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.
In last month’s excerpt, Chef David Myers discussed how his friendship with fellow chef Noriyuki Sugie opened the door to his love of Japanese cuisine and culinary aesthetics. He also described Chef Sugie’s “simple French knife.”
This month we meet Chef Sugie, a graduate of the famed TSUJI Culinary Institute in Osaka and an acclaimed chef who worked at three Michelin-starred restaurants in Bordeaux, France. He started a restaurant-consulting firm, IRONNORI, in 2008, and he’s currently in the soft-opening phase of a new eatery venture called Beer and Wagyu Hitachino in San Francisco.
In this excerpt Chef Sugie tells us about his different experiences in Japanese, French, and American restaurants. Oh, and he’ll also tell us that he now uses Japanese knives.
“I began working at Chef Yutaka Ishinabe’s restaurant in Japan after I came back from France. I was able to see the restaurant overall, not just the cuisine, and learn about how an owner/chef conducts business. He had studied cooking in France but used Japanese ingredients to cfreate his own Yutaka Ishinabe style. I learned from Chef Ishinabe that observing what is going on outside of the kitchen is important in growing a restaurant as well.
“Working at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago also influenced me as a chef. Charlie Trotter was a rugged individual. His cooking was fabulous, but cooking for him was like being on an American sports team. He was the captain or coach. The way he gave instructions and pulled the team together was very different from the French way.
“When I first arrived in Chicago and entered the kitchen, I was served a meal. As I ate, I observed the kitchen and the manner in which one of the chefs, David Myers, made his way. I noticed how sharp his eyes were. I had no idea who he was. After a year, we became close friends because I felt we had something in common.
“Both Chef Ishinabe and Chef Charlie Trotter emphasized teamwork. But there are some big differences in the way Japanese, American, and French chefs communicate with their staff. In Japan, I was expected to know how to do something without any explanation of how to do it. It was easy, because I was working with people of the same nationality. When I went abroad, there were people from different backgrounds, and there were times when I couldn’t get them to understand me. During service there’s a need for more communication, otherwise, standards can’t be maintained. Instructions are given based on the assumption that everyone has a different mentality.
“Working in France is very different from Japan. In France, the team changes about once a year. You work together for about six momths, followed by a summer greak of about one momth. Many people change restaurants around that time. The French chefs have impressive resumes. They have studied at many places. There are no interviews. A single phone call or a recommendation by a chef decides whether you get that next position. To find a position in France, I wrote a lot of letters. I got a lot of information about getting a job there from other Japanese chefs. There was no email in those days – it was all by phone or mail. I sent form letters in French! If the chef liked what I wrote, he or she would contact me.
“Once you get into a good restaurant in France, it becomes possible to move to another restaurant. For example, if you work for Chef Joël Robuchon, it means that you have his seal of approval. You work hard to gain the trust and affection of the chef you are working for so that you can be introduced to the next one. That impresses me about the French. When you want to leave a Japanese restaurant, the chef asks you why. But in France, once you give them your best, the chef will introduce you to the next place. You learn and move on. You’re encouraged to learn more. This is so different from Japan.
“ . . . Knives are an important tool for a chef because they directly affect the quality of the food prepared. When I was an intern, I used Western knives, even in Japanese restaurants. When I finally switched to a Japanese knife, I realized how good it was. Japanese knives are made with a combination of determination – or kiwame – and soul, seishin. Right now my favorite knife is a custom-made kodeba that is very small and fits into my hand. It is the best knife I’ve ever had for filleting fish the size of a red snapper. I use it a lot. I also have several yanagi knives, which I use for slicing fish.
“The weight of the knives will differ depending on the material used in the handle and the size of the blade. Choosing the right knife helps a chef become the best possible professional and artisan. I feel strongly about being an artisan and preserving Japanese culture. That’s why I like to know how the knives, tools, and tableware I use in my cuisine ad restaurant are made.”
Read more about Noriyuki Sugie and the other chefs in Chef’s Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers and Cuisine.