Each month in our newsletter, we post an excerpt from Chef’s Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers and Cuisine to introduce you to the featured chefs. This month we’re spotlighting Ben Flatt, an Australian chef who runs Flatt’s by the Sea guesthouse in the Noto Peninsula in Western Japan with his wife, Chikako. Chef Ben learned knife skills and Noto cooking techniques from his in-laws.
In this excerpt, Chef Ben describes how traditional Noto ingredients and seasonality – as well as the landscape – shape the Italian cuisine that he and his wife have been serving since the late 1990s.
“I don’t see my cooking as a blending of Italian and Japanese cuisines. It’s still Italian food, but I’m using what’s available in this area, such as vegetables from our farm and fish from the local Noto fishermen. The ingredients come into my kitchen as raw products, and I then turn them into pickles, sashimi, or other dishes using many of the techniques I learned from my in-laws.
“ . . . I was excited when I first picked up Japanese ingredients, and I knew I had a lot to learn about how to use them. But as I became familiar with them, I saw the similarities between Japanese cuisine and the Italian dishes that I’d been cooking, so the ingredients became easier to use. We’ve had many guests who have had a lot of contact with Japanese food, but when they visit us, they like to try my Italian food, which employs traditional local ingredients. When they eat it, they say, ‘Wow, that is so unbelievable. I did not know you could do that with traditional Noto ingredients!’
“The first thing I do in the morning is ring the person who buys fish for us from the local fish market. After he tells me what’s available, I order only what fish I need for our guests’ meals that day. It’s an auction market, and since all of the fish are sold by 7:30 a.m., I have to make a decision straight away, but I don’t clean or scale the fish until I’m ready to prepare it, usually later that morning. From about 7 to 8 a.m., we prepare breakfast for the customers who have stayed overnight at the inn. Our breakfast is a traditional Noto Japanese guesthouse breakfast – seven dishes, including pickles, some semi-dry fish of the season, fresh daily picked vegetables boiled lightly with katsuobushi, squid in a light Japanese-style vinegar sauce, miso soup made with fresh fish bones, tofu, and locally grown rice.
“At about 10 a.m., after the customers leave, I start preparations for lunch by cleaning and scaling the fish I bought that morning. The Noto technique that I now use for cutting up fish is completely different from the way it’s done in Australia and many other European countries – it’s a lot gentler on the meat of the fish. As a result, I preserve the original texture and color of the flesh so that when guests eat it in one of my dishes, they can taste the pure flavor of the fish as well as the flavors of the other ingredients.
“If I’m also doing a mountain vegetable and herb pasta, I’ll pick the vegetables from a nearby local river or the mountain behind our home. Lunch usually ends at about 3 p.m. We have a break, and depending on the time of year, I’ll go out to out to cut wood for the fireplace or go up to the farm. If it’s yuzu season, I’ll pick yuzu.
“Then onto the dinner menu, where the guests can choose a five-, six-, or seven-seafood course meal based on the four seasons of fish in Japan. The winter fish are kingfish, monkfish, crab, cod, and other parts of the cod, like shirako, which is cod sperm. The first time I ever tried it, I realized that it had the same texture as crumbed, fried lamb’s brains. The texture is very milky and creamy. The Japanese usually eat shirako in a clear soup or in vinegar, but I deep-fry it. When you bite into it, it has a creamy flavor. Our customers love it!”
Read more about Ben Flatt and the other chefs in Chef’s Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers and Cuisine, and visit Chef Ben’s website to learn more about Flatt’s by the Sea and the amazing cuisine he and his wife serve.