Just like wine makers, Japanese chefs value terroir – the sense of place communicated through the ingredients they use and the dishes they make. For Kimio Nonaga of Nihonbashi Yukari, the place he wants to share is the heart of old Tokyo – the place he calls home. Nihonbashi is a mercantile district named after the bridge of the same name. The proverbial centre point of the capital, the bridge and those who travel over it are guarded by statues of dragon-like creatures – winged giraffes, according to folklore – and Nonaga’s restaurant is located just a short walk away. “They have a special meaning to us,” he says. “They tell us to protect our heritage while also flying forwards. In Nihonbashi, we must always be a bridge between the present and the past.” Nonaga is a member of a rare tribe known as edokko, or ‘child of Edo,’ a term reserved only for the most authentic citizens – people whose parents and grandparents were all born and raised in the city now known as Tokyo. His grandfather founded the restaurant in 1935, naming it after his favourite kabuki play, and the young Kimio took the reins from his father at just 24. In the private rooms, waitresses in kimono serve formal kaiseki – fixed menus containing many small, artfully prepared dishes. At the counter, patrons can chat with the chef as he prepares their meals. Like most traditions, kaiseki is governed by strict rules, and like most great chefs, Nonaga knows when to break them. There’s cured prosciutto ham and made-in-Tokyo mozzarella cheese in his kitchen – hardly traditional Japanese ingredients. “The scent, texture and taste of the cheese are just a little bit different from Italian mozzarella, because it comes from our own climate,” he says. “But I guess that’s why it goes so well with my cooking.” The most important rule, however, can never be broken: kaiseki must follow the rhythms of nature – not merely the obvious four seasons, but its 24 micro seasons, fleeting moments during which some ingredients are available for just a few short weeks each year. Baby bamboo shoots take centre stage in early March, but just two weeks later edible cherry leaves are in bloom and appear, salted, on the plate. The valuable matsutake mushrooms prized in early autumn are quickly replaced by glorious orange persimmons – hollowed out and re-stuffed with a mixture of their own fruit and seasoned tofu. Given Nonaga’s breeding, his preference for local produce is no surprise: the seafood comes from nearby waters, the pork from farms on the edge of the city. Some of the vegetables are even grown on the restaurant’s roof, right there in Nihonbashi. “Kaiseki has a clear understanding of ingredient, place and time,” Nonaga explains. “But more than that it’s about hospitality, and it’s about healing. After eating it, you feel well.”
The road to becoming a successful restaurant owner is long and hard. Aspiring chefs spend years working the line in hot, hectic kitchens, earning their chops before finally branching out on their own. But Sou Ieki took a different approach. He went camping. “Really we just didn’t want to have to work for someone, man. We wanted to run our own place, to be our own bosses,” he says of the decision he took with his friend Yoji ‘Dub’ Morita to open a restaurant together. The buddies had a lot in common: a passion for music (“We’re DJs at heart,” Ieki says), a free-spirited approach to life and work, and their childhood years spent partly in the United States. Memories of summer barbecues began to sizzle in their imaginations, and the concept for Hatos Bar was cooked. “We asked ourselves: ‘What’s missing in Tokyo that only we can do?’”Ieki says. Their answer was: barbecue. For the next two years, Ieki spent almost every weekend at a campsite outside Tokyo trying out different methods and recipes, and slowly developing his technique. He distilled the cooking process down to two basic steps: massaging a spice mixture known as a ‘dry rub’ into the meat, and a long, slow smoke. The duo’s custom-made smoking machine, once shiny-new but now covered in a thick black patina, was modelled on a famous Texas-style smoker and miniaturised by a local metalworker to fit into a Tokyo-style kitchen. “This guy could make anything,” Ieki enthuses. “He’d never even built an oven before.” The badge of honour for any proud grill master is the smoke ring: the pinkish meat just beneath the surface that indicates a perfect smoke. The smoke rings at Hatos are the real deal, and Ieki achieves them with the nonchalance of a true professional. He has a similar attitude to his killer barbecue sauce: “I started out with a basic recipe,” he says. “You know, something you could find in a cookbook or whatever.” But the regime didn’t last, subverted by spontaneity and whatever is within arm’s reach: tequila, bourbon, rum, or even sake. Hatos started life as more of a bar (indeed, craft beers and cocktails are an important part of the experience), and then morphed into a restaurant-slash-bar, albeit on a cosy Tokyo scale. The menu expanded from just three items – baby back ribs, mac and cheese, and coleslaw – to include pork belly, a pulled pork sandwich and, occasionally, brisket. There is also a hearty, spicy chili made with the burnt ends and trimmings from the meat smoker. With a menu and a mindset that are both decidedly international, Ieki and his team at Hatos attract customers from many different countries and backgrounds, squeezing them into the narrow premises, or having them spill out on to the terrace. Now they’re proven entrepreneurs, they also attract new business opportunities – which are duly rejected, of course. Because it’s not unfeasible to imagine that the day Ieki becomes a slave to his … Read More
Timing is everything for a good tempura chef. And when Kazuhito Motoyoshi opened his eponymous restaurant, he picked just the right moment. “Nobody else wanted to cook tempura,” he says. “I’m one of the youngest people doing it.” Tempura feels quintessentially Japanese, but it probably derives from the cuisine cooked by the Portuguese traders and missionaries that arrived in Japan in the late 16th century. Food historians believe that these settlers made something akin to tempura during times in the Catholic calendar when eating meat would have been forbidden. And these same historians speculate that the name ‘tempura’ derives from the Latin word tempus, meaning ‘time’. The time in their lives that most adult Japanese associate with tempura is their childhood. The sound of floured pieces of vegetable and seafood crackling as they’re dropped into bubbling oil evokes mother’s home cooking. But as health-conscious grown-ups, many have turned their backs on this staple. It is, after all, deep-fried and it feels a little sinful. “There is a perception that tempura is unhealthy because of the oil. But it depends on the kind of oil,” says the chef, who is on a personal crusade to restore the popularity of this once-loved strand of Japanese cuisine. “I use a my light sesame seed oil, which is much better for the body and digestion.” Famous tempura restaurants are normally found in old-fashioned areas such as deeply traditionally cultural Asakusa or tightly politically connected Akasaka. But to lure a new generation of patrons to his shop, Motoyoshi instead chose fashionable Aoyama, keeping his design simple, the lighting subtle, and his opening hours flexible. Taking orders until late in the evening is, after all, more in tune with the rhythm of the lives of the young. Inside, a glass-fronted box takes centre stage behind the restaurant’s eight-seat counter. It houses a trove of the fresh vegetables to be served each evening. Every ingredient will be expertly prepared, lightly dipped in batter, and dropped into the vat of boiling oil. Every second counts: too few and an asparagus stalk will remain slightly raw; too many and the white flesh of the kisu fish will dry out and break apart. Three years at culinary school learning the full lexicon of Japanese cuisine gifted Motoyoshi’s tempura is both delicate and visionary. One of Motoyoshi’s most enchanting dishes is his generous assembly of sea urchins, cradled in a finely battered shiso leaf. Every morsel of tempura arrives on a beautiful piece of pottery and a sheet of white paper, folded asymmetrically. Throughout the meal, the paper remains almost entirely unblemished by surplus oil – proof, if it were needed, of the skill of the chef. Creating this level of perfection requires not only practice and concentration, but also a deep understanding of each ingredient’s texture and composition. Of course, experience counts. But so, Motoyoshi suggests, does his youth: “I have better concentration now than I will do when I’m older,” he says. “For what I do, I think I’m … Read More
It’s 6pm, and Hisayo Suga has just hung the ‘Open’ sign outside her okonomiyaki restaurant, Gokirakutei. The sliding door rattles open, and three jovial young women arrive. Ducking under the noren curtain, one carries a bottle of expensive champagne. “Mama,” she says to Suga, “could I put this in the fridge?” “Of course,” Suga replies. “But first come and look at my new nails.” As she splays her fingers, a fake pea-sized gem twinkles in the centre of each brightly coloured nail. “What do you think?” she asks. “Beautiful, right?” Suga’s many regular customers at Gokirakutei, which appropriately translates as ‘The Easy-going Home,’ call her ‘Mama’ – or ‘Mama-san’ to be polite. “The girls talk to me about fashion, beauty, their love lives,” she says. “So do some of the boys.” Those girls and boys include more than a few celebrities, many introduced by her close friend Kiyoshirou Imawano, an Eighties rock star who passed away in 2009. Posters of his eternally youthful face adorn every wall of Gokirakutei’s unpretentious interior. There’s a friendly drill to eating here. On arrival, customers – famous or otherwise – remove their shoes, have their jackets and valuables wrapped in plastic bags to protect them from oil, and shuffle over to low horigotatsu tables, the alcoves beneath which will accommodate their legs. Everyone orders at least one dish of okonomiyaki, a thick savoury pancake filled with chopped cabbage and combinations of shrimp, meat, vegetables and cheese; or Japanese foods such as natto (fermented soy beans) and mochi (white rice pounded into sticky chunks). Suga supplies the bowlful of ingredients that patrons cook themselves on a teppan hotplate installed in each tabletop, and each pancake is finished with a generous layer of Worcester sauce and sprinklings of bonito and seaweed flakes. If it feels like Suga was born for hospitality then it’s because she was: her father was a sushi chef and the family lived above the shop. Her mother, like her, was a fastidious cook, for whom only the best ingredients would do – and the same is so for Suga and her restaurant. Using pancake mix instead of flour to make her batter more airy, she adds a rich homemade dashi broth in place of water. To add texture and flavour she throws in fragments of excess tempura batter known as agedama, which she collects from a ritzy downtown restaurant because “they only use the very best oil.” Okonomiyaki is a dish from Western Japan. Tokyo’s version is called monjayaki, and is also on Gokirakutei’s menu, despite being trickier to cook. Its process involves arranging the solid ingredients in a circle to make a doughnut-shaped dam, pouring the broth slowly into the central hole, and using mini spatulas to quickly patch up any breaks in the wall. When mixed and cooked it forms a gooey pancake-style mush. “Admittedly it isn’t very appealing to look at,” Suga says, smiling. “But it’s delicious, especially with a mug of cold beer, and it’s so much fun … Read More
Walk into Takashi Kurokawa’s hamburger shop and the first person you meet will probably be his mother. She jumped in to help when her son first opened Fellows and has been there ever since. “It’s a nightmare,” says Kurokawa, shaking his head. “I ask her to do something and she just says: ‘Do it yourself!’” He’s joking of course. The familial atmosphere at Fellows is one of its greatest draws – almost as important as the burgers themselves, which are frequently hailed as the best in Tokyo. Kurokawa’s secret is simple: high quality ingredients, patties made fresh, and no gimmicks. He prepares about 200 burgers a day, and when they’re gone, he closes. “My friends tell me I’m a terrible businessman,” he says. “But I’m the sort of person who needs to do everything myself.” His work cycle begins in the evening, when he grinds the next day’s beef for chilling overnight. Arriving at the shop about 9am, he spends two hours shaping patties until his hands are so cold he can no longer feel them. Every burger exits the kitchen charcoal-grilled to order. The big hitter is the bacon cheeseburger, topped with a chunky slab of slow-marinated smoky bacon. But the chef is most proud of his chilli beans cheeseburger. “Chilli isn’t something most Japanese people know how to make,” he says. But after years of practice, he’s confident his recipe rivals any served in the United States, especially when it’s slapped into a burger and covered in a web of melted cheese. Kurokawa was a chubby child with a taste for fast food. As a graduate, he tried working for his family’s construction company, but he never felt comfortable in a suit. He did, it seems, have a head for business. “Gourmet hamburgers had just arrived in Japan and I could see they were about to take off in a big way,” Kurokawa says. “So I had to be quick to stay ahead of the game.” To refine his recipe, he ate hamburgers every day for six months – all in the name of research. “I wouldn’t recommend it. I began to smell nasty,” he says. Fellows’ cult following exploded after it opened in 2005. Burger fans would make regular pilgrimages to its initial location in a west Tokyo suburb. When the building was demolished, Kurokawa moved to the new site in Omotesando – bringing his mother along, too. “Well I had to,” he says with a wink. “The customers seem to like her.” And how does she feel about having her son for a boss? “It’s a nightmare,” she says, rolling her eyes and sighing.
Sliding open the door to Dosanjin might reveal, with a turn of the head to the right and a peek through a narrow window, Hiroshi Nagahama at work making soba noodles. It’s a painstaking process that he goes through every day, and he makes it look deceptively simple. “Everyone goes the extra mile these days. Average just isn’t good enough,” says Nagahama, who also manages the restaurant. “A lot of businessmen have quit their jobs and opened soba noodle restaurants. Those semi-pros really raise the bar for all of us, because finally they are doing something they’re passionate about.” Dosanjin, a beautiful shop by the river in Naka-Meguro, is the first Tokyo outpost of a small chain of restaurants based in the Kansai region surrounding Osaka. The restaurants’ founder, Eiji Watanabe, started making soba for a living in his forties after becoming tired of his job in fashion. Where most soba restaurants are designed for speed – some even forgoing seats – Dosanjin is crafted for pleasure. There are comfy chairs placed for a view of the serene garden, and subtle decorative ceramics by the master potter Yukio Kinoshita, who also helped design the restaurant. Kinoshita, who passed away in 2013, used ‘Dosanjin’ as his artist name. The restaurant offers a choice of regular noodles or the chunkier inakasoba, and long before his patrons kick back, Nagahama is working hard to make them. In both, the key ingredient is buckwheat (soba), whose flour many restaurants buy in bulk. But not so Dosanjin, which contracts a farm near the Japan Sea coast to provide whole seeds that are smaller and greener than most. Right there in the shop, the seeds are ground into buckwheat flour for up to nine hours overnight, before being mixed with water and just five per cent of regular wheat flour. Once kneaded, the dough is rolled into a large rectangle a couple of millimetres thick. This is folded, neat as a kimono, and then sliced into strips at military speed with a huge square-blade knife. The perfectly formed noodles take just 30 seconds to cook. Soba noodles are traditionally eaten hot in a bowl of steaming broth or cold in the summer months, dipped in a simple sauce with wasabi and chopped spring onions. In one of its popular dishes, Dosanjin again gently defies convention, placing them in broth topped with slices of sudachi, a sour Japanese citrus fruit. In return for – and to manage – all the ways he exquisitely flouts the rules, Nagahama makes just one simple request of his customers: patience, please. “It can take some getting used to, the pace of things here. People are used to soba being fast food,” he says. “But I only cook two portions at a time. To make more than that, I’d have to stir them with chopsticks, and there’s a chance the noodles could break. And we couldn’t have that.”