An opportunity to learn the Japanese language got chef Raymond Tan into cooking.
He was 19 and at a crossroads in his life. His aunt, a Japanese-language teacher, suggested that he head to Tokyo to start lessons.
Now 31 and head chef of Sushi Jin at One Farrer Hotel & Spa, the Malaysian, who is single, says in Mandarin: "After high school, I helped out at my father's textile business in Penang for a year and wanted an overseas adventure."
What started out as a three-month stay stretched to two years because of his part-time stint as a kitchen assistant in Kaotan, a washoku (traditional Japanese) restaurant in Tokyo.
He had picked cooking from a list of part-time jobs that his school provided because he enjoys eating and it was a way to earn extra pocket money.
So he ended up juggling his studies with kitchen duties.
A typical day started at 8am in the restaurant, where he prepared ingredients before lessons started. After class, he headed back to the kitchen and worked until midnight, doing his homework on the last train home.
He had it tough initially because he could not speak Japanese.
"I guessed what the chefs said and matched commonly heard phrases with the sequence of cooking steps," he says. "By the fourth month, I knew enough Japanese to work in the kitchen."
Today, he speaks the language fluently
Sushi Jin, an eight-month-old Japanese restaurant owned by the Les Amis Group, serves aburi or torched sushi, wagyu don and beancurd cod fish tempura.
Before working there, he was at Japanese grill restaurant Akanoya Robatayaki in Orchard Parade Hotel, fusion sushi restaurant Kinki at Customs House and Japanese steakhouse Fat Cow in Camden Medical Centre.
The oldest of three children says that he enjoys the convivial dining atmosphere of Japanese restaurants, where chefs banter with customers.
He says: "I like eating and making friends and it is magical how chefs can bond with their customers over food."
How was your first cooking stint?
The head chef in Kaotan taught me a wide variety of Japanese cooking skills, from making ramen stock to marinating the meat for gyozas to cooking teppanyaki. I also learnt how to make sushi and slice sashimi.
What is the first dish that you learnt to cook?
Char siew fried rice. It took me three weeks of frying it for lunch and dinner before the head chef was satisfied with the consistency of the dish. I had to eat the fried rice that did not make the cut.
He wanted the rice to be evenly fried and adding the ingredients to the wok in the right order is crucial.
Why did you choose to work in a robatayaki restaurant here?
I wanted to work in a restaurant that would be frequented by Japanese diners so that I can use my Japanese.
Which chef do you look up to the most?
Chef Shiono Takeshi, who worked in Akanoya Robatayaki. He is very passionate about perfecting the craft of Japanese cooking. During our break time, he would fuss over minute details of plating appetisers and would not hesitate to throw sauces away if they did not taste right.
What is the most challenging dish to cook?
Sushi rice. The rice is the heart of sushi and is often overlooked as it is such a basic component. The rice needs to be stirred with vinegar at the right speed and pressure. If you stir it too fast, the vinegar will seep too fast into the pot and will not be evenly absorbed in the rice.
What is your favourite Japanese food?
Wagyu don. I like the texture of the smooth and tender beef done medium rare, which goes well with fluffy rice, an onsen egg and truffle soy sauce. It is a dish that makes my day.
What is your secret to a good aburi (torched) sushi?
The trick is to find suitable parts of a fish that are best for torching. Otoro (fatty tuna) is plump with natural oils and that makes it nicely brown when torched. For seafood that does not contain natural oil, such as scallops, I torch it with foie gras.
What is your worst kitchen disaster?
When I was a kitchen assistant in Kaotan Restaurant, the head chef told me to throw away cod fish fillets. I did not know Japanese then and thought he wanted me to keep them in the storeroom for a month. There was a stench and they turned mouldy. Thankfully, he had a good laugh about it.
What are your favourite local dishes?
Laksa from the 328 Katong Laksa chain. It reminds me of Penang's curry mee, which is similar to Singapore's version of laksa.
I also like chicken rice from Boon Tong Kee. I like that the chicken has a silky smooth texture.
What is your favourite Penang food?
I miss Penang food as I usually go home only once a year. I like assam laksa so much that I can eat it every day. I like it from a hawker centre in Batu Ferringhi. I also like prawn noodles from Gurney Drive.
How often do you visit Japan?
I go once a year. For the past four years, I worked at chef Takeshi's sushi restaurant Kaisan in Tokyo for about four days even while I was on holiday. He is my mentor; I am quite close to him and he is willing to share his cooking secrets. Last year, I cooked chawanmushi, steamed sea bream and snapper with mirin.
Cooking is a way to catch up with him and his family.
Which is your favourite Japanese city?
I like the peace and serenity of Kyoto. There are only two things to do in Kyoto - pray in the temples in the morning and eat. They do not use ingredients such as truffle and caviar. They use authentic Japanese ingredients such as hand-moulded tofu boiled in hot spring water, ginger and leeks.
What do you like to do outside work?
I like to play badminton. In my teenage years, I represented Penang in interstate badminton competitions in Malaysia. However, I switched schools when I was 15. As the school did not have badminton courts, my interest in the sport faded and I switched to football.
Do you cook outside of work?
Once in a while, I would cook with my housemates, who are from Penang. We cook dishes such as assam laksa and bak kut teh.
If you could pick anyone to have a meal with, who would you pick?
It would be with my parents and grandmother. I have been mostly away from home since I was 19. If there are opportunities, I would want to have a meal with them.
This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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