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The familiar and the unexpected
JAPANESE chef Yoshiaki Takazawa says it is in his genes to choose a life of working in the kitchen. After all, his parents ran a low-end casual diner in downtown Tokyo, and he spent his childhood days there.
"When I was a child, I had to be near them, and I would be helping them wash the dishes," he recalls.
But having seen his parents slog over hours for food that is priced very affordably, chef Takazawa decided to take the opposite route. His eponymous restaurant is a 10-seater fine-dining establishment located in the high-end district of Akasaka.
"My parents work so hard, and I didn't want to be like them. I did think about taking over my parents' diner, but in the end I decided I want to do something different," he says. "I wanted to make food that would make people go 'wow'."
But that is not to say he isn't hard-working. He is. For example, his signature ratatouille is a time-consuming dish to prepare, which requires lots of precision and he personally makes this item.
The soft-spoken chef was in Singapore recently for a two-night Four Hands collaboration at Odette with chef Julien Royer. Despite the S$388++ price tag, the dinner was sold out in a "fraction of seconds", says chef Royer. "I told Yoshiaki he is very famous."
At 18, chef Takazawa attended a French cooking school, and learned the skills of European cuisine that had not been a part of the techniques he saw at home. He has worked in a kaiseiki restaurant and a yakitori shop, and later on at Restaurant J and Studio J in Roppongi.
In 2005, he opened his restaurant, then known as Aronia de Takazawa. Over the course of the last decade, the restaurant has taken on a new name, and chef Takazawa's cooking style has changed too. "When I first started, modern Spanish was popular then, like the style of El Bulli," he points out. "I too, dabbled in molecular gastronomy."
He could have retained this cooking direction, if not for the devastating earthquake that hit Japan in 2011. He recalls that people were not in the mood to dine out, and business became quiet. "This gave me time to think about my cuisine, and made me realise that I love my country, and I began to focus more on using Japanese ingredients, and Japanese products such as ceramics," he shares.
He calls his cooking philosophy simply, the "Takazawa style". By that he means, he uses traditional French cooking techniques but with ingredients from Japan. What arrives on a plate may sound familiar, the flavours traditional but the presentation is very unexpected.
For example, he serves Pacific saury, or sanma, in sashimi style but don't expect the soya sauce to be presented in a saucer. Instead, there are individual drops of soya sauce next to the fish, all the same size and distance from each other. The wasabi is shaped into little spheres, and the ginger is cut into matchstick sizes and stacked artistically on top of each other.
Chef Takazawa's ratatouille appears like a bite-sized mosaic tile. The story goes of how he used to serve a vegetable terrine, and the right way of eating it was to combine all the vegetables together. Instead, he observed that diners would take apart the vegetables and eat them on their own. He pondered how he could get his customers to eat the dish as he intended for it to be. "People eat sushi in one bite, so I decided to make my ratatouille as small as a piece of sushi, so people could enjoy the different flavours and textures of the various vegetables together."
He adds that the ratatouille which he has been serving since 2005 is his signature dish, because it showcases different cooking techniques, has plenty of colour, and combines textures and flavours. "These three factors all represent who I am as a chef," he notes. He uses 15 types of vegetables and each has to be cut to specific lengths, and cooked individually before being assembled.
A good chef, he says, is someone who puts in a lot of effort. "It is 70 per cent hard work, and 30 per cent talent. And you do need a sense of aesthetics."
For chef Takazawa, inspiration for a dish can come from anywhere. For his recent dinner at Odette, he created a dish, called Night Safari, which has four types of meat - crocodile, kangaroo, pigeon and hog leg. He says that whenever he cooks overseas, he tries to put in a local influence, and in his case, it is the Night Safari.
And yet, he says he hasn't been to the attraction. "I've always wanted to go but had no time. But I looked at their website for inspiration," he says with a laugh.
On this visit, chef Takazawa had the chance to sample turtle soup, and says bak kut teh and chicken rice are his favourite Singapore dishes. Who knows, they may just appear on the Takazawa menu in an unexpected form one day.
- 12g semi-dried tomato, seeded and skinned
- 1/5 red cabbage
- 1/4 red bell pepper
- 1/4 yellow bell pepper
- 4 thin asparagus
- 2 French beans
- 4 fresh baby corn
- 1 cucumber, cut to 19cm length
- 1/4 orange carrot
- 1/4 yellow carrot
- 2 shiitake mushrooms, 7cm in diameter
- 1/4 daikon radish
- 4 Chinese yam potatoes
- 1 sheet kombu seaweed
- 60g tomato consomme
- 1/4 green courgette
- 1/4 yellow courgette
- 10 grains sea salt
- 10 fermented black beans
- Apple cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
Remove the core of red cabbage and blanch the leaves in boiling water for five minutes until the cabbage is soft but not mushy.
Once blanched, allow the cabbage to cool before marinating with enough apple cider vinegar to just coat the cabbage leaves and one teaspoon each of salt and sugar. Allow the mixture to sit for about three hours.
Trim the cabbage to get an even thickness.
Remove the seeds and skin from the semi-dried tomatoes.
In a medium-sized bowl, soak kombu sheets with water to make a kombu dashi.
On an open flame, char the skin of the red and yellow peppers. Once the peppers have cooled, remove the skins and julienne. Then marinate in kombu dashi.
Remove the skin of the daikon radish and julienne.
Julienne the cucumber.
Blanch the yellow and orange carrots, baby corn and beans until just cooked, retaining the crunch of the vegetable. Julienne all the vegetables.
Julienne the yellow and green courgettes and yam potatoes and saute with oil until cooked through.
Saute shiitake mushrooms, and allow them to cool, then julienne.
Line the inside of a terrine mould with cling film. Place a single leaf of prepared red cabbage into the mould, ensuring that the single leaf sufficiently lines the mould with enough cabbage to just cover the uppermost surface of the terrine.
Place a semi-dried tomato on the bottom of the mould.
Arrange the prepared vegetables into the mould, alternating the vegetables across five layers. The first layer should consist of four kinds of vegetables, while the second to fifth layers will have five kinds.
In a small pot over a low flame, combine the tomato consomme with gelatin and stir until the gelatin has completely melted. Remove the mixture from the heat and allow it to cool to room temperature.
Once the vegetables in each layer are in place, pour just enough of the tomato consomme and gelatin mixture together to just barely "glue" the vegetables in the layer together, before moving on to the next layer.
Once the five layers of vegetables have been completed, wrap the excess red cabbage around the top of the terrine and press. Chill the terrine in the refrigerator for at least three hours.
Cut the terrine into 1cm-thick slices. Place the ratatouille slice onto a spoon with a single fermented black bean and a grain of sea salt. Brush the top-facing side of the ratatouille slice with olive oil and serve.