefs – Bernard Loiseau in 2003 and Benoît Violier in 2016. Both of those deaths were blamed, in part, on the pressure of the Michelin system.
But even aside from the extreme examples, said Ho, the high stakes of a Michelin star can exacerbate the effects of an already high-pressure industry.
The exploitative and sometimes abusive working conditions in certain restaurants, she said, are only amplified when stars enter the picture.
“It really brings out an ugly side to the restaurant business,” she said.
“The stars bring so much material benefit and capital to the restaurants. But how many unhappy line cooks is a star worth?”
About halfway through the interview, Chef Saito shows signs of relaxing.
He agrees to pose for a few photographs.
With the camera turned toward him, he throws up “hang ten” signs, and smirks at the lens from behind his sunglasses.
And eventually, he reveals the “secret” he was supposed to keep quiet.
The restaurant will be shutting down for several months later this year, he says.
During that period, Sushi Masaki Saito will undergo an extensive renovation. According to Toronto Life magazine, they spent $2.5-million to build it just three years ago.
The dining room, already an intimate space with seating for up to 13 customers (though they typically seat just six at a time), will become even more intimate. They’re aiming to reduce the total number of seats down to eight.
And they’re hiring experts in marine biology to build a state-of-the art storage facility for seafood above the dining room.
The timing of these changes might seem unusual so soon after the success with Michelin. But in fact the changes are inspired in part by the news – and the heightened expectations.
“From now on, I have to try even harder,” says Saito. “Even more.”
The translators chime in. Even more intimate, one adds. More comfortable.
Does Chef Saito feel the pressure to keep his stars?
“No,” he says at first.
Then he adds, a few moments later, “If I lose my star, I am going back to Japan.” From beside him, the translator jumps in quickly. “Just kidding.”
Several hours later, Saito’s translator calls. The chef is not happy with how he answered some of the questions, he says. Can he send an e-mail with even more exacting answers?
A few minutes later, the e-mail arrives.
“In Japanese culture, my job is to improve every day until I die,” it reads.
“I love my job and I don’t feel any pressure to keep improving my art.”
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