When it comes to packing for guest chef stints abroad, Japanese chef Hideaki Matsuo is used to forgoing precious suitcase space for extra socks or that spare apron for carefully squirrelled away packets of bonito and kelp instead.
Bottling pre-made dashi stock ahead of time or dialling up Singapore-based suppliers to pre-order a commercially produced substitute is out of the question: the 51-year-old chef's fierce insistence on making everything from scratch - just as he does in his three Michelin star restaurant Kashiwaya in Osaka - is a philosophy that travels with him too.
The seeming hassle all pays off when the food is placed in front of you at the table.
In town recently to cook at the Diners des Grand Chefs Singapour organised by Saint Pierre restaurant to fete the 60th anniversary of hospitality fellowship, Relais and Chateaux, Chef Matsuo cooked alongside Taiwanese Chef Lanshu Chen - recently named Asia's Best Female Chef in this year's Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Awards - and Singapore-based Emmanuel Stroobant.
For starters, fingers of codfish sashimi is robed in a crispy yuba skin and served on spears of thyme. His main course, a Kashiwaya Platter, showcased soya-marinated akami tuna next to a rich blob of egg yolk, pine nut cream and a melt-in-your mouth dashi jelly in golden hamaguri shell. Next to that, a platter of textures: a crispy nugget of amadai fish, sweet prawns and wild mushrooms on a sunshine yellow egg sauce and lightly grilled Hokkaido scallop under opulent shavings of bottarga. It is light, refreshing and traditional yet forward-looking all at once.
You find out later that even the chopsticks have been personally handcarried over from Japan. Hand carved by craftsmen from the Nara prefecture in Japan - one of the country's oldest - and tapered at both ends, they are the exact same ones he uses at Kashiwaya. "One side is designed for man, one side is designed for god, so we can eat together," says Chef Matsuo of its traditional shape used only for special occasions.
Each of the chopsticks are in fact delivered individually, he reveals, and his team of nine kitchen staff and eight service staff have to painstakingly pair sticks with similar wood patterns up and bind them together with the restaurant's rice paper sticker.
Never mind that such attention is something most would easily overlook. The Osaka native isn't used to doing things by convention anyway.
After graduating with a degree in theoretical physics, Chef Matsuo trained with Shuntaro Nakamura, the head chef at Shofukuro, a highly regarded ryotei in Higashioumi, Shigaken, for three years.
All this time, his father was managing a little restaurant in the outskirts of Osaka in a building that had stood since 1868. In 1993, he took over the restaurant as head chef, renovated the space to resemble a traditional tea house with five private dining rooms for groups of four up to 30.
"I don't feel like I have inherited my family business. My father started the business quite late, when he was 45 years old. I found myself as a chef with friends of the same philosophy and decided to build this restaurant on the same space," says the smiley though reserved chef.
His cooking style is something that evolves year by year, he says, with each overseas trip etching new impressions.
"I think about how and what I can improve on everyday. In the last two years, this has increasingly meant travelling abroad more often to see how other chefs work," says Chef Matsuo, who was most recently a guest chef at the Chicago Gourmet food festival late last year and will be heading to the Caribbean and Paris this year. He previously was a consulting chef behind Uo Kura, a kaiseki restaurant in Shanghai, but that contract has since ended, he says.
"Eating is my greatest influence. I've loved prawns and fish roe since I was a child, but I'll eat anything," he says. "I like to try new things I've never had before. Every country I go to, I'll try to look for local dishes that I can't find in Japan."
The amadai fish nugget served at Saint Pierre showcase, for instance, are influenced by the Singaporean har cheong gai, or prawn paste chicken, a hawker centre classic. In his restaurant, the same fish is typically served grilled together with its scales, and is an oft-requested winter special.
But despite his drive to stretch his vision globally, holding fast to the tenets of traditional Japanese cooking is something he makes a priority, he states. It is also a mentality he tries to instill in his young chefs - by taking them on regular visits to the museum.
"I want to teach them to maintain tradition. Cooking is getting so much easier for the younger generation as many tasks can easily be accomplished with the help of machinery these days," he observes. "The young now want to skip the discipline, But I want to teach not to forget the basics."
"At museums, I try to get them to touch objects, and through that appreciate the work that goes into building a piece of beautiful art, and in presenting it in a way that creates a feeling of hospitality," he further elaborates.
And though that intention has generally found resonance among his team, it has oddly fallen on deaf ears at home, he laughs. Says Chef Matsuo, whose wife runs the front of house at Kashiwaya, and with whom he has three daughters aged 16, 19 and 21: "They were interested in cooking when they were younger, but not so much anymore."
He muses in his gentle manner: "Generation by generation, great traditions are fading away."
This article was first published on July 5, 2014.
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