“Cuisine is not made of only techniques. Understanding people and culture leads you to understand cuisine even more deeply. – Chef Hiromitsu Nozaki
For those of you who are interested in Japanese cuisine, you are going to enjoy this interview with Chef Hiromitsu Nozaki who just published his new book Japanese Kitchen Knives. In this book Chef Nozaki reveals the essential techniques and recipes while educating the reader everything they ever wanted to know about Japanese kitchen knives.
There are three popular Japanese knives, the usuba, the deba and the yanagiba and Chef Nozaki describes in detail what each knife is used for, how to use it properly and then provides recipes as examples. The recipes are very easy for home cooks and use ingredients found in most supermarkets. And the photographs are incredible especially if you love fish.
Chef Nozaki is know in Japan for his extraordinary culinary skills and food knowledge. He was awarded one Michelin star in 2008 for his restaurant Waketokuyama and has published over 40 cookbooks. Chef Nozaki also catered for the Japanese athletes during the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
I am both honored and delighted for the opportunity to interview Chef Nozaki and hope you enjoy his responses as much as I did.
When I was researching you on Google to come up with questions for this interview I learned about your two “kappo” restaurants Waketokuyama and Pratt. Can you describe what a “Kappo” restaurant is?
The word Kappo is shortened form of katsu shu ho ju. It means “cut first, then simmer”, stressing the belief that the beauty of cooking starts from cutting (see below). When people say Kappo restaurant, it means the place where a chef cuts or cooks food in front of you.
For example, if you order sashimi, a chef will cut the slices from a prepared fillet in front of you. If you order tempura, they will deep-fry the food in front of you. A Kappo restaurant often has an open kitchen, and it is enjoyable to watch what the chef is doing.
There may be some tables in a Kappo restaurant, but you would like to seat yourself at the counter to watch how your food is prepared. There’s the difference from a Kaiseki or Ryotei restaurant. A Kaiseki ryotei takes a great deal of care with their service, highly trained waiters and waitresses, in a beautiful tatami mat room with a zen-like garden. Their food is elaborate for special occasions.
Chef, how did you decide to enter into the culinary industry??
After high school, I was employed at a hotel in a seaside tourist area. I was not interested in the job so much, and quit the hotel soon after the induction course was done.
I decided to enter a nutrition college in Tokyo. There are mainly two reasons for that. I wanted to be a professional boxer and thought I would have enough time to exercise boxing if I went to school. Second, my sister, who had been very ill, had just died around that time. I began to be interested in the relationship between human health and nutrition.
I was training to be a professional boxer, while I studied nutrition. When I was 18 or 19, I had to give up that dream, since I found myself not really good enough for it. I had to earn money for living, so I decided to work at a restaurant in Tokyo, just with knowledge on nutrition, not with any practical cooking skills.
Was there one person who influenced your decision to become a chef?
No, but while I was training in a restaurant as a cook (I didn’t know any cooking skills when I began working in a kitchen), I found importance and joy in doing the same things over and over again and thinking of how to do it better tomorrow. I think I wanted to be an artisan-type chef since then.
I read that you were classical trained in several Japanese restaurants before becoming the executive chef of Tokuyama in 1980. Was all your training in restaurants or did you attend a formal culinary arts education?
I learned all my cooking skills after starting to work in restaurants.
Were you trained only in classic Japanese cooking or did you learn culinary cuisines from around the world?
Only Japanese cuisine.
Many of my readers are interested in attending culinary school. What advice would you give them before they begin their journey into the culinary industry?
You should be confident of yourself what you are leaning, but always be modest at the same time. The theory will change time to time, that’s how many of traditions have been made.
Do you ever hire young culinary school graduates for your restaurant and if so, what traits do you look for when hiring them?
Yes, but I don’t expect anything of the grads of culinary school skills-wise. I want them to be honest and sincere to work, and have ears to listen to others.
Japanese knives are becoming more and more popular here in the United States. You find many American chefs as well as home cooks spending lots of money for these knives. What would attribute this new found popularity with Japanese knives?
The higher sales of Japanese knives show how Americans take the activity of eating seriously. Japanese cuisine has long had a focus on the beauty of cutting, and also there is a strong aesthetic tradition here that links the appearance of food to good flavor. Recently American cuisine has been developing so fast to the next higher level and I’ve found many Americans put this philosophy to practical use in their cuisine too.
Was this the motivation for writing your new book, Japanese Kitchen Knives:Essential Techniques and Recipes?
You can take a look Japanese knife references on the internet, but I felt a more practical reference for technique written in English was needed. We have many foreign customers who are professional chefs and cooks and have Japanese knives, but some of them don’t know how to use the knives, and just store the knives away.
I don’t want them to hoard them, but use them. The knife is not a jewel to occasionally show. It is designed and made for everyday use. So I explained very basic knowledge and techniques of Japanese knives in the book, which you can apply in your kitchen just after purchasing the knife. These basic techniques and knowledge is known by all apprentices in Japan, and can help home cooks too, who are dedicated to better taste to entertain their family and friends.
Can you tell us about your new book and what we can expect to learn from it?
This book is not a catalog or picture book of knives, but is written for the people who actually want to use their own Japanese knives. The book clearly illustrates with photos many essential cutting techniques which all traditional Japanese chefs are doing every day, from cutting vegetables to gutting fish and making sashimi. The techniques are very basic and just little of the whole, but if you master these, you make any good Japanese food or sushi at a professional level. To tell the truth, if you own a very sharp knife, you are basically sharing the same conditions that exist in a professional kitchen.
As you read the book, you’ll also learn basic knowledge such as the different shape and purpose of the three main knives (usuba, deba and yanagiba), the knowledge of basic cutting stance and sharpening techniques to knife anatomy and forging, which can be applied to Western knives too.
You also learn the importance of sharpening and maintain the knife. Japanese knives need to be cared for well. You can’t just leave it somewhere after use. Whatever the tool, it will help you if you take care sincerely and seriously. That also affects your attitude towards cooking.
I’m sure you cover the next few questions in your book and I encourage my readers who are interested in learning more about Japanese cuisine and cooking techniques to buy Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes but if you don’t mind helping my readers understand a little bit more about Japanese knives.
How are Japanese knives different from Western knives?
They are designed to make food tastier, not only to cut. Please see below.
What is the difference between a deba, usuba and a yanagi and how are they used?
These differences are fully described in detail in Chef Nozaki’s Japanese Kitchen Knives but essentially Usuba is used for cutting vegetables, while deba and yanagiba is used for fish.
A company like Kyocera makes a ceramic blade while Global uses stainless steel. What are the pros and cons of each material?
If the Japanese steel knife has spots of rusts and you keep using them, the steel taste is transferred to the food, while ceramic and stainless steel prevent that. Of course, if you take care of your Japanese steel knives by sharpening and drying them well, there is no problem.
Most ceramic and stainless steel knives are made by molding, but Japanese steel knives are made of chunks of molten steel, hammered many times until they take shape. The repeated heating and hammering, along with annealing, quenching and cooling make the steel hard, yet elastic, and give it the strength to hold an edge.
Cutting with the exquisitely sharp edge of a single-ground, forged knife is truly enjoyable and thrilling. No one who has ever felt this thrill could go back to the tedium and frustration of cutting with other knives.
Why are Japanese knives ground on one side only? What is the advantage of a single-edged blade?
A sword-like yanagiba, for example, is not pushed but pulled through when cutting something. It means, you start to cut with the heel of the knife and ends up with the tip. This is the best way to apply minimum pressure on the food.
If I wanted to go out and purchase a new Japanese knife, what advice would you give me to find the best one(s) for my needs?
You can buy good knives everywhere, but choose a place where you can consult with an artisan about your knife problems, one who has enough knowledge to sharpen the blade, mend the chips and change the wood handles. You often need an expert to maintain your expensive knife completely. One good choice is Korin, in New York.
Buying the knives through the internet catalog is not recommended, especially when you buy hand-forged knives. You should hold the real knife in your hand, and feel if the knife is right for you. Even knives of the same shape and brand are different in feel and balance.
Speaking of Cookbooks, what is your favorite cookbook?
Kaiseki Densho by Tsujitome (out of print)
Many home cooks are interested in learning how to prepare traditional Japanese cuisine. What advice would you give these cooks to help them get over their fears of trying something new and different?
Challenging leads you to the next stage. Otherwise you are at the same place forever. But doing always to do something new and different leads you to be superficial. Forge ahead with your routine, and you have confidence for completing something.
One more thing, be curious with not only techniques, but also with people and cultures in other countries. Cuisine is not made of only techniques. Understanding people and culture leads you to understand cuisine even more deeply.
Can you tell us a little bit about your philosophy toward cooking? What is it you try to achieve every time you step into a kitchen?
It is not so special. I always try to maximize the taste of the ingredients with minimum addition. Putting many seasonings and sauces, or combining fancy and expensive ingredients is not my style.
Also, as I told many times here, I esteem highly doing stable and complete routine. In a kitchen, I always try to find a way to do something better than yesterday by valuing routine highly. Don’t let the fancy things fool you.
As a chef, I also try to be always in the restaurant, from 10:00 in the morning to 11:00 in the night. I don’t like to leave my restaurant while our customers are here. I want to entertain the customer myself, with food made from my soul.
Do you have a signature dish and if so, can you share one with us?
Please look at the recipe of Deep-Fried Hirame Nuggets (P.92). This is our popular home meal recipe. You can make it with flounder, or any fish that is tasty when cooked. Corn starch will do, but potato starch will cook up crispier.
Last question, as a chef, where would you like to see yourself 5 years from now?
As always, I want to be a modest artisan wherever I am, with honest techniques.
Thank you again for this interview.
Thank you so much,