To independence. Changing the fundamental elements of a cuisine in order to discover ones own style.
I hear you went independent after leaving Nadaman.
I must have been around 27 or 28 when I first opened my small restaurant. Only counter seats were available and the only food on the menu was a la carte. It was a really tough time as I started the restaurant without knowing much about how to actually run it. I look in awe at the young chefs these days who can instantly start serving full courses! Haha. I made all the food alone, bringing to life everything I had learned during my training period. All I could think about was that I wanted to serve the food I was happy with.
What do you consider the turning point in your life to be?
Probably the point where I discovered how to turn soy sauce into foam. Up until then I had made minor adjustments to things, but I had never thought about changing the most common ingredient. Taking that very first step is extremely nerve wracking! I questioned myself whether it was even OK to do it. After all, while some restaurants add salt, I personally hated changing soy sauce into something else.
At that time foamy sauce was very rare. So to make soy sauce into foam was unthinkable! Nobody else was doing it, so there wasn’t any guarantee of success. Customers all made a strange face when they saw it on the plate or on the menu. There was a time when I thought I had made a big mistake. But personally, I really liked the way it tasted. I gained in confidence when I saw that customers were slowly starting to accept it. “If the food is made with careful consideration then people will grow to like it”, I thought. I started to change my cuisine and begin my ‘face ingredients for what they are’ theme.
Why did you even consider making soy sauce into foam in the first place?
I thought I might be putting in too much soy sauce during preparation. So I changed the soy sauce to make it tastier and weaker. But something was still wrong. The main trigger for making it into foam was when I found myself wondering if adding soy sauce meant that something else – another flavor – was lost. The initial taste had a soy sauce flavor, but then when you finish the plate, you are left with the taste of the ingredients. I wondered what I could do to remove that initial soy sauce flavor. When I first came across foamy sauce in French cuisine I was amused. I thought that the taste would be just the same as normal liquid sauce. But the difference is that liquid sauce can take a while to dissolve. I thought about adding room temperature air and gelatin, but the sauce just became lumpy and didn’t melt in the mouth as planned. Through numerous trial and error experiments I tried to create something that could withstand ten minutes at room temperature. I then aimed to make it so that it would quickly melt in the mouth. I changed the strength of soy sauce to see how it effected things. After a lot of hard work I finally managed to make something with a salt density and thickness that I was happy with.
On a personal level I was very happy with it, but I was worried as to whether my customers would accept it. An 80 year old man came in and I explained and asked him to put it on his chopsticks. Unfortunately it didn’t go too smoothly. I had tried to get people to accept it too suddenly. They weren’t ready. Soy sauce foam is a standard thing these days, but there was a time when it was considered strange and surprising.
We were surprised to see soy sauce – the very foundation of Japanese cuisine – being changed to better bring out ingredients. Where did your inspiration come from?
For me, there’s always a flavor in my head that I’m trying to achieve. In my head the dish is complete and I have eaten it and know how it tastes. I just need to find a way to make that taste a reality. I know straight away if what I’ve made tastes like the food in my head. If it doesn’t, then I need to think about what I should try and change. I make the same thing numerous times testing out different options. Sometimes the food in my head is a complete unknown. All I can do is to continue experimenting and hope that the taste I’m aiming for can become a reality.
Having to do lots of experimenting before it finally tastes the way you imagined must be hard.
I’ve always liked chemical events, so it’s actually quite enjoyable for me. I also have an interest in vacuum cooking and freezing point.
To quickly make sea cucumbers soft, you pickle them at a certain temperature. The hard blue sea cucumbers become really soft. But the way I have come to adopt is to just cut the sea cucumbers in half and leave them to rest until they reach a certain temperature. They can get really soft just by leaving them. I couldn’t get the right temperature at first though. I knew the rough temperature, but I didn’t realize they would harden once soaked. Sometimes they do really become very soft, though.
Nobody I have known in this job has ever made sea cucumbers like this. To think that a sea cucumber can get soft without even removing the inside muscle is absurd…! I have never eaten it myself, but I idly believed that it was probably possible. So I took up the challenge and got a thermometer and a timer and started trying it out everyday. I started making it for customers once I had achieved a consistently good response from a certain temperature. But while I told customers how soft it was, they didn’t always seem convinced. Sometimes I took a bite from the corner and realized I had failed in my quest. Haha! I do this ‘facing ingredients for what they are’ on a regular basis now.