"Japanese cooking is simple," Chef Ooe told me as we stood in his kitchen at Kozue, the stunning Japanese restaurant of Tokyo's Park Hyatt. "Only cutting, dashi, grilling... simple." The hard work of achieving this simplicity? Well, that's why I was in his kitchen...
I had the tremendous privilege to spend this past week in the company of the chef, as he graciously invited me to the Kozue kitchen to observe, learn and train. Ooe-san and his cooks taught me a ton, and really helped me improve my knife-work. (Although, I have to admit, my katsuramuki technique is hopeless at this point, even with the chef's patient tutoring!). Some observations from the kitchen:
I was fascinated by how the chef worked with the four main seasonings -- dashi, soy sauce, mirin and salt -- plus sake and sugar to achieve a staggering breath of dishes. He matched these seasonings with various ingredients to bring out their intrinsic natural flavors, never overwhelming them. Each ingredient had just the right combination and proportions of seasonings to compliment its unique characteristics.
For example, after blanching and shocking cherry tomatoes (Japan has fantastic tomatoes), he poached them in dashi, a little salt and katsuobushi in a cheesecloth (oigatsuo, "following katsuo" to impart more flavor), then cooled the liquid and tomatoes together in an ice bath. The tomatoes seeped for three hours at least before serving, giving the dashi's umami a chance to thoroughly infuse them. Salt naturally interacted with umami compounds to pop the savory flavor.
Like in every professional kitchen, the cooks tasted often, especially dashi, to make sure they achieved the right balance of flavor. They also poured samples of their dashi into small saucers and brought them to the chef to evaluate throughout the day. The cooking at Kozue is so precise, and Ooe-san's palate so refined and sensitive, that he works with his cooks constantly to help them develop their own sense of taste. I was really impressed by this ongoing education, and impressed by the depth of experience necessary to cook Japanese cuisine at this high level.
Speaking of experience, here's what Chef Ooe told me I must master to become a Japanese chef:
- Grilling tai and ayu (yakimono) to learn the characteristics of ocean and river fish
- Katsuramuki technique for daikon to learn knife skills (and we know where I stand here)
- Tempura, for deep frying
- And slicing fugu, poisonous blowfish, to master sashimi technique
I'm not sure about fugu for a long, long while yet, but I did improve my yanagi knife work substantially this past week, thanks to a terrific yet simple tip the chef shared with me: Practice sashimi cutting on a block of konnyaku. To achieve a perfect konnyaku slice, you must cut smoothly and delicately and not apply too much pressure -- exactly the skills you need to slice fish correctly. Konnyaku is inexpensive, to boot, so you can keep practicing with it.
Another interesting thing (of so much) the chef shared with me is how flavors adjust to the seasons, overall. So in the summer, flavors are characterized by salt, more kombu in the dashi (so a lighter stock) and red miso. In the winter, you find more shoyu, more katsuobushi in the dashi (so a more flavorful sotck) and white miso. This idea marries to the intense seasonality of the ingredients the chef cooks with -- everything has to be in shun, that is, the peak flavor of the season.
Finally, I love Japanese pottery, so I was blown away by the extensive porcelain and clay tableware at Kozue, which Ooe-san has collected over the years. What a joy to dine on this fine work, from top Japanese potters across the country. Amazing. I was pleased to learn that the chef collects the works of one of my favorite artists, Jinenbo Nakagawa of Karatsu, and is also personal friends with him, as am I.
Thank you again, Ooe-san, for an incredible week.