There hasn’t been a lot of things happening on this blog lately, no posts, no photos, nothing. I do apologize for this, but there’s a good reason for it. Long story made short - I am working, during 3 months, in the kitchen of what is appointed by the San Pellegrino “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” guide to be The best restaurant in the world - Noma, in Copenhagen.
It’s a great opportunity I have been offered, an amazing experience of course, good fun and hard work. This is why I have been devoting all my waking hours (and some of my non-waking ones) to food in all its guises. The philosophy of all that concerns food is so different here at Noma from what I have experienced before. The same goes for the manner in which the guests are treated, the way the chefs personally serve the guests and the natural, down-to-earth atmosphere. Under the food’s seeming simplicity, there are dishes composed with an extraordinary skillfulness by a staff worth all praise.
I will get back with a further report and more details about my time at Noma as soon as I manage to find the time, until then - eat well!
Archive for the ‘Ingredients’ Category
Prologue: It’s August, Japan’s hottest and most humid period of the year. After a nice trip, eating my way through Japan, from north to south, I’m getting ready to go to work. I managed to get an apprenticeship in one of Tokyo’s most reputable restaurants - the two Michelin star Nihonryori RyuGin belonging to the chef Seiji Yamamoto. The restaurant is located on a back street of Tokyo’s bustling Roppongi district, a neighbourhood teeming with bars, clubs, eateries, entertainment and foreigners.
Seiji Yamamoto - The man who made a name for himself outside of Japan by sending a Hamo eel to a CT scan to better understand its anatomy and the best way to cut it according to its bone structure.
Yamamoto-san has been classically trained and is in many ways true to traditional Japanese cusine but has also become famous for combining tradition with groundbreaking space-age technique. He has an unlimited passion for food, is strikingly creative and is constantly thinking about the kitchen, kitchen, kitchen and the spirit within it.
Before coming to the restaurant I had seen a Tv documentary starring him and his Tokyo collegue Toru Okuda, showing viewers their never-ending hard work, their approach to cooking and the quest for fame.
Yamamoto-san is just as calm, pensive and thoughtful as the documentary had depicted, although on certain occasions he can get really enthusiastic and sparkling, especially when talking about a special ingredient in peak season or about the best way of cutting a vegetable for perfect texture.
I felt it was hard to know what to expect from a restaurant kitchen on such a distinguished level, two Michelin stars do create a fair bit of expectations, and even more so from a restaurant on that level, in Japan!
What I found when I got there was eight cooks working in a tight space, a seemingly normal restaurant kitchen with simmering stocks, humming refrigerators and rich perfumes of aromatic herbs.
I have never seen such perfect produce anywhere, all vegetables, fruits and herbs being of flawless appearance, identical shape and bursting with juices and flavor! But of course this comes at a price. Apples and peaches are sold, not by weight but a piece, at prices that are sometimes incomprehensible. One single apple can easily cost as much as one kilo of apples would cost in Europe. Another fruit that is strikingly expensive are grapes, where prices for one single bunch can start at 8 euros (around $11 US).
Much the same goes for the rest of the fruit and vegetables, and even for meat and fish.
Back in the kitchen - It’s actually no wonder that their fish and seafood are fresh considering that there are aquariums with live fish in the kitchen and the prawns are delivered live in water with an battery-powered aquarium pump.
On my first starting day I was thrown straight into the core of the kitchen - I was in charge of the special shark skin Wasabi grater! The wasabi root must be extremely fresh and is grated in small amounts for every order to not loose its pungency and fragrance.
Day two I started studying the making of Dashi, the building brick of the whole Japanese cuisine. Dashi is a clear stock made from two base ingredients, “kombu” (kelp seaweed) and shavings of “katsuobushi” (dried bonito tuna). Dashi is a very sublime mixture tasting only mildly and deliciously of the sea. Its lack of overpowering flavors makes it very versatile and it’s used as a base for the famous Miso soup, for marinating, for braising, as a soup stock, simmering liquid or as part of a sauce or a dressing.
Seiji Yamamoto uses very little salt, next to none, in comparison to many other chefs. Instead he has his ways of marinating everything, in broth, in dashi, in soy sauce, in aromatic pastes. And he uses his own special techniques for rendering meat and fish unforgettable.
On the third day I was allowed to start using a knife, and take part in the real preparations of meat and vegetables.
Japanese chefs don’t really use a lot of different knives, they are taught to do their work with just a few knives at hand. And it’s truly intriguing to see how they use their razor sharp vegetable knife, “Usuba” in Japanese, for so many different tasks, from peeling to cutting, to cubing, to needle-cutting, to chopping, to carving, to shaving.
During my time at RyuGin, I saw my chef de partie, Hieda-san, using only 2 knives, with a third one thrown in on the odd occasion. Now this is during work for which I myself would use a peeler knife, a pairing knife, a chopper, a carver, a slicer, a filleter, a boning knife, a chef’s knife, a bread knife AND my Swiss Army knife.
One of RyuGin’s signature dishes is the charcoal-grilled wild eel - large and meaty eel with exceptionally crispy skin, lacquered with a secret recipe soy sauce glaze.
The charcoal grill has such an important status in Japan. Where we Westerners much more often rely on a red hot skillet to give meat and fish its exquisite maillard reaction, the Japanese turn to the charcoal grill fed with their special non-smoking, long-burning hard charcoal called Bincho-tan. Almost anything can be skewered and placed on the grill it seems!
Japan is a food-crazy nation like few others and this reflects in many aspects of society. On television, in the sheer amount of restaurants around, in the variety of food offered, the advertising, and their willingness to eat stuff that no sane Westerner would even think about putting in their mouth.
What I found comforting with eating in Japan, was that most of the food is not mixed to the point of indistinguishability, drenched in sauce, hidden in a stew - presentation is extremely important and therefore many ingredients are often presented on their own or arranged on the same plate but with clear separation between the different components. As another important part of the presentation enters also the plates and bowls used for serving the food.
A funny and interesting thing about Japanese restaurants, especially in cities such as Tokyo, is how often they are specialized in one type of cuisine, no - one type of food. And then they concentrate all their time and effort in becoming experts on making that particular thing. Where I come from people get pissed off when they read the menu and understand that they can not have sushi as an appetizer, followed by a pasta Bolognese, then a barbecued beef brisket with a side of curry rice and some french patisserie with a Jamaican coffee to finish on a good note…
In Japan a restaurant with a limited menu say, serving only food from the sea in different ways, or only chicken or even only eel - is not a problem. On the contrary, it should give you some sort of notion that they are experts within their field.
Then there are also some restaurants, among them RyuGin, that serve a cuisine “Kaiseki” style which incorporates many different features of the Japanese cuisine, what one could describe as a kind of “best of the best” cooking.
Entering the dining room, you immediately notice the one wall that is dominated by a large black-and-white ink painting of a dragon, the ever-present house mascot. The dining room is artistically decorated, with an unsubtle emphasis on dragons, but toned-down in a Japanese way and gives definitely a classy atmosphere.
The staff is amazing, hard-working and with a total focus on service. The dining room team is lead by the extremely polite and knowledgable restaurant manager Arimasa-san. During my dinner in the restaurant, the staff was attentive and ever-present, but incredibly smooth, in a ninja kind of way, and never intrusive.
The meal I had in the restaurant was definitely one of the most memorable meals I have had so far. Not having known Japanese fine-dining cuisine to any significant depth before, this was a revelation.
There is a substantial difference in feeling between, on the one hand working and preparing the food in the kitchen and, on the other hand, sitting down and enjoying the same food in the dining room atmosphere.
Japan and the Japanese dropped from the sky. The archipelago of 3,000 islands and its people were created by the gods Izanagi and Izanami, according to sacred Shinto texts. The divine couple joined “their majestic parts in a majestic union” and gave birth to a new world.
In the middle of the overwhelming heat of summer I spent three magnificent weeks of traveling around this amazing country, known for its culture, its food and its people. And all the three are basically one and the same. The culture is often about food and eating, the food is its own culture, and what people are talking and thinking about - is food.
I was stunned by the variety and quantity of food that is available on every street corner, on every floor of the buildings. Most often a quick meal is only 2 steps away.
It’s not only savory food that is readily accessible, it’s evident that the Japanese also have a special fascination with classic French patisserie. Macarons, cookies, tartelettes, petit fours, creamy cakes, croissants, eclairs, you name it. (Of course “fine-tuned” to Nipponese perfection with a pinch of green tea or red azuki beans)
And clearly this is why you get the feeling that people here eat a lot. All the time, anywhere you look, at any hour of the day, you see people chewing, nibbling, munching, snacking, it’s almost like some sort of national pastime.
Even though I love eating in a good restaurant, spending some money on dazzling food, great service and location, I find street food the most captivating experience when traveling, this is where you really feel the soul of everyday people.
Japanese streetfood is not your common bad-for-your-health fatty processed cheap meat sans origine or high-cholesterol, trans fat spiced snacks like in many of our western countries. In Japan eating fast doesn’t automatically mean eating bad. From a street vendor you can have the most wonderful chicken skewer, which ingredients are not much more than chicken, a soy sauce based glaze and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds. From a hole-in-the-wall restaurant you can get a warming noodle soup with a generous topping of simmered pork, green onions, ginger, bean sprouts and sea weed. Or you could go for the classic “Onigiri” - a portion of white rice, most often pressed into a triangular shape, with a filling of tuna and mayonnaise, or fish roe, or salmon, or egg, or pickled plum, or seaweed, or shrimps, the list goes on forever.
The trip started in the tucked away north, on the island of Hokkaido. Well known for its beautiful pristine scenery, its snow-capped mountains, its friendly inhabitants and last but not least, its phenomenal seafood. Here one of the highlights was a complete sushi dinner that seemed never-ending. One delicacy after another. Sea urchin roe, scallops, king crab, hairy crab, monkfish liver, squid, salmon roe, abalone. Apart from the fact that here you will find an incredible variety of seafood, the cold sea of Hokkaido makes seafood that is packed with flavor and of supreme quality.
Hokkaido has a lot more to offer, nice small cities with a laid-back atmosphere, cute countryside dairy farms, great national parks with all sorts of wildlife, winding roads, impressive mountains and a lot of good, good food.
Next stop on the trip was Hiroshima, the city destroyed by the first atomic bomb 65 years ago. It’s nowadays a bustling metropolis, with its tragic history displayed in the Peace Memorial Museum. On the menu here was the specialities: Oysters - big ones - raw, steamed, grilled, deep fried. Okonomiyaki - something between a savory pancake and an omelette, filled to the brim with good stuff like cabbage, noodles, pork, shrimp, seafood, bean sprouts and green onions. Then topped with bonito flakes, mayonnaise and the special okonomiyaki sauce, kind of sweet barbecue sauce.
Then on to Osaka for some Takoyaki tasting frenzy - octopus balls, pieces of octopus in batter, fried in the shape of perfect balls in a special cast-iron skillet. Topped with bonito flakes, green onions, mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce.
In Nara I had a chicken-only dinner in what I feel must be the smallest restaurant in the world, not much bigger than the size of a closet, one chef, one grill, one bar counter and 8 bar stools. To get to your seat you had to squeeze in between the beer cases piled up against the wall and the other diners. The chef served up all kinds of grilled chicken parts, external and internal, claustrophobic feeling included in the menu price.
In Kyoto the obvious choice is Kaiseki - the traditional multi-course Japanese seasonal cuisine. An art form that is as much about aesthetics as it is about cooking. Other musts when in Kyoto are the excellent tofu and the yuba, a thin, glossy skin from boiling soy milk.
Tokyo was a revelation foodwise, and completely blew my mind with its enormous array of points of interest for a foodie.
One great example is the Kappabashi district, a whole neighbourhood of streets lined with restaurant supply shops. Here you will find everything, and I mean everything, for your home kitchen, your restaurant or your bar. Hundreds of shops selling knives, plastic display food, restaurant signs, interior decorating, ceramics, uniforms, pots and pans, chairs, bento boxes, refrigerators, specialty kitchen gadgets, rice bowls and chopsticks…
A paradise for someone like me - now I only had to convince the airline to let me bring 200kg of kitchen equipment and ceramics on the plane back home.
Tokyo has more good eats than one could finish in a lifetime, all types of Japanese cuisine is represented here, but it’s also a melting pot for much adored foreign cuisines and Tokyo has thousands and thousands of French, Italian, Chinese and American eateries, often run by Japanese staff.
The interesting thing about the Japanese is that when they copy something they cherish, be it a concept or a recipe, they often make the end result even better than the original. Perfection is a key word here.
In the world’s biggest fish and seafood market - Tokyo’s Tsukiji - you will find everything possibly imaginable in ways of seafood and fish. From big chunks of blood red, almost black whale meat, to tiny shrimps the size of a needle, to red sea bream still bent from rigor mortis, to strange looking creatures like taken straight out of a science fiction film. Here activity starts when most people go to bed, in the late evening or early night. Fresh fish and other food products pour in from all over the world, gets sorted and packed by wholesalers for further shipment or sold at the morning market. It’s a hypnotizing experience walking around the market in the morning, observing the frenetic activity and sheer amount of seafood that changes hands here every day. This is also where the famous tuna auction takes place every morning at around 5:30 am.
Traveling, in general, in Japan is very easy. Not because it’s easy to talk to people or ask for directions (surprisingly enough english is not a widely spoken language), but because everything works as it is supposed to. Trains run on time, bookings are respected, prices are fixed and people do whatever they can to help you, they will even go out of their way to follow you to the train station and make sure you get on the right train. The feeling of unrivaled service is a common denominator in Japan, whether you pay for it or not.
In fact traveling as a foodie in Japan is a really intense experience, and I realize while writing this, I could probably write a whole book about my 3 weeks of eating and drinking. About the noble ingredients, the extraordinary gourmet food halls of the department stores, about the izakaya’s (beer halls or equivalent to pubs) noisy crowd, about the thousands of varieties and classifications of Nihonshu, or sake as we call it.
The biggest secret in the Japanese cuisine - is the cooking, or where applicable, the non-cooking.
Everything is less cooked in Japan. People are not afraid of the chicken still being slightly pink and moist in the center, or the pork meat still retaining part of its natural softness and pinkish hue and not being cooked to total stiffness and protein-white color. Another paramount difference between Japanese cuisine and its western counterparts is the unadulterated freshness and the keen emphasis on seasonality of food and from this fact comes part of the Japanese food philosophy: “Food should be enjoyed as close as possible to its natural state.”
Or as the general golden rule for us cooks says - if you are in possession of really, truly good stuff - keep it simple!
A hard thing to get used to while eating in Japan, is the relentless slurping while Japanese people eat noodles. In Europe we are always taught to not make noise while eating, but in Japan they actually find it strange not to slurp (and we’re talking LOUD slurping) while you are throwing down your Ramen noodles. Even the most posh lady with her Gucci purse and high heels won’t refrain from a bit of loud slurping while feasting upon a large bowl of soba noodle soup.
If there is one negative thing I have to say about eating in Japan it would be that it’s allowed to smoke inside the restaurants, whereas on the street you can’t smoke freely. Not a cheerful experience for a non-smoker trying to enjoy a nice meal.