Interview With an Iron Chef

During the 20th anniversary DiRoNa conference at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto, I had the opportunity to interview special guest Chef Kimio Nonaga, a classically trained, 3rd generation chef at Nihonbashi Yukari, Tokyo, which has been serving classical Kaiseki cuisine to the Imperial Household Agency for all three of its generations. In 2002 he was named Grand Champion of the Iron Chef Competition in Japan. Translating on his behalf was Chef Ryo Ozawa, Executive Chef of EDO, Toronto, who specializes in Seiyo-Ryori cuisine, a combination of classical French and Japanese cuisines. In 2002 he won the Canadian Culinary Cup, a Japan-wide competition for 13, 000 chefs sponsored by the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. He has been at EDO since 2004.

Below are some excerpts from our conversation:

AW: There are many Japanese restaurants in Toronto. As a classically trained Japanese chef, operating a traditional edomae style restaurant in Tokyo, what do you think about the state of Japanese cuisine in Toronto?

KN: Everywhere is different: the water, the mountain, the vegetables, and seafood; but the base is the same. We are in Toronto, so the ingredients fit the country here, but the base is still the same.

AW: But in Toronto you can find a variety of creative and innovative sushi that you cannot find in Japan.

KN: Yes. Japanese sushi and North American sushi are totally different. The base is Japanese, but in Toronto, you have Toronto culture, and the Toronto way of thinking. The culture is different whether in Toronto, Tokyo, Kyoto, the U.S. or Europe. In Toronto, and in North America, sushi is created like art. Here they care about “the visual” as the priority, but they may not know the basics.

In Japan, sushi from the Edo time had no fluctuation. They served raw fish on the counter. They just had a piece of small wood, and one by one, piece by piece, prepared for each customer. It is counter food, so there is no decoration in this traditional style. Also the roll, or nigiri, has a theory. They did not think of the visual, they only thought of the theory; the taste of raw fish marinated with vinegar or the fish on the top of rice.

AW: Traditionally the sushi chef has been a man. In Toronto it is not uncommon to see female sushi chefs. Is this the case in Japan too?

KN: Yes. The tradition is that no woman can be a chef, but right now there are women chefs in Tokyo. There are some who still have this traditional attitude, but I am more interested in the tradition of the cuisine.

AW: There is a trend now in Japanese restaurants, and in non-Japanese steak restaurants as well, toward Wagyu and Kobe beef. Some restaurants list Kobe beef on their menu. Even supermarkets sell “Kobe beef burgers”. Having lived in Kyoto, and eaten Kobe, or Tajima, beef many, many times, I find this hard to believe.

KN: In North America there is no Kobe beef—only Kobe “style”. All companies must say “Kobe style beef”, because their beef is not from Kobe. Any supermarket selling “Kobe beef burgers”—they should not say this. They should say “Kobe style beef burgers”, because they are not from Kobe.

AW: What is “Kobe style beef”?

KN: Kobe style beef is a hybrid of Kobe and Angus. Its not just Kobe and Angus though, it could be any hybrid that has a Kobe somewhere in the chain.

AW: If a restaurant lists Wagyu beef on their menu, can we really know where it is from? For example, in Japan, there is Tajima, Matsuzaka, Mishima, Ohmi, Kagoshima, Sanda, and so many other different styles of Japanese beef. How do we know when we read “wagyu beef” on a menu, where in Japan, or which of those styles of beef it is? When I eat Angus beef, I know it’s not from Scotland. Why should one assume that their wagyu beef ever actually came from Japan, and is not mere marketing?

KN: Because it must be 100% from Japan. That is why it is wagyu. If a restaurant is misrepresenting their beef, they can be arrested.

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Japanese cuisine is a style, an aesthetic that, while remaining true to its own history and culture, is adaptable to seasons and regions, as well as the culture of other nationalities. According to Chef Nonaga, “Japanese cuisine is often described as “utilizing the natural characteristics of seasonal ingredients”, bringing fresh ingredients from all over Japan and worldwide. I am mindful to never overwork the ingredients, but rather to appreciate texture and natural taste. Throughout my training, I reaffirmed this value and it became ingrained in my style. Inspired by the distinct history and cultures of Japan, while adopting global ideas, I maintained the idea: “Bringing about the new, through reviewing the old .”

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