Foreword from ZenPlus
Sushi and sukiyaki to Pocky and ponzu -- the world of Japanese cuisine is a vast and varied delight!
In this edition of Japan Plus Me, our new Japanese food expert Andy reveals how family roots and a longstanding personal passion earned him entry into Japan's culinary industry.
Take it away, Andy!
From architect to chef
Hi I’m Andy and this my story about how I became a chef in Japan!
My father is from Hong Kong and my mother is from Japan, but I grew up in the UK so had a culturally mixed background.
I guess everything starts with my father, who was previously a Chinese cuisine chef but has moved on to a different field of work.
Fried rice, natto, and family
My father was rarely home because of work so we didn’t get to hang out that much. Yet, when he came home in the early hours of the morning, he would always cook fried rice or some noodles. The house filled with delicious aromas of ginger, garlic, and soy sauce. Everyone woke up, ate, and went straight back to sleep. From then on I tried to watch him every time he cooked, working his way around the kitchen. My interest grew and grew, but I was always told by my dad not to get into the culinary industry. He used to tell me that long hours, hard work, and little rest are difficult.
My interest in Japanese cuisine came from my mother. Every summer holiday, we used to visit relatives in southern Japan. At first, I didn’t understand Japanese food. All the different types of pickles, raw fish, and natto (fermented beans), really didn’t appeal to me. It’s embarrassing to say, but I was used to food like roast beef, cheese on toast, or a steak pie. However, as I grew a little older, I started to take more interest in Japanese cuisine and culture. Things like saying itadakimasu (“thank you for the food” in Japanese) and eating sushi and even natto became normal to me. I started to delve deeper into Japanese cuisine, learning about how much pride and care chefs take in their craftsmanship, the ingredients, and their history. I always thought one day I would like to try living in Japan.
My Japanese food journey
Despite my interest in cooking and Japanese food growing, I ended up going to university in the UK to study architecture.
I had a mixed experience but after graduating, I decided to try and find a job in the architectural world. I entered an internship in a Japanese company based in Tokyo but quickly realized that it wasn’t for me.
With just half a year left on my visa, I decided to enter a kitchen to really see if the culinary world was for me.
My first kitchen gig was in Daikanyama, an affluent area in Tokyo. It specializes in western style food such as pasta, steak, and pancakes. I quickly fell in love with the kitchen environment, the adrenaline, and the cooking.
Whilst it was not the style of food I was interested in, it was the perfect place to kick-start my culinary career. After my visa ended I returned to the UK, but immediately wanted to go back to Japan.
Sharpening my chef skills
Luckily in 2018, I was able to head back to Japan -- after which I found another job at a new bakery, cafe, and restaurant in Roppongi, Tokyo. They specialized in open-faced sandwiches using beautiful ingredients from local producers. Every day, we would receive shipments of stunning vegetables and seafood from across Japan, which helped improve my culinary knowledge.
After a year, I looked for a new challenge in Niseko, Hokkaido. At the time I was interested in learning about fish, so a friend put me in contact with a sushi chef who spoke both English and Japanese. Every day I was filleting and taking apart monkfish as well as salmon, iwashi, and kinki fish.
My next job was my real challenge. A Michelin-star French restaurant in Sapporo. The long hours and extreme standards were difficult -- 12 to 16 hour days of prepping, cooking, and cleaning is a tough slog to say the least -- but I learned so much. Some of the highest quality Japanese ingredients were being used, and many of the cooking techniques were completely new to me as well. It helped me dive deeper into a world of food that I did not know about.
Hokkaido: Japan's food paradise
Hokkaido is well known for its amazing seafood, vegetables, and dairy products. During my days off I started to explore more about food in Hokkaido. From sushi to Japanese street food, I was eating everything I could get my hands on. Food in Hokkaido became the norm for me -- and it was after visiting Tokyo again that I really noticed the difference. The abundance of top-quality produce in Hokkaido means that the standard of food in Hokkaido is much higher than in Tokyo. Don’t get me wrong: Tokyo has many incredible restaurants. But overall, Hokkaido food is on another level. It’s no surprise that many restaurants in Tokyo and other parts of Japan use Hokkaido ingredients!
Japanese cuisine dreams
Food in general -- but Japanese cuisine in particular -- has become an important part of my life. I feel incredibly lucky to be living in Hokkaido and have experience working in many kitchens, which has broadened my awareness of local ingredients and producers.
Japanese cuisine can be quite intimidating at first. Eating raw fish, sticky natto, and intestines can be a little off-putting for first-timers. However, I recommend everybody give it a go! Japanese cuisine is rich with history, and every ingredient has an important role. Start at the shallow end with food such as sushi. There are so different types of such as raw squid, octopus, and sea urchin, so it’s a great way to gauge what suits you!
About the author
Andy is a 27-year-old chef, coffee roaster, and now writer from the UK! He is based in Hokkaido and loves all things food, coffee, and Japan. Check out more of his work on his personal website.
Got a story to share?
Thanks once again to Japanese food expert Andy for his story on chasing dreams and fermented beans!
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As always, thanks for reading!
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Thanks for reading!