A CHEF from a famous London restaurant part-owned by Robert De Niro is preparing food at a Brentwood sushi bar.
Recruiting Chinese sushi chef Xuefeng Bai from Michelin-starred Nobu in Mayfair – where he still works three days a week – is a real coup for Eva Voveryte, 32, who has ploughed her savings into opening Sushi City, a Japanese restaurant in Kings Road.
Since coming on board, the 36-year-old, known as Feng, has used his 15-years of experience to train his Lithuanian boss how to pick up the freshest fish at the market as well as creating a 97-piece menu for her.
Every other morning, mum-of-one Mrs Voveryte rises at 3am to drive to Billingsgate Market, in East London, to buy fish – and each one gets a thorough sight, touch and smell test to check it is fresh enough to serve raw.
The beauty of sushi lies in its simplicity.
Yet watching Feng prepare an exquisite sea bass special gunkan in soya paper roll (sea bass, roe, chives, soya paper) as a treat for the Gazette in less than two minutes is misleading.
Your correspondent borrowed the chef's spare jacket and picked up the knife, but decided the challenge was so far beyond him that he downed tools and retreated from the kitchen before any of the fish was wasted.
Feng explained that despite his Chinese roots, he was drawn towards learning sushi skills because he thought it would be more useful given the large Japanese population in his home town of Dalian.
"At the beginning I cut my fingers too many times, because we use very sharp knives and preparing sushi is a very tender thing," he said.
"It's just years of experience that make it look easy, but at the beginning I was very slow."
From a one and a half metre display on the counter of the sushi bar, Feng crafts a range of starters, namely maki (rolls), nigiri (hand-formed bites), uramaki (inside-out roll), gunkan (seaweed or soya paper wrapped roll) and hand-size rolls, using a variety of fish and seafood including salmon, crab, tuna and eel.
Other ingredients include rice, cucumber, avocado, chives and chilli and these flavours are intensified by wasabi paste, then fresh ginger is used to cleanse the palate.
At Sushi City, wasabi, ginger and a pot of green tea are included with all meals.
Feng is given complete freedom to be creative and says his take on sushi is original and has evolved since he started out.
Yet he is keen to point out that his food is as close to real Japanese cuisine as you can get in the UK and he refuses to serve duck or chicken sushi, which would be "laughable" in Japan.
He added: "Eight years ago when I came here no one, except in central London, knew anything about sushi but now it has become really popular.
"The difference between Japan and here is that in Japan they will not cook it, you just slice some fish, take out the bones, put some salt on it, but here some people are scared about eating raw fish so we've cooked some of it.
"But that's why it's so important that the fish is properly checked and if it's even a little bit smelly we will not touch it."
Miss Voveryte opened her 16-cover restaurant, which also offers takeaway and home delivery seven days a week, after deciding there was not enough fresh sushi available near her home in Upminster.
Since opening in July, business has been steady, but she says her greatest challenge is letting people know that a taste of Japan is available in town.
She said: "Fresh, fresh, fresh, is the most important thing at my place, but I also believe in top, top, top presentation – the way they serve it at Nobu is the way we are trying to present our food here.
"We have got many regular customers and they are very happy that they can get fresh sushi in Brentwood.
"I picked here because I think there are more young people here who know about sushi than where I live, but also there are lots of businesses around here and I thought it would be a great, healthy lunch choice for them."
Sushi City opens from noon until 9pm Monday to Friday, from noon until 10pm on Saturday and from 4pm until 10pm on Sunday.
Free home delivery (minimum orders £10) is available on weekdays from 5pm and at the weekend from 4pm.
To order, call 01277 210444.