December 11, 2015

Chef's Choice: Twenty-two Chefs Dish on Japanese Food Culture

One of the most entertaining reads of this fall for me was Chef's Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers and Cuisine by Saori Kawano and Don Gabor.

Kawano, the founder and president of Korin Japanese Trading Corp., the Tribeca Japanese chef knife and tableware store, and writer Gabor have put together a series of interviews that will appeal to the aspiring chef or culinary student as well as anyone interesting in eating and cooking Japanese food. Each interview is divided into sections describing the chef's influences, career path, cuisine, training and "a day in the life," section devoted to amusing or instructive anecdotes.

Each chef was selected for his or her affinity and love for Japanese cuisine, so it's not surprising that Japanese influences figure heavily in their cooking. Some even have to hold back to keep from overdoing it. Eric Ripert says he's channeled his exposure to Japanese cuisine into his food at Le Bernardin, and notes. "Now I sometimes restrain myself because I discover that ninety percent of the menu has a Japanese influence. Then we have to go back to French cuisine--at least a little bit!" Increasing globalization means that an aware chef is plucking influences from a wide array of cuisines. The challenge, Ripert notes, "is to be creative without being disrespectful of tradition," to help customers "understand other food cultures."

But what does that mean?  Slavishly reproducing classic Japanese dishes, or riffing on them in a way appealing to western audiences? When foreign chefs depart from the traditional Japanese way of doing things it can be dismaying to Japanese customers. For example Wylie Dufresne, known for his intellectual, avant garde approach to cooking, makes a pumped-up dashi that registers on the palate like a pounding tsunami, not the gentle ocean swell of traditional dashi. Where Japanese chefs will immerse their bonito flakes into their konbu broth briefly, from ten to 30 seconds, Dufresne pushes the boundaries, going for a ten-minute soak.  Japanese customers will complain; this is not the soft, gentle umami they are used to. "I don't know whether it's right or wrong, but it's different." says Dufresne.

Besides some mind-of-a-chef techniques, you'll learn a little about Japanese taste predilections. Cookbook author and teacher Elizabeth Andoh discusses the importance of mouth-feel to the Japanese. Ingredients that might be off-putting to westerners, like the neba-neba (slimy, sticky, or stringy) texture of okra, junsai (watershield, a pond green covered in a transparent jelly) or natto (fermented soybeans) are beloved in Japan.

You'll also learn a bit about the history of Japanese ingredients in western cooking. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, French and American chefs began going to Japan, and Japanese chefs flocked to France to study and cook. David Bouley recalls the first time he saw soy sauce used by a French chef, by Joel Robuchon at his Saint Germain L'Atelier in Paris. Robuchon combined soy sauce with butter, ginger and lemon juice, a move that must have seemed daring at the time but now seems almost quaint.

Besides Andoh, there are only two other women included, Lee Anne Wong, who gained fame on Top Chef and now heads Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu, and Toni Robertson, Executive Chef of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group in Singapore. Growing up in a family of doctors, to satisfy parental expectations, Robertson became a U.S. Air Force emergency room medic and served in the Air National Guard before turning to cooking. The experience wasn't a waste though. She calls it "perfect training" for professional kitchen work because she learned how to remain calm in the midst of "controlled chaos."

Some of the most tantalizing tidbits involve the chefs' thoughts on individual ingredients. Marcus Samuelsson loves yuzu and smoked fish liver. Wylie Dufresne rhapsodizes about kuro edamame, or black soybeans, which he calls "a higher level of soybean that tastes almost like corn, peanuts, or a little of both," with a black outer skin but "an emerald green bean inside that shines through. When you pop the soybean out of its skin and eat it, it's so delicious and flavorful that you'll never want to go back to the other edamame."

Nobu Matsuhisa highlights the importance of ingenuity and imagination when faced with a lack of ingredients. When he arrived in Lima, Peru as a young man fresh fish was bountiful, but not Japanese ingredients. To approximate Japanese rice he tried mixing local rice with sweet glutinous rice. To come up with a facsimile of Japanese rice vinegar he mixed soy sauce, acetic acid, and then later wine, kombu and salt. Without fresh wasabi, he mixed powdered wasabi with horseradish and some local hot pepper.

Bouley advocates intuitive cooking  "When you cook a dish that you're worried about, I suggest that you rely more on your senses... Stop thinking, because that's going to distract you." He gives the example of learning how to cook onions by paying careful attention to sensory input every step of the way. "What do they smell like they they are cooking and getting sweet?...What do they smell like then they are still full of water? They smell bitter, they smell acidy. Trust your senses and they will not lie to you."

The chapter on Australian chef Ben Flatt, who married his wife Chikako and then worked with her parents at their Noto Peninsula guest house Sannami, is fascinating. Flatt learned Japanese knife techniques, fermentation, pickling and seasonal cooking from his in-laws, and he and Chikako now run an inn and cook "Noto-Italian" cuisine at Flatt's by the Sea. They make 400 litres of ishiri, a fermented squid sauce, a year. One of his dishes involves hinazushi pickled fish that tastes like blue cheese paired with deep-fried flying fish wings and dressed with a mix of sansho leaf, olive oil and sugar.

All of the chefs, not surprisingly, recommend working hard, no matter how lowly your first position in the kitchen turns out to be, adapting to any working condition, and figuring things out on your own. A common criticism of American-trained chefs is that they need to be spoon-fed recipes and techniques, a far cry from the Japanese system, where no one teaches apprentices anything; they are expected to learn by watching how the masters do things.

Yosuke Suga, whose father ran a French restaurant in Nagoya and who worked for ten years as Joel Robuchon's trusted lieutenant, says that as an apprentice and later chef in both Japan and France, "nobody trained me or taught me recipes. I had to observe and absorb them." Today's culinary school grads, he notes, are alway on the lookout for the next best gig. "But even if the chefs are smart and learn the technique in just one year, they cannot learn philosophy or's difficult to trust them on a deeper level."

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