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Executive Pastry Chef Shinsuke Nakajima

by Judit Kawaguchi

Shinsuke Nakajima, 50, is the Executive Pastry Chef at the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo. Nakajima’s delicious creations earned him star status long before he led the Japanese team to the top at the International Patisserie Grand Prix 2009 in Tokyo this March. His signature Super Dessert Series includes masterpieces such as the Super Melon Short Cake, and sweets that combine Japanese ingredients such as sweet bean paste with Western staples such as puddings and roll cakes. A veteran on the pastry circuit, he and his team won the second prize at the 2002 World Pastry Team Championships in the United States. Still, he is not big on competing: He is happiest in the kitchen with his staff or talking shop with his mentor and friend, patissier Pierre Herme.

Be sweet to yourself! I treat myself very well. If I don’t love me, who will?

Cakes need freedom, too! Just because they are sweet and don’t complain, it doesn’t mean we should jail them the minute they are born. I don’t use baking molds and cake rings. They would feel like working in jail.

To win, you have to want it very strongly. Foreigners know that and their drive to compete and win is much stronger than Japanese chefs’ desire. We Japanese are happy just being in the game. I got a few second and third prizes because I was not so hungry to be the first. But this year, I wanted to win much more than before. Voila! We got the first prize.

Farmers make incredible efforts to grow wonders of nature. I received some amazing melons one day: supersweet and with a unique flavor. It turns out that this farmer has an onsen (hot spring) on his farm. He has pipes running around the land, filled with hot water. He covers the pipes with soil and the melons grow on this hot surface.

During the bubble, some got dizzy on Champagne, others on dishwashing detergent, but we all had a hangover later on. I was 18, with no idea about cooking but with a big dream about becoming a great chef. I was washing greasy pots, six days a week, 16 hours a day. We were so busy! Each guest used 12 pieces of silverware and we had 1,000 guests just for one of our banquet rooms. Wash, dry, shine, wash, dry, shine. My eyes were always watery from the heat and the chemicals but I kept saying: “Yes, understood!” to everyone. I was a dishwasher for two years.

Instead of disco fever, I just had the fever. I wanted to go dancing but I could barely stumble back to my dorm. I shared a room with a fellow who was eight years my senior. We had two beds and just enough space for one to walk between them.

Kitchen work requires stamina. After two years, I graduated dishwashing to garbage carrying. I also moved soup pots, which weighed 20 kg. The wagon I pushed around was about 100 kg. I was like a top athlete, muscled and ready to lift anything in my sight.

Repetition is the way to perfection. In my fourth year, I was already in love with sweets. I was the first in the kitchen, whipping cream by hand. I washed the utensils, began whipping again. Wash, whip, wash, whip. Years later I stepped up to custard creams, lemon pies, sponge cakes. For six years I tended the ovens. I was the happiest kid in town.

What people don’t see, should be the cleanest. We don’t have a cleaning crew. I was surprised to see cleaning people enter the kitchen abroad. Not our kitchen! Only we know what happens and where and how we must clean to ensure 100 percent hygiene. We clean daily and once a week we do a major overhaul.

WOnce a month, I do “kuyo,” special memorial services, in five different Shinto shrines. I pray for all the plants and animals that might get hurt or die for our food. I thank nature and I ask for forgiveness about hurting other forms of life.

When all is said and done and baked, only two or three ingredients are better than five. I never draw ideas. The taste disappears if I draw so I am always in the kitchen, baking, and adding cream and fruits and chocolate on top of each other. Put a lot on, then subtract. Cream cheese and strawberries is a winner but I add kiwi or orange, too. Then I take them off. Three tastes and three textures are the ultimate sweet treat.

Don’t trust yourself with any calculation! About 12 years ago, I had to prepare a passion mousse dessert for 600 guests. I made the gelatin the night before. Early next morning I checked and it was hard like the plates! I made a mistake by one zero when mixing the gelatin. All 40 of the kitchen staff helped me and since then I never do anything alone!

Use products of your own country and area. In order to prepare the best cakes in the French tradition, we used to import ingredients, such as chestnut paste, from France. “Why don’t you use Japanese ingredients? Experiment!” Foreign chefs recommended me to look closer to home. How right they were! Now we buy fresh Japanese chestnuts and our Mont Blanc has a distinctive flavor we could never get with imported paste.

I have no secrets. Unless I show and share all my recipes, I can’t improve them. So if anyone asks me how I bake a cake, I tell it all.

My father told me to listen. Good thing I did! He said that what I hated hearing, I should never repeat. Since I hate being yelled at, I keep our kitchen friendly.

I remember my dishwashing days and can’t even believe this is all real. I am the happiest, luckiest man on earth.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Weekend Japanology.” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/