I haven't thanked you enough for all that you've done for me.
Oh, no, not to worry. It's a pleasure. For a long time, I've been exploring a cuisine that combines different cultures and trying to dispatch it into the world. How long have I known you, Ishii?
About eight years. I was working as head chef for the Japanese embassy in New York and heard you speak at a culinary seminar. When my contract with the embassy was up, I wanted to stay here, and that's when a friend introduced me to you. You helped me get a working visa.
Since 9/11, it's been difficult for Japanese restaurants to get skilled chefs to come from Japan. When I saw your résumé, I wanted to hire you right away. Based on your track record, it was easy to obtain an O visa.
An O visa is an artist visa. I am not an artist; I am a chef, and it would have been impossible to get the visa on my own. In order to qualify my credentials as an artist, I needed someone powerful like you–and you asked your celebrity-chef friends to write letters of recommendation as well.
When I moved to the United States, I only knew about the narrow and strict culinary world of Kyoto. When I saw your dynamic presentation and cuisine, it was something that didn't exist in my world. And when I saw that people were really happy eating your food, I began to feel that this is perhaps the true meaning of kaiseki–to make people happy. I realized I needed to break the traditional ideas and techniques I was rigidly bound by. Your cuisine had the impact to make that happen.
When I put you in charge of the omakase section at Morimoto in New York, I don't remember asking you to do things this way or that way, but I understood where you were coming from. And your style of cooking actually turned out to be very flexible.
I like to play on the meaning of some Japanese words like omotenashi, which means "to entertain." I also define it as having no facade. Do what you want. There are all kinds of culinary disciplines, and you can do what you want when you come here, but you need to understand that people have different tastes and customs. As a Japanese person, it is basic to introduce Japanese culture to others, but how to do it is the question. You can't just serve raw fish with soy sauce and expect everyone here to appreciate it. Even in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco–there are still people who can't handle raw fish. Our role is to open the doors a little wider for people.
That's especially true for you. London is a little behind those other cities, and I know you're having a hard time getting certain ingredients, like bonito flakes. Weren't you using ham to make dashi [broth] before?
Yes, I was using Ibérico ham and tomato.
You got the umami from ham and tomato–that's great! You wouldn't have come up with such an ingenious idea if you were working in Kyoto. This is different, but it works.
When I first arrived in London, I found out that the European blue lobster tasted delicious, but I couldn't find a Japanese recipe that would complement it. So I tried to recall a good lobster dish that I had eaten in the past, and the only one I really loved was the Lobster épicé that you had on your menu. The spicy shell is roasted to a crisp; the inner meat is on the rare side. So I took your recipe and rearranged it my way. My dish is called wild Scottish lobster, tofu bisque, homemade shichimi pepper. It's like a lobster miso soup. I make a puree of tofu and a rich broth using the lobster head. I also roast the lobster until it's nice and crispy and serve it on the side of the tofu bisque. It's one of the most popular dishes at Umu, and if I didn't have a chance to work with you, I would have never been able to create it.
A lot of people call what we do "fusion." I hate the word: Fusion equals confusion. It has a tendency to attract people with mediocre skills. They think, "I could do that. Just change it. Change anything." But it's only when you have a foundation to stand on that you can move between cultures and change cuisines. You have that foundation.