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Tsukiji: It's not all about the fish, says Michelin chef

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Chef Lionel Beccat, who is from French fishing port Marseilles, says his years of shopping at Tsukiji has given him deep respect for the fishmongers there.

Tokyo

WHEN two-starred Michelin chef Lionel Beccat, 42, reminisces about Tsukiji, the world's biggest fish market in Tokyo, it is not the ocean's bounty that stirs memories but the fishmongers themselves.

Browsing at the market at dawn on a hunt for prawns and fish for his lunch-time service, he said: "The story of Tsukiji is quite simply a story about human relationships."

The executive chef at Esquisse, a restaurant in the Tokyo's ultra-chic Ginza district, has been making the trip to the market for 12 years. All that will come to an end on Oct 6, when Tsukiji closes after 83 years. It will move to a purpose-built site at Toyosu, several kilometres east.

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Mr Beccat said it took several years to establish a trusted relationship with the merchants of Tsukiji. "I quickly had to get used to the idea that I knew nothing about fish," said Mr Beccat - who happens to come from French fishing port Marseille.

At Tsukiji, it is the fishmongers who choose their clients, not the other way around, he said. Even the top chefs show deference to the vendors and their knowledge.

The market itself, a rabbit warren and tourist magnet of tiny shops selling every conceivable type of produce from the sea, cannot fail to inspire a professional chef, Mr Beccat said. "Tsukiji is a world unto itself."

He finds inspiration in the range of produce one finds there, the expertise and advice from 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 his suppliers, Masatake Ayabe, has enjoyed a 30-year career in Tsukiji and fears that business might suffer when the market moves to Toyosu. "There is no other market in the world which brings together so much fish, and people do us the honour of coming to shop here," he 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 Mr Ayabe, who runs 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 mayor Yuriko Koike, who has championed the move, said the new market, on the site of a former gas plant, will use cutting-edge technology to provide a modern environment for selling fish.

Mr Beccat acknowledges that it will be better from a sanitary point of view, and the fishmongers will suffer less from extremes of cold and heat, but the atmosphere will be different.

"Tsukiji is addictive: if you do not go in the morning, the day is not quite the same. It is the place that has taught me most in my life. A page of my professional life is turning." AFP