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Inside the Inner Sanctum of the World’s Largest Fish Market

Chef Mads Refslund gets an inside look at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Market.

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It's 4 a.m. in Tokyo. At the world-famous Tsukiji Market, the largest seafood market in the world, the lights are bright and the energy is high. Inside the nearly 60-acre space, hundreds of fishermen are unloading their hauls, vendors are appraising them, and buyers are waiting for the legendary tuna and shrimp auctions, where the ocean's finest bounty is sold to the highest bidder, often in a matter of seconds.

Taking in all the controlled chaos is chef Mads Refslund, wild-eyed and fresh off a two-hour nap on his first morning in Japan after a long flight from Los Angeles. The Danish superstar, who co-founded Noma before running the massively popular Acme in Manhattan, is traveling for inspiration in anticipation of his new Brooklyn restaurant, opening in 2017. It's his inaugural trip to Tokyo, and he's on the hunt for food and dining experience that can can inform and inspire his own venture on the other side of the world. Every serious chef visiting Tokyo makes a pilgrimage to Tsukiji, but the timing for Refslund couldn't be better: The historic site is slated to relocate soon to make way for the 2020 Olympics. It's now or never.

Refslund begins wandering through the wholesale stands in the inner market. Few tourists are granted access before 10 a.m. But Refslund slips on borrowed rubber boots and an orange vest and sets off freely — to look, touch, talk, try, taste, and take it all in. Fishmongers fillet quarter-ton catches, customers scan a thousand stalls for octopus, mollusks, salmon, sea urchin, and eel. Hundreds of scooters and hand carts and tiny trucks move massive ice blocks to keep the fresh fish cool. "This is by far the busiest market I've ever been to," the chef says. "There's so much under one roof: frogs, sea snails, and so many things I have never seen before."

Over the decades, hundreds of businesses have set up shop in the area to service the indoor wholesale market and its workers. Before snaking through this bustling outer market, where throngs of shoppers get in line for incredible sushi breakfasts, cheap tabletop ceramics, and expensive kitchen knives, the champion of New Nordic cuisine talks with some of the top tuna butchers about a favorite topic: sustainability. "I'm not a fan of fishing tuna," says Refslund, "but here it's a different story. The fish are line-caught and treated with respect."

Everything is, in fact, treated with respect. Tsukiji, for Mads, "is a reminder of all the wonderful things in the world." At this market, nothing is taken for granted, as he discovers in a quiet moment of devotion. "There's a ritual here: Every day, workers go to Namiyoke Inari Shrine and pray for a good hunt. It's very beautiful."

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