|Pocket Concierge, in the spirit of ”Promoting Japan’s Culinary Cultures to the World”, brings to readers this series of special interview articles; from sit-downs with the country’s most respected culinary masters, we introduce thoughts and feelings shared regarding their craft, restaurants, and what it means to be a ‘top chef’.|
“Sushi Kimura” Mr. Koji Kimura
‘Sushi Kimura’ serves a uniquely luscious brand of sushi; the toppings, matured to perfection with technique honed through years of research, and sushi-rice, a mix of thoroughly selected specialized vinegars and delicately-cooked rice-grains, meld in owner-chef Koji Kimura’s clasp into exquisite morsels of rich taste and texture. Packed daily with gourmands making a pilgrimage to this lair of uncompromising quality, the rare open seat is quickly snapped up by waiting hopefuls. In this episode of TOP CHEF INTERVIEW, we visit a world where 2-star status as one of Tokyo’s finest is a sign of room for improvement, seeking the secrets of chef Kimura’s relentless pursuit, and his codes as an artisan craftsman.
|Pick up topics|
|1.The Origins of a Chef; 6 Months Learning the Tempura Arts|
|2.The Science of Maturation; From Inverse Operation to Transcendent Aged Sushi|
|3.The Creation of Unprecedented Sushi-Rice; Hints from a Sake Brewer|
―――Chef Kimura, why did you choose to become a sushi-chef?
Speaking honestly, I never really had thoughts of other paths. I was born the third generation of a lineage of sushi-craftsmen, and my fondest memories growing up were of watching my father make his sushi with an irresistible smile. His regulars treated me like their own children too, I was a sort of mascot of the establishment; ever since those childhood days I’d set my eyes on following in my father’s steps and making a living out of this dream job.
Perhaps affected by my goals, but I’ve always enjoyed cooking as well. I still remember the elation I felt when my father bought me my first kitchen knife, back in 2nd grade. As an intimidating adult-size carver, it loomed large and heavy in my small hands; but my father, lecturing that “knives don’t chop with force, they slice”, mitigated any fears I had, and soon enough I couldn’t get enough of it, helping his kitchen with enthusiasm.
On developing my taste buds too, my parents refused to compromise. We weren’t the wealthiest of families, but we went out to eat a variety of foods; they definitely made sure of my learning a sweeping range of flavors, cuisines, and culinary techniques early. I was also often told to steer clear of too much spice; an overload of stimulus can dull the nerves after all. Of all our fine-dining trips, birthdays were always special; dressed in the best we could manage, the family would splurge on haute-cuisines like 5-Star Hotel French Restaurants. Thinking back, these excursions were always the source of discovery and inspiration; especially memorable was ‘duck in orange sauce’, a shockingly sumptuous combination for my young self.
――― Please tell us about your time as an apprentice, up until when you went it alone.
Despite my aspirations, it was of mutual agreement that I would be better off spending the early years of my career someplace other than home; helping my father, while comfortable, would risk limiting my perspectives and network to a narrow ecosystem, and as a child, my parents preferred me to gain life’s experiences. Hence, through senior-high school, I was a student and part-time father’s assistant; after graduation, I helped out at home when I was in town, but also dedicated time to traveling up and down the country visiting and eating at a variety of sushi restaurants. Having gained a sense of the diversity of ‘sushi’, my hopes of taking the profession on was stronger than ever; by the time I turned 20, I was apprenticing under my grandfather’s protégé, pledging to graduate a full-fledged sushi-artisan.
Of course, learning the craft was no simple task; I learnt under my grandfather’s protégé for 4 years, then with my uncle for another 8. But through these long arduous days and weeks, I absorbed everything my masters knew about the ‘Edo-Mae’-style of traditional Tokyo sushi. From whether to marinate the fish in sweetened vinegar, soy-sauce and ‘dashi’ broth, or sandwiched between sheets of kelp, to whether to add ‘oboro’, bits of sweetened minced seafoods and egg, to ease sour pangs, day-in and day-out I grew stronger in skill and experience. And while I loved this age-old school of sushi, originally concocted as a twist on a method of food preservation, I began to hatch out of the confines of the ‘sushi is Edo-Mae; Edo-Mae is ageless’ mentality. Taking into account the world of tastes outside of Tokyo traditions that I met in further sushi-eating trips throughout the isles, I brewed the beginnings of what my own ‘sushi’ would be; a hybrid, something that took in both the essences of century-old ‘Edo-Mae’ techniques and the marinade-free, raw-seafood delicacies that more modern renditions sought to seek.
But before I went independent, I took one last tutor; for 6 months, I studied at ‘Mikasa’, a tempura-restaurant in Kanagawa’s Miyazakidai area. There, at age 33, I learnt the ABCs of what it meant to be a ‘Japanese’ chef.
―――How come you trained as a tempura chef for 6 months?
A relationship birthed out of coincidence actually; the first time I visited ‘Mikasa’ was for no reason more than that I found its exterior charming. Only after sitting at the counter to eat did I realize that the owner-chef, Mr. Doi, was one of the regulars at the sushi restaurant I was at then. To be sure, we chatted for a short while over the surprise meeting, but our relationship would not have become so significant except for a further twist of fate; I met chef Doi the very next morning, at the Tsukiji markets.
Back then, I was not in charge of procurements; however, with future independence in mind, I had made a habit of visiting Tsukiji every morning, to take notes lessons about seafood and sourcing. But from that day I met Mr. Doi there, things changed drastically. Not only did he introduce me to his wide network of suppliers, professing confidence that I was a ‘sushi-master to-be’, he also taught me much regarding seafood procurement and more.
When it became time for me to go my own path, it was only natural for me to seek his tutelage; before becoming master of my own fate, I asked to learn the basics of a ‘chef’, and his everything regarding sourcing. Fortunately, he was good enough to allow me under his wing despite my obvious future outside of his own expertise, and I spent the 6 months before opening ‘Kimura’ at chef Doi’s ‘Mikasa’.
―――What were some things you learnt at ‘Mikasa’ that left a lasting impression?
‘To create every dish with a dedication to zero compromise’; this spirit of resolute professionalism in constantly providing only the best of my abilities is for sure a lesson I take to heart to this day. Also deeply impressing was chef Doi’s capabilities to really make the most of an ingredient’s flavors; in fact, the reason ‘Kimura’ has yet to serve Icefish in sushi is because I, after all these years, have still not found a way to serve that I can confidently say is better. This may be due to Mr. Doi’s extraordinary eye for fish; however, I believe it is more that there simply are some ingredients that are better cooked as tempura than as anything else, including sushi; there exists an arena of flavor and aroma that is unattainable with raw servings. Just recently, after 12 years of toil, I finally served the first Icefish of ‘Kimura’, as a light dish in between bouts of sushi; but before I can serve Icefish sushi with pride, I loathe to say that there will be many more obstacles to overcome.
“I visited Tsukiji every day, furiously taking note of every snippet I learnt about seafood; I knew it would be of use to me in the near future”
―――Why Futako-Tamagawa? Is there a reason you chose to set up shop here?
When searching for locations, I initially was recommended floor spaces at many of the perennial central-Tokyo gourmet hubs. But what I saw, as when I visited Roppongi at the direction of an elder colleague, was a revolving door of guests that barely even ate, much less enjoyed, their sushi; they were there, at Tokyo’s finest sushi restaurants, for business, or with company. My sincere “what is so good about this?” was immediately answered; almost all of the visitors paid with matte black credit cards. And while accepting the merits of catering to a well-paying clientele, I quickly recognized that the busy downtowns were not for me; I preferred a calmer background, where guests could look forward to purely enjoying the fruits of my craft.
Thus, I arrived at Futako-Tamagawa; gentle rolling hills and a river bed, with a calm yet mature-sort of residential tradition. Recent urban development guarantees a decent flow of people, making for a crowd not completely alien to high-end sushi. Our location in the midst of serene homes, admittedly a slightly inconvenient 10-minute walk from the station, is also the result of my pursuit of a particular vision; I purposely avoided spaces nearby the station, hoping to dodge any curious trespassers. With pride in establishing an embodiment of true sushi enjoyment, I was confident that such barriers paled in comparison; therefore, even the door opening to intruders mid-meal was an obstacle to be prevented, and a bit of a stroll a more than worthy trade-off.
―――I have heard that your initial years of operations were difficult to say the least.
Truly. In the beginning, I naively, sincerely, believed that my mastery of sushi-craft was more than enough to get afloat. So even as publishers offered to advertise my opening, I refused, choosing to trust my abilities. But of course, back then the web was not as universal; I had essentially decided to start from scratch, in a world where not one person had any way of knowing of ‘Kimura’. Furthermore, I had from the beginning decided to operate in reservation-only set sessions; even when guests arrived and I had seats open, I had to refuse saying that we were full. For the first 3 or so years, it was a living hell, a combination of no guests and declining reputation. It wasn’t until then, endlessly gazing over an empty hall, that I realized that I was nothing special; my very own sushi, however delicious, was nothing out of the ordinary of ‘good’.
―――How did you get to where you are today, from where you were back then?
The first to change was the vinegar. I was asked one day, by one of my few customers, of what vinegars I used. To my answer, ‘as an Edo-Mae chef, I use Yokoi-Jozo and Mitsukan’, the customer asked further; ‘do you know how vinegar is made?’. I had never thought about even what vinegar was composed of, much less how it was made; that customer continued, recommending to me an ‘interesting’ vinegar-brewer in Kyoto. That led me to the discovery of the vinegar I use today, ‘Fuji-su’ from Iio-Jozo. Their vinegar is an incredibly meticulous concoction; they make their own rice, then sake, rice-wine, out of that rice, before adding acetobacter and aging for 3 years. I was taken aback honestly, at how much care and time went into the sour liquids that I had so naively used, and at how little I, as a sushi-chef one of the most avid consumers of the product, knew about such vinegar-brewers; the same day as my visit, I promised that I would use ‘Fuji-su’ from that day on.
The trip to Iio-Jozo changed my world; I realized how little I knew outside of making sushi, down to the condiments I used daily. My salt, for example; I knew nothing of who or how, whether it was mined or of the seas. Western cuisines are quite particular in this way, with French restaurants using French salts, and Italians the same; rock or sea salt may depend on a chef’s training, but mass-production table salts are never an option. As a sushi-chef, I realized that my eye for seafood is important, but just as so is my knowledge regarding all my other ingredients. Ever since, I have made it a habit to compile learning; today, from soy-sauce to ‘nori’ seaweed, I pride myself on a selection that I personally source from experts of their crafts.