The Complexity of Japanese Cuisine

When you’re in the industry for some years, it’s as if you have the ability to guess a chef’s personality through his dishes.

And among the chefs from all around the world, Japanese chefs have special place in my mind, especially in term of the presentation, which mostly exhibits high level of detail with just the beautiful combination of color and texture. It is easy to assume that Japanese chefs are cold-hearted people who are obsessed with perfection. 

However, after spending some minutes with Masami Okamoto, The Japanese Chef for Keyaki, Sari Pan Pacific’s famous Japanese restaurant, you’ll reveal his warmer and funny side. I mean, just look at his picture. Chef Masami Okamoto shares his experience working in various cities in the world, about Japanese cuisine, the hardships of running a Japanese restaurant, and his love for dogs.

Why did you become a chef in the first place?

Actually I didn’t really think about it. It’s just the fastest available job back when I started my career at 18 in Hokkaido, Japan. After working in the kitchen for over a year, I found out that kitchen’s life is very interesting. And then I began working overseas in cities such as Paris, Hamburg, Singapore, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Jakarta.

What’s the best part of your job? And the worst part?

The best part? It’s the traditional Japanese cuisine, of course. My goal is to make customers happy with my food, to make them smile. That’s why the worst part would be to see unhappy customers.

Do you have any specialties in Japanese cuisine?
Traditional Japanese cuisine, sometimes normally people don’t understand that Japanese cuisine is very specific. Sushi chef only makes sushi, ramen chef only makes ramen, they’re all part of Japanese cuisine, but Japanese chef must be able to cook all of them.

How about your personal favorite dish?

I like creative menu such as we serve today. It’s autumn style menu, specially customized for the photo shoot, not a standard menu in Keyaki.

What sets Japanese cuisine apart from other cuisines?
Normally the ingredients, Japanese uses a lot of raw fish. We also use a lot of traditional Japanese sauce, such as sake and mirin. For the cooking style, actually Japanese cuisine is very simple, because the ingredients such as the fish, vegetable are very good. You just need the knife technique to be able to cut the ingredients sharply, nicely so they become nice food.

I heard it takes quite a long time to be sushi chef in Japan.
It’s a different case if it’s family style restaurant, but in traditional sushi restaurant, normally it took 10 years.

To become a sushi chef?!

No, just to learn the basic. On the first year, you only learn about hygiene. Like how to wash the fish, beef, vegetable, how to check the quality of the ingredients and how to properly store ingredients. And then on the second year, you start to learn to cut the fish, other ingredients, attend the guests, looking after them, because sushi chefs are normally stationed at the open counter, they must learn to check what the customers want.

Do you have any chefs that you consider as role models?
Actually, I’m more inspired by the food than the chefs. Like the ones I’ve seen in 3 star Michellin restaurants.

What are the parameters you use to judge Japanese restaurants?

The first is always the taste, and then the quality and the price. It’s really good to have good quality restaurants with affordable price. On the other hand it’s just normal to have good food in expensive restaurants.

Do you find any difficulties in finding Japanese ingredients?

It’s very, very hard especially on the vegetable, such as bamboo shoot and shiso leaf. We can have more fish, but the government has quota for certain imported fish. It’s so tough. To overcome this, I search for the local fresh vegetable and fish. It’s still a challenge to find the good ones, but I try my best.

Is it that difficult to run Japanese restaurant?
It depends on the quality level and the concept of the restaurant. It is actually easier to control the quality and ingredients for the contemporary Japanese restaurants.

How authentic is your Japanese cuisine?
Of course 100% because I try the best here. I have many Japanese guests who said that our taste is exactly the same as they have back then in Japan. On the other hand, in Japan, you can’t find the most common fusion menu such as Tempura Roll and California Roll. You can try to ask the chefs to make them, but in traditional sushi restaurant, I don’t think they can.

Can we assume that Japanese are mostly conservative when it comes to food?
Not necessarily, we have many contemporary Japanese cuisine restaurants there. In fact, there are many Japanese French fusion restaurants in Japan.

According to your experience, which country has the best food?

I can’t choose one, but in Indonesia, I like Padang, Sulawesi, Bali cuisine, but Sate kambing is the most favourite one. I also like Rendang, and Nasi Campur Bali. In German, I love their bread, cheese, and wine. German bread is no. 1 for me. In French, they have very small, but nice restaurants that serve 3 courses food, it’s very good. It reminds me that they are having the oyster season now, taste really good.

Do you have favorite restaurants here?
I like Paulaner. Their beer is nice, it’s number one beer! Plan B is also nice, it’s a Spanish restaurant located near Senayan.

I heard you’re a dog lover, what sort of dog do you have?

Actually, I have a dog that I rescued back in Shanghai. It’s a medium-sized mutt, a mix of Chinese dog and German Shepherd that weighed around 16 kg. He looked so dirty when I found him as puppy, I thought he was a rat because he has no hair back then. He looked like burnt, that’s why I named him Kogeta (literally means burnt). I brought it to a veterinarian and try to find an adopter for him because my job requires me to travel a lot, it’s kinda difficult to have a dog with me. Apparently, no one wants to adopt Kogeta so I raised him, and brought him along from Shanghai, to Bangkok, now in Jakarta. Do you want to adopt him?

No, thanks! I already have one in my house.