OSAKA – In between closing the original Noma and opening its successor, also called Noma, chef Rene Redzepi embarked on a worldwide pop-up tour that included an extended stay in Tokyo. In a recent interview in The New York Times he explained that, in Japan, “The study of umami was mega for us.”
On a recent visit to Sato no Ie Hanase, a kaiseki (multicourse) restaurant in Osaka’s white-collar neighborhood of Honmachi, chef Tsutomu Nakajima delivered an impromptu lesson in just how “mega” umami is, and how moribund it can be.
I sit at the restaurant’s long counter, which provides a view of the cherry tree painting that dominates the kitchen wall. Nakajima jokes that he’d like to make the counter shorter — his ultimate goal is an intimate five-seat restaurant, but he admits that would present some economic challenges.
To start, I polish off two stunning seasonal dishes: First up is a sweet broth made from sake lees pooled around a fillet of yellowtail topped with a wafer-thin slice of the unmistakably bright red kintoki carrot, a sprig of rape flower and crowned with slivers of yuzu citrus.
The second dish is as luxurious as it is sensuous: a cushion of broiled shirako (milt) glazed with soy sauce and anchored with a chunk of daikon radish slow-boiled in dashi.
The topic of conversation turns to sustainability, and what follows is one of the most interesting and informative post-prandial conversations I’ve had in a while.
Nakajima, 40, who has been at Sato no Ie Hanase since 2011 (first as an apprentice and then as head chef since 2015), reaches into a cupboard near the kitchen and pulls down a packet of naturally grown konbu (kelp) harvested from the Sea of Japan off Aomori Prefecture.
A short while later we receive back-to-back cups of dashi in what turns out to be the dashi equivalent of a wine tasting. The first cup, a glistening bowl of the Aomori dashi is followed by a sample prepared from cultivated dashi.
Where the first cup has the subtle but powerful taste and aroma that we associate with umami, the second is remarkable only for how underwhelming it is. What’s more, Nakajima explains that the cultivated kelp took six hours to boil while the first cup took only 10 minutes.
The chef worries about the future of naturally grown kelp in Japan and, by extension, the future of umami.
“There’s a balance and everything is connected. We’ve upset that balance,” he says. “I think part of the problem begins in the mountains. Mountains are the source of so many minerals and they flow into the ocean when it rains, plankton eat them, the fish eat the plankton and the really good kelp grows in this mineral-rich area. This is how the cycle is supposed to work. But increasingly it’s not the case.”
Nakajima suspects that Japan’s misadventures in forestry management are a key factor in what’s happening to kelp.
“We (chefs) have no future if we don’t consider nature,” he says.
Nakajima’s route to running his own kaiseki restaurant was unconventional in some respects.
He had a strong interest in food and cooking from a young age, which was nurtured by his mother and grandmother. He cites their home cooking as a huge influence both on his career and his taste buds.
However, after graduating from high school in Kobe, Nakajima decided to pursue business management rather than culinary arts. He kept the door open to cooking through a series of part-time jobs in restaurants before committing himself to becoming a chef when he joined Takayamaso Hanano, an exclusive boutique onsen (hot spring) hotel in Arima Onsen, Hyogo Prefecture, where he put in 18-hour days for two years.
Working at the hotel was as intense as it sounds, but it gave Nakajima a grounding in kaiseki cooking. At 30, he was older than most of the apprentices, so he felt he had to work twice as hard to show he could still learn.
Nakajima came to Sato no Ie Hanase as an apprentice on the recommendation of a Sakai knife merchant he had befriended in Arima. When the head chef retired in 2015, Nakajima stepped up to fill his shoes.
While Nakajima’s not from Osaka, you’d be forgiven for thinking he is — he makes seriously good food, but doesn’t let that sobriety infect his personality. He’s a charming and gregarious host.
Osaka, Nakajima says, is a tough place to run a successful restaurant. While Osakans are renowned for their catholic appetite, they’re price-savvy and sensitive.
“In Tokyo, if you serve something delicious and expensive, customers would be satisfied,” he says. “But if I did the same here in Osaka, they’d likely just focus on the price, saying, ‘It’s too expensive.'”
Before I finish up, the conversation turns back to the environment. Nakajima says he would love to start a project to protect the country’s natural assets. For the sake of umami, I hope he does.
Japanese menu; some English spoken
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5