I am definitely not a morning person. My colleagues would be the first to confirm this. So even though I have wanted to visit Billingsgate Market ever since I moved to London, it has taken five years to pluck up the courage.
The vast building sits on the Isle of Dogs and is open from Tuesday to Saturday, from the ungodly hour of 4am until 8:30am. Inside is the largest inland fish market in the UK. It began life in the 19th century in Billingsgate but has been here since 1982. In the next couple of years it will be pushed even further from central London, to Essex (to make room for, you guessed it, luxury flats). The towering skyscrapers of Canary Wharf loom menacingly above the retro yellow roof, as if to say, you’ve had your time.
It’s a real shame. Not just for the people who have worked here for decades, but also for those hoping to visit. And it is definitely worth the dawn alarm, especially if – like me – you come to Billingsgate accompanied by chef Masaki Sugisaki.
Sugisaki, born in the Saitama region just outside Tokyo, left his family restaurant to work at a venue in Soho before joining the team at Nobu and then later taking up the role of executive chef at swish Chelsea establishment Dinings SW3, where sushi, sashimi and seafood shine. Who better to show you the inner workings of a fish market? The tour with Sugisaki is part of a new experience Dinings SW3 is offering to the public, beginning in Billingsgate and ending back at the restaurant with a knockout brunch using the ingredients you have gathered.
We met Sugisaki at the entrance to Billingsgate at 4:30am, near an old-school café that specialises in fishy breakfasts. Having eaten dinner just a few hours previously, I wasn’t yet hungry. Had I been so, the greasy waft of scallop and bacon rolls may well have won me over.
In the main hub of the market, unflattering bright lights and vendors rushing around in long white coats helped jolt me awake. If the word “geezer” was invented anywhere, it just might have been here. Most vendors were male and confidently called out deals while referred to me as “darlin” in suitable Cockney accents. The floor was covered in puddles (don’t wear your best shoes) from the metal and styrofoam boxes piled high with fish over ice. Most of the city was still asleep, but in here it was all go.
Before long, Sugisaki was hoisting up red mullet, salmon and snapper for further inspection. He shared the three things to look out for when purchasing whole fish to cook. First, lift the gills to check they are blood red not pale pink – there is a lot of bacteria here so it goes off quickest. Then give the belly a feel to check it is firm, and stare into the eyes of your new fishy friend. The clearer the whites are, the better. He lamented that we had missed the best of the catch. “Restaurants get here at 3am, so by 4am all the good stuff is gone.” What’s on display looked fine to me, but perhaps my standards are not high enough.
We continued our winding route through the 98 stalls, with Sugisaki pointing out different things, cracking jokes, and instructing his supplier to buy various bits and bobs. The next attraction was a stack of drawers filled with eels, a clever contraption with different sized holes in each layer. The smallest eels make their way to the bottom, so vendors can easily pull out the right drawer to find the size you’re looking for. Sugisaki held one up. “Eels do bite, and they are very stinky,” he said. “The rest of the fish I don’t mind.”
So how does Billingsgate compare with fish markets in Japan? Sugisaki chuckled and shook his head. “It’s completely different. In Japan, the fish are all alive when you buy them, and there are probably 20 times more types.” A lot of the ingredients at Dinings SW3 come directly from fishermen via sustainable supplier Pesky Fish, he said, but extras are picked up at the market when the boats down in Cornwall or up in Scotland doesn’t scoop up everything required. Having a menu with so many types of seafood is challenging.
A taxi then transported us to the restaurant, in a Chelsea mews, for a look behind the scenes in the kitchen. The driver wasn’t afraid to tell us that we stunk. Once inside, we began with ceramic cups of warming tea, before simple salmon flake onigiri (rice balls) and miso soup to prepare our stomachs for the real feast (it was now around 7am). What follows is perhaps the most decadent breakfast (if you can call it that) in London right now.
We watched as Sugisaki and his team put together each of the dishes with precision, explaining what ingredients they were using and how to best prepare them. First to be plated was the Chawan-Mushi: picture a dippy egg with the decadence dialled up to ten. Instead of the usual filling, the delicate shell had been hollowed out and filled with the sweet meat of Scottish langoustine, rich dashi and truffle foam, fresh wasabi, winter truffle and Icelandic sea urchin powder.
The food kept coming. A pretty Colchester oyster with bright pearls of wasabi and char caviar was followed by monk’s beard blanched in dashi stock and swirled around in Tukuri-soy cured egg yolk. Then came hand-dived scallops on the shell in yuzu juice and a plate of sushi including seared wagyu beef with sea urchin and red snapper with black truffle.
When the last plate was cleared, it was nearly 11am. We’d been up for eight hours, had shuffled through the puddles of Billingsgate Market, been schooled in the world of fish prep, and worked our way through a seven-course seafood breakfast. We may have been hooked, but quite frankly, it was time for a nap.
How to do it
The Dinings SW3 Billingsgate experience costs £500pp. It includes a tour of the market with Masaki Sugisaki, private transfer back to the restaurant, and brunch at the sushi counter. The menu varies based on the day’s catch. You can book here.
Alternatively you could opt for a do-it-yourself tour of the market for free, and settle for lunch at Dinings SW3. The Seafood School at Billingsgate also offers a 2.5-hour tour of the market for £38pp. Book here.