SUSHI GURU JESPER BJÖRKELLBy: Elmo Ropponen
Work clothes need to be easy to care for when large amounts of raw fish, soy sauce and rice starch are being processed in a professional kitchen. Hanko Sushi relies on Medanta’s antibacterial chef’s shirts and aprons, which are easy to wipe clean even during a hectic day at work.
From a chaos of colours to stylish and functional black
Today, Jesper Björkell is responsible for product development at Hanko Sushi, Finland’s largest chain of sushi restaurants. His career began at Jungle Drum, one of the restaurants in the Linnanmäki amusement park in Helsinki.
“We wore gaudy work clothes and had silly mushroom hats. That was when the importance of work clothing first occurred to me. I had just graduated, and it was difficult for me to feel any kind of professional pride in those psychedelic clothes.”
Björkell says this in jest – he knew, of course, that a restaurant in an amusement park was not supposed to be taken as seriously as a Michelin-starred place. Nevertheless, the gaudy clothes made him think about the impact of work clothes on the atmosphere.
“Proper chef’s clothes give you self-confidence while also creating a team spirit. Stylish clothes also reflect the ambiance of the restaurant.”
Away with dirt and odours, even in low temperatures
Recently, Jesper Björkell has paid special attention to the significance of high-quality chef’s clothes: the Hanko Sushi chain has decided to renew its kitchen staff’s clothes in all of its restaurants.
Established in Hanko in 2009, Hanko Sushi serves Japanese flavours with a Nordic twist. The chain has 24 restaurants across Finland, with a total of more than 1,100 seats. Its newest restaurant was opened in Ruka in Lapland in late 2018.
“Previously, our chefs wore rental clothes, which is common practice in our sector. However, they are not the best option, as coarse fabrics may irritate the skin on the back of the neck, for example. For this reason, we wanted to explore other options.”
In 2014, Medanta had provided some of Hanko Sushi’s chefs with long and high black aprons for test use. Björkell was impressed with the antibacterial material and high quality of the aprons.
“We are a unique place in the sense that we continuously deal with rice starch and fat from salmon. Sometimes we wash our work clothes at home, which means that getting rid of dirt and odours easily is important.”
According to Björkell, Medanta’s clothes become clean and fresh even in low temperatures.
“Chef’s clothes should be easy to care for – this is one of their most important qualities. Medanta’s fabrics retain their shape and colour and don’t wrinkle in the wash. If you wash your item of clothing in the evening and let it dry overnight, you can wear it without ironing the next day.”
In addition to his professional skills, Jesper Björkell is known for his black headscarf. “This was my first piece of work clothing. I got it at the beginning of chef school and have worn it at work ever since. It has become something of an amulet. There have been some occasions where I have not been able to wear my lucky scarf, and I must admit I felt quite naked,” he says with a laugh.
Medanta’s design meets the aesthetics of sushi
Hanko Sushi chose Medanta as its supplier because of Medanta’s wide selection of modern and stylish work clothes.
“We will renew our chefs’ clothes by the end of 2019. Our restaurants have open-plan kitchens, and we want our work clothes to reflect the quality and aesthetics of our food,” Björkell explains.
The Japanese culture is known for its ascetic beauty: food servings are harmonious, with no unnecessary elements. Each raw material has its carefully thought-out purpose.
“We wanted our chefs’ clothes to reflect this stylish harmony. First we will replace our chefs’ shirts and aprons.”
Hanko Sushi went for a black short-sleeved shirt from Medanta’s Chef line, with the Hanko Sushi logo embroidered on the chest.
“I love how lightweight and flexible the shirt is. It feels so comfortable that you barely notice you’re wearing a shirt. Our previous chefs’ clothes were made from coarser fabrics, which makes Medanta’s shirts feel even softer.”
Flexible and breathable in all situations
Hanko Sushi’s employees have already tested Medanta’s shirts, and the feedback has been positive, particularly on the materials. The front of the shirt is made from Medanta Flex, a slightly sturdier fabric. The sleeves and the back are made from Medanta Knit, a technical fabric also used in sportswear.
The shirt comes in two designs: straight and more closely fitting. The straight hem has slits for flexibility of movement.
“Making sushi is very much a craft. Our motto sums up our philosophy: each cut makes a difference. Our work involves a great deal of repetition, and we wash rice frequently, so the shirt must be flexible in terms of moving the hands. The shirt is also very breathable – I cannot ever recall feeling cold or being extremely sweaty at work.”
According to Björkell, the antibacterial material makes it easy to keep the shirt clean throughout the working day.
“I usually wipe any splashes off the shirt with a damp kitchen cloth. This is easy to do, which is important during busy days!”
Hanko Sushi also gave a great deal of thought to their choice of colour. As well as looking sharp, black is practical in the work of a sushi chef. Any splashes of soy sauce make white work clothes look scruffy in an instant.
In 2018, Hanko Sushi opened new restaurants in the REDI shopping centre in Helsinki, in Tampere and in Ruka in Lapland, among other locations. Its next new restaurant will be opened in the Tripla shopping centre in Helsinki in autumn 2019.
From a fan of good food to a renowned sushi master
Jesper Björkell’s journey to becoming a famed sushi master began in his childhood. He is the middle brother of three, who played restaurant, created menus and were interested in cooking.
“There was competition between us, of course. I was physically very active, which is why I was hungry all the time – in other words, good at eating. My older brother didn’t like vegetables, for example. As the middle child, I needed to outdo my brothers in order to get attention. I beat my brothers by not being a picky eater.”
After comprehensive school, Björkell’s father enrolled him in chef school. The young man discovered an outlet for his energy: he realised he was good at cooking.
“When we were filleting fish for the first time at chef school, I remember saying that I would never work in a fish restaurant – but here we are. The two founders of Hanko Sushi contacted me in 2009, when I had worked in several restaurants in Helsinki and had often had several employers at the same time.”
Björkell was Hanko Sushi’s first recruit. Another thing he remembers saying is that he did not want any responsibility. This he said during his job interview.
“I just wanted to work, but did they listen to me? No. I was asked to run the kitchen, and my role and responsibilities grew with the chain. I had the opportunity to try new things, focus on what I do best and develop into a better chef.”
A trip to the homeland of sushi
According to Björkell, helping a restaurant chain grow has been interesting and rewarding, but also challenging and stressful. In 2013, he felt that he had achieved everything there was to achieve in Finland professionally.
“There was no constructive criticism: everyone was just patting me on the back. I was by no means the only sushi expert in Finland, but it seemed that people didn’t want to share their best tips and expertise with others who could be seen as competitors. I decided to travel to Japan to seek inspiration at the Tokyo Sushi Academy. I was quite nervous on the plane: what if everyone starts laughing when I grab my knife?”
Björkell knew he would learn one of two things in Tokyo: either that he had done everything wrong until that point or that things had been done really well in Finland.
“My trip to Japan confirmed that we were headed in the right direction. I realised that I was not making Japanese sushi – I was making Nordic sushi. It was time to let go of any remaining ideas about trying to reproduce Japanese sushi.”
Pure and fresh ingredients are what Björkell likes best about Finnish sushi. The Japanese palette of flavours is different: the rice is often too sour for the Finnish palate because of the high amount of vinegar.
“Making sushi has taught me patience, precision and an appreciation for a high level of detail. The secret of good sushi is freshness, which is something you cannot fake. When you use only a few ingredients, they must be of top quality. The rice we use is superior in taste, and the ginger we use has been pickled using my recipe.”