Foodie confidential: Save money, learn to cook

Some chefs start cooking from a tender age, spending time in the kitchen with grandma or mother.

Chef Masahiro Isono, 34, got his start in university, while studying economics in Kobe University. He would cook dishes like eggplant simmered in dashi and soy sauce and sprinkled with bonito flakes; and pizzas, the crusts made from scratch.

"I liked cooking in my apartment and listening to music," the new head chef of Iggy's at the Hilton says. "Economics was not a busy major, I had a lot of time with nothing to do."

So bitten by the food bug was he that when he graduated in 2003, he wanted to study food and beverage marketing in the United States. When he was accepted by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, chef Isono, the youngest of three children, asked to borrow money from his parents, who are opticians in Kagawa Prefecture. They said no.

He then decided to go to cooking school first, before going into the marketing side of the business. So he saved for a year, working as a security guard and doing the occasional cooking demonstrations in supermarkets.

After enrolling in the well-regarded Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, he continued to work, doing front-of-the-house work in a bistro and later in an Italian restaurant.

He graduated in 2005 and sent his resume to Il Ghiottone, a restaurant in Kyoto where the chef, Yasuhiro Sasajima, serves Italian cuisine with a Japanese sensibility.

"They asked me to come for an interview," chef Isono says. "Then suddenly chef Sasajima says, 'You can start tomorrow'. Maybe they did not have enough people."

For the first three or four years, he worked from 8am to 1 or 2am, with no breaks. "But I felt okay. I could learn many things," he says. "Kyoto is famous for its vegetables. I could go to the market or to vegetable farms. Il Ghiottone has a special farm and I could see how it grew the vegetables."

It was at the restaurant that he met Yuka, 31, his wife, who worked in the pastry department. They have an 18-month-old boy, Yuhiro.

Asked how he wooed her, given his unrelenting work hours, he says: "On Tuesdays, my day off, we would go to restaurants. My salary went to restaurants."

He came to Singapore in 2009 as part of an Il Ghiottone team that presented its cuisine at Iggy's. When he expressed a desire to work in Singapore, his boss, a good friend of Iggy's owner Ignatius Chan, gave his blessing and chef Isono moved to Singapore in 2012.

In December last year, he was appointed head chef after his predecessor, chef Akmal Anuar, moved to Dubai to open a new restaurant.

Chef Isono says: "I wanted to go to a foreign country and when I came here for the promotion, I worked with Malay, Chinese, American and Spanish people. It was very different from Japan.

"I went to a wet market and noticed that it was very smelly from the dried goods, but I was interested in it."

Why did you major in economics in university?

When I was in high school, I didn't know what I should do. Some people told me that if I studied economics, it'd be easy to get a job.

What did your parents say when you decided to go to cooking school?

Of course they said that they had wasted their money on university. But they also said that if I really wanted to go, I should just go.

What has been your biggest cooking disaster?

I have had many. One time, I did not prepare enough ingredients for service, I served wrong dishes. Many times, I got scolded. I felt that I should change jobs but it was too late, I loved cooking.

My senior scolded me many times but I just wanted to learn more.

What are the most important lessons you have learnt?

When cooking, I must think about the guest. With regular guests, I need to know what they like or don't like, I need to change the menu, cooking methods.

I also learnt that salt is very, very important. Without it, you cannot feel the taste of the food. Also, it is important to taste everything.

You used to work in a region famous for its vegetables. What are your favourite ones?

White asparagus. When you bite into it, it's very juicy. I like juicy vegetables, such as different kinds of eggplant.

What have you noticed about diners here?

In Japan, during winter, people can eat a lot. But it's hot here and people cannot. By the third course, they are full. And they might only finish half the dessert. So we have to work on the portion size.

What can diners expect from you at Iggy's?

I want to change the whole menu if I can. I would like to be able to talk to guests and create bespoke menus for them. The whole team has to be involved and we are still a very, very new team. So we will do it slowly.

What local dishes do you like?

There's a chicken rice stall in Ghim Moh, where I live, that I like. I also like the xiaolongbao in Din Tai Fung and NanXiang Steamed Bun Restaurant and the chicken curry we have for staff meals.

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