Using Japanese cooking techniques to bring out the flavour of Okinawan ingredients
Mr. Tanaka joined Akasaka Tantei in 2009. This was his first step into the world of Okinawan cooking, which was completely different to the Japanese cooking that he had experienced up to that point. As someone who had previously wanted to be an archaeologist, he took pleasure in unearthing the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s palace cuisine, and fusing his findings with his Japanese cooking skills, he created a new genre called Okinawa Kaiseki cuisine.
What led you to get into Okinawan cooking?
There was some advance hint. While I was working at Tokuyama, the former head chef of Kurayamizaka Miyashita offers me: “I’m moving to an Okinawan restaurant. Do you want to work together again?” That was Akasaka Tantei. At the time, it didn’t ring a bell and I refused. But thinking about starting my own restaurant in my mid-thirties and I left Tokuyama. And then I happened to find a “help wanted” ad for that restaurant, and I met the former head chef again.
From what I heard, the previous owner fell in love with Okinawa while he stayed there for recuperation, and he was very particular about the food and the interior decorations. Listening to this, I got really excited about applying the principles of Japanese cooking to bring out the tastes of Okinawan ingredients, and decided to work there. Later on, the owner changed to an Okinawan who wanted to contribute to his homeland.
And that’s when you became the head chef?
The previous head chef resigned, and left me in charge of the shop, and I thought it was good experience for me as when I have my own place someday. And by then, I understood Okinawan dishes quite a lot. To be specific, I had been researching the history of Ryukyu dishes by looking for old documents, like the record of what the ancient people ate when he visited during the Edo Period or a statement about the medical properties of ingredients left behind by palace doctors. Using these for reference, I arranged everything according to Japanese cooking techniques. Even if I wanted to completely recreate the same dishes as ancient times, there were many cases where I didn’t know exactly how something should be prepared. So I freely improvised according to my own understanding, and made improvements whatever I could.
So “Okinawa Kaiseki” is an individual concept, but is it completely different to traditional Okinawan cooking?
There are lots of Okinawan restaurants, and they can protect the traditional cooking methods, whereas this restaurant can do some unique things. We use Okinawan ingredients whenever possible, and then, taking the best bits of both Okinawan and Japanese cooking, we prepare them so that they’ll suit the tastes of our customers.
If you cook, then you’ll probably understand this, but Japanese cooking methods are basically subtraction until you’re left with the fundamental taste of the ingredients. On the other hand, Okinawan cooking is more like Chinese or Western cooking, where you add flavours on top of each other. Therefore, balancing these two styles is very difficult, but since it create a new flavours of Okinawan ingredients, it’s well worth it.
It goes without saying that we use Japanese cooking techniques, but for example, when we’re preparing Rafute (Okinawan stewed pork cubes), we might revise Chinese or French cooking methods, or even the more scientific molecular gastronomy.
Our motto is “just figure out how to do the things that are obvious.”
Only five staff members, including the kitchen? Isn’t that too few?
Indeed, the current situation is what we have an “elite few” running things. Sometimes the kitchen members, including me, help carry the food, and we’re all ready to help each other as needed. I’d like to increase the staff at someday but I want to take a time right now. First I want all the current members to fully understand the restaurant’s concept and also to establish mutual understanding as a team. To work here, you need to have a certain grasp of Okinawan ingredients and cooking, as well as Japanese cooking, and that takes time. If you only do this halfway, then any new staff members that come in will also be trained poorly. And I think that can only lead to unexpected accidents.
How do you develop mutual understanding between the staff members?
We try to have lots of communication. Although we take a break in turns, we basically have to work with same member for long periods of time, day and night. So we try to make meals or breaks as fun as possible. For meals, we make lots of delicious food and eat together.
During working hours, we talk freely about anything we notice or any questions we have, and even if we don’t have any good topics, we’ll just have small conversation like “it is cold outside today.”, and try to create an atmosphere where it’s easy to communicate.
And what do you expect to the staff?
Just figure out how to do the things that are obvious, which is really difficult. But I want them to keep it in mind, from beginning to end. And I want them to understand the difference between “work” and “training”. They’re often lumped together, but they’re completely different.
If you know what you’re doing, it’s work. But if you haven’t yet grasped the minimum basics, then it’s training.¥
So just figure out how to do the things that are obvious, it’s important to first make that your way of thinking.
The most important thing is the state of your heart. It’s the same for giving expression to your cooking. Gourmets often say “You can see a person’s personality in their dishes”. I really taught that it was truth because when I was young, and I fell in love with the photos of Mr. Nozaki’s cooking. How to choose dishes, the way the ingredients were combined or arranged, the cooking itself, it all reflected Mr. Nozaki’s attitude towards his work and the way he interacts with people. I felt the state of his heart.