At Grace Choy’s Table in Tokyo, a Tantalizing Portal to Cantonese Cuisine

Owen Ziegler wrote . . . . . . . . .

Grace Choy’s kitchen is very small — about the size you’d expect in a studio apartment.

There’s enough room for Choy to walk the two or three steps from fridge to stovetop, but not much else. A humble array of premium Le Creuset cookware and high quality ovens accent the cooking area and dining room, but this is no industrial kitchen built to house a cadre of line cooks.

The layperson strolling through the backstreets of the Aobadai neighborhood of Meguro Ward might take a look through ChoyChoy Kitchen’s floor-to-ceiling window and consider it all yet another serviceable entry among Tokyo’s innumerable eateries. That would be a grave mistake — not only for the meal you’re robbing yourself of but also for the story you’re missing out on.

Choy has made sure everything here in this dining room tucked away almost as if it’s a carefully crafted secret has just enough for only one chef: herself.

Until early 2020, she was splitting her time between her native Hong Kong and Tokyo, where she served as the driving culinary force behind a Nishiazabu restaurant backed by a Tokyo-based restaurateur and event planning consortium. When her annual contract she’d signed the year before was up for renewal, Choy found herself faced with a difficult decision: continue working as a cog in a successful, larger culinary operation or reclaim everything for herself.

Choy opted to go back to basics. In March 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic closed Japan’s borders for the next several years, she relocated here and opened up her private kitchen in Nakameguro — one she supplies, staffs and serves on her own all by hers.

“I wanted to cook like I did in Hong Kong,” says Choy, who designed the modest space and lodges on the second floor when she’s in Tokyo (she also owns a home in Shizuoka Prefecture). “At that moment, I wanted to focus on cooking instead of business — even now.”

Despite the magnitude of the decision, Choy was no amateur embarking out on her own. It had been years since she had left her previous career as an office worker behind to focus on cooking, and she already had much to show for it. Choy’s 2018 cookbook, “Grace’s 60 Recipes,” earned the Best Woman Chef Book designation by the Gourmand Awards the following year, and CNN once described her private kitchen back in Hong Kong as one of that city’s best kept hidden gems. She also partners with several premium culinary brands — an explanation for all her Le Creuset cookware she puts to great use.

Now, Choy continues on in Nakameguro, but beyond serving up succulent meals, what exactly is her goal? To hear her tell it, it’s a simple yet challenging one: Use the freshest ingredients available in Japan to bring authentic Cantonese cuisine to many who’ve likely never had it before.

A Cantonese journey

For too many Americans like myself, a critical step in appreciating your first authentic Cantonese meal is dissuading yourself of any of the notions picked up over years of consuming “Chinese” foods like orange chicken, crab rangoons and spare ribs. Only the willfully ignorant can convince themselves that these dishes represent anything in the same neighborhood as traditional Cantonese cuisine, yet that awareness only leaves you with an empty box, an unfurnished room you know exists yet can’t quite imagine what fills it.

In Japan, assumptions about Chinese cuisine are different, though — in Choy’s eyes — no less inaccurate. She often hears Japanese diners quip that Chinese chefs are capable of little variety and that dishes are oily and salty beyond reason. As in the United States, a belief persists among some in Japan that Cantonese and wider Chinese cuisine exists on the unrefined end of the culinary spectrum.

Choy considers it something of a mission of hers to dispel these mischaracterizations, and a few bites of her cooking not only helps you divorce yourself from such regionally adapted idiosyncrasies — it ushers you toward a new definition entirely.

Over an afternoon together, she puts together several dishes for me, chatting and cooking as if it was nothing. First comes a Hong Kong-style char siu pork made from Kagoshima-bred kurobuta pig (the Japanese version of the famous Berkshire), a delicate welcome of fresh flavors laid over a bed of fresh vegetables. Next, Choy chills jidori chicken from Tokushima Prefecture and drizzles over it a mixture of oyster sauce, mature vinegar and Sichuan pepper — not once did this topple over into overspicyness, a sterling example of balance.

From there, two heartier dishes follow: a Hong Kong-style soup with Shizuoka chicken, dried yam from China’s Henan Province, wolfberries and fish maw, all double boiled for four hours and finished in an earthen-brown tea pot; and grouper in a supremely moreish Hokkaido-grown, Shizuoka-fermented black bean and Aomori garlic sauce — it’s difficult to understate how truly inviting the next bite is.

Finally, dessert: a homemade apricot pudding served with almond slices and fresh strawberries. It’s a left turn in terms of flavors, to be sure, but it’s a welcome rerouting and almost a reminder that I’ve just been along for the ride, one Choy’s been navigating the whole time.

It’s a microcosm of a full-fledged dining experience at ChoyChoy Kitchen, which usually runs about ¥30,000 per person before tax for six or seven courses. There are, however, two wrinkles. One is negligible: Choy allows diners to bring their own wines and other preferred beverages with no corkage charge. The other — actually making a reservation — cuts to the heart of Choy’s entire cooking philosophy.

“I don’t accept same-day reservations,” she says. “If you emailed me today, I think it might take a few months before I could have you in for dinner.”

It’s not a matter of bandwidth, Choy explains, but of quality. It’d be no issue for her to walk into a Nakameguro supermarket and stock up on what ingredients they happen to have, but that would necessitate compromising dishes to a level she’s not comfortable with. The jidori chicken and kurobuta pork she sources are not just feathers in her cap — the quality these ingredients represent is a cornerstone of her menu.

Hastily made bookings, therefore, would likely leave both diner and chef alike wanting more. Moreover, a combination of a packed schedule and a lingering arm injury has forced Choy to close future bookings to close friends and acquaintances only.

“Normally, I would work Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Choy says of her limited availability for the foreseeable future. “This year, though, I’ll be focusing more on research and development — searching for new ingredients around Japan and testing new Chinese dishes in my kitchen.”

With more and more guest chef spots popping up on Choy’s calendar, including earlier this year at the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, and The Ritz-Carlton in Macau, seats at ChoyChoy Kitchen have become all but impossible to obtain. However, the chef remains committed to reaching as many would-be diners as possible — critically, through an upcoming series of contributions to The Japan Times.

“I want to write because I want more people — especially the people of Japan — to spread (authentic Cantonese) cooking style.”

Source: Japan Times

See selected recipes of Grace Choy . . . . .






Video: Chow Down on Hiroshima’s Famous ‘Okonomiyaki’ Pancake with a G7-inspired Twist

Watch video at SCMP (2:56 minutes) . . . . .





Japanese Deep-fried Tofu Burger of Freshness Burger Japan

Choice of Black Vinegar Sauce or Mentai Mayo Sauce

The price is 640 yen each (tax included).





Tokyo’s Best ‘Melon Bread’ Is Sweeter Than Meets the Eye

Russell Thomas wrote . . . . . . . . .

Japanese baked goods are a world unto themselves.

English bakeries, French patisseries, Catalan, Danish, Viennese — all of them have a distinct flavor honed over centuries according to exactly what the local populace considers a sweet treat.

Japanese bakeries have their own repository of accumulated wisdom, morsels adopted and adapted in an eclectic frenzy of yeast and flour. In any other country, it’d be difficult to find a bakery that stocked French croissants, Russian pirozhki and English-style loaves all under one roof. Here, anything goes.

Influences from all over the world have found their way to Japan, often in forms that may not so readily exist elsewhere. Many, like karēpan (curry bread), owe their creation to the early decades of Japan’s contact with the West. Some were simply introduced by Westerners; shokupan (Japanese milk bread) came about in 1862 with English baker Robert Clarke’s Yokohama Bakery. Others, like meronpan, have more mysterious origins.

Literally “melon bread,” but more commonly transliterated as “melonpan,” this bakery item is a national favorite. It’s got a crunchy top and a sweet, brioche-like interior. Where it came from, however, cannot be said with complete certainty. It’s a commonly peddled story that Ivan Ghevenian Sagoyan, an Armenian baker to the fateful Romanov family of Imperial Russia, escaped to northern China and the New Harbin Hotel in 1917. There, he supposedly met a Japanese entrepreneur, Okura Kihachiro, who invited him to work at his establishment, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, where presumably he introduced something that became known as melonpan. He later founded a bakery, Monsieur Ivan.

Melonpan has similarities to other Asian bread: Korean soboro-ppang (streusel bread), and Hong Kong’s bo lo bao (pineapple bun) and moxige bao (Mexico bun), which, true to its name, originated in Mexico. There it’s concha (shell), one of the Latin American nation’s lineup of pan dulce, or sweet breads, theorized to have arrived with French migrants during a brief, six-year interlude of French imperialism in 19th-century Mexico. Conchas seem to be the offspring of streusel alsacien, a crunchy-topped brioche cake from France’s Alsace region. Chinese Mexicans, effectively deported by the 1930s as anti-Chinese sentiment swept the country, found their way to Macau and Hong Kong, bringing their culinary traditions with them.

Did moxige bao become melonpan in Japan, or was it the work of Sagoyan? Maybe both things happened. Whatever the case, it exploded.

Named after its muskmelon-esque crackled surface, melonpan is sometimes green and melon-flavored, and sometimes filled with melon cream. In Kobe, it is shaped like a rugby ball and filled with shiroan (white bean paste), while sanraisu (“sunrise”) is what the average Japanese consumer typically call the treat. In Tokyo there are a wide range of contenders for the tastiest, most famous melonpan in town.

Source: Japan Times





Person: L’Effervescence Chef Shinobu Namae: – The Making of an ‘Icon’

Robbie Swinnerton wrote . . . . . . . . .

From kitchen hand to running a three-Michelin-star restaurant, Shinobu Namae has seen restaurant kitchens from all levels and every angle. These days, he is best known for the modern French cuisine served at Tokyo’s swish L’Effervescence, which continues to win fans and plaudits alike.

Namae also researches ecosystems and studies food-distribution systems, traveling extensively to forge connections and address food conferences. Now he has won further international recognition: This past week he was announced as the winner of the prestigious Icon Award, part of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 celebrations.

The title “icon” doesn’t mean Namae has suddenly become an elder statesman of Japan’s restaurant scene. On the contrary, the chef sat down with The Japan Times earlier this week, on the eve of his 50th birthday, to look back on a career that got off to an unconventional start — and to affirm to us that he is just getting going.

Starting at the bottom

“When I was young, I had absolutely no plan or even desire to be a chef,” Namae says. “Unlike some other people, I didn’t have a grandmother who cooked wonderful food or a father who was a professional chef. When I went to university — at Keio, in Tokyo, studying the politics of developing countries — I just wanted to be independent of my parents. That meant I needed to support myself. So, I took a part-time job in an Italian restaurant as a dish washer.

“Initially I was washing up, but soon the chefs started getting me to peel their onions and garlic. Then after a bit, they actually put a knife in my hand and told me to start chopping. I loved it, and focused on slowly improving my cutting technique and speed.

“I never considered the idea of becoming a chef. I didn’t think I had the strength, either physically or mentally. But I knew I didn’t want to get a job with a big corporation. I realized I needed some sort of skill, but the only way I knew how to earn a living was working in restaurants.”

After graduating, Namae worked at a number of places, including a Tex-Mex diner that also specialized in Hamburg steak, and a single malt whisky bar in Akasaka that never seemed to have any customers. Eventually, he landed a position as sous-chef at a new startup restaurant in Nishiazabu called Citabria.

“Our boss wanted to ride the growing popularity of Asian-fusion cuisine — that was the era when restaurants like Nobu appeared,” he recalls. “Before we opened, he sent me and another sous-chef to New York for a week to find out what was happening there. We stuffed ourselves, five meals a day, and we used to hike across Manhattan to walk off all that food and get hungry again.”

Life-changing encounter

Namae recounts one day in particular in which he and his colleague came across an amazing bookstore that specialized only in cookbooks: Kitchen Arts & Letters. Inside, right by the front door, there was a book by French chef Michel Bras.

“It was exactly in my line of sight, as if it was calling out to me,” he says. “I’d heard about Bras but didn’t know anything about his cuisine. Up until then, I had a very negative ‘filter’ about French cuisine. It seemed like the polar opposite of the Italian cooking I loved. I hated the chefs’ toques and the kind of pretentious food I found in Tokyo’s French restaurants that tasted of nothing.

“That book, ‘Essential Cuisine‘ — with its photo of Bras’ classic vegetable dish, gargouillou — reset my understanding of French cuisine. Bras also used many unknown herbs and foraged wild plants, but he left his vegetables as vegetables. He didn’t turn his aubergines into purees or clarify tomato water to make gelees — the kind of cuisine I had no time for. I could feel instantly that he had a deep respect for his ingredients and their life force.

“Soon after that, I found out that Bras was going to be opening a restaurant in Hokkaido (at the Windsor Hotel by Lake Toya). I felt a strong impetus pushing me in that direction.”

A three-star education

First, however, Namae had to go back to Citabria to help with its launch. He stayed for a year, as he’d promised, working ridiculous hours — more than 400 a month. Eventually, he went for an interview and was offered a one-week trial at Michel Bras Toya Japon.

“Every day I was placed in a different section of the kitchen,” he says. It was quite an experience: I’d never worked in a French restaurant where everyone spoke French, let alone one with three stars,” he recalls. “It felt like I’d parachuted into a foreign country. It was culture shock, but the cuisine was wonderful — and so tasty. I fell in love with it instantly.”

In all, Namae stayed there for five years. During that time, he went twice to Michel Bras’ main restaurant in France to “stage” (work as an unpaid intern), and in his third year at Toya he was promoted to sous-chef. However, Namae says that while he loved the cuisine there, he understood he couldn’t stay there forever.

“I realized I had to go back to Tokyo, but I wasn’t yet confident I was ready to become a chef of my own restaurant, as I didn’t have a cuisine of my own,” he says. “I felt I needed to break out of my comfort zone and do something completely different: I found that in England with (British chef) Heston Blumenthal.”

The Fat Duck, Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-star restaurant in the village of Bray near London, was at its innovative peak at that point. Renowned as a temple of molecular gastronomy, it had won top spot on the 2005 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

By chance, American chef Kyle Connaughton, a close friend from Toya, was by now the head of research and development at The Fat Duck. Helped by this serendipitous connection, Namae found himself installed as pastry chef, immersed in Blumenthal’s heady, modernist cuisine.

Tokyo calling

“Originally I planned to stay there longer,” he says, “but due to the 2008 global financial crisis, I had to head back to Japan after a year. I got back in contact with Citabria, but it too had been badly hit by the so-called Lehman shock, and in 2010 it closed down.

“However, my boss was already working on another project. His idea was to relaunch the restaurant together with a chef who had experience at multiple Michelin three-star kitchens — namely me. That was the birth of L’Effervescence.

“I drew on the vegetable-forward cuisine of Michel Bras, but added a few dishes based on what I’d picked up from Heston. There was his apple pie — evoking childhood memories from McDonald’s, but also as a critique of mass-market fast food. Within the first year we won our first Michelin star.”

Over the next dozen years, much has changed at L’Effervescence. The apple pie and other molecular dishes were retired soon after the second Michelin star arrived in 2015. All except one, that is: Namae’s signature tender, sous-vide turnip dish, now inscribed on his menu as “The Fixed Point.”

Deserved recognition

It is unquestionably an iconic dish at L’Effervescence. But even more so, it is Namae’s work outside the kitchen that has led to his recognition as an icon himself. He has long been a voice for organic and traditional agriculture, sustainable practices and supporting producers, and his Itadakimasu initiative has brought together like-minded chefs and farmers.

He regularly fields inquiries from around the world about Japanese cuisine, and sustainability in the restaurant world. He has helped guide visiting chefs, such as Noma’s Rene Redzepi, in their explorations of Japan. He took up diving to examine the underwater ecosystems around the coast of Japan, and addressed World Wildlife Fund for Nature meetings on the impact of climate change on seafood. And during the pandemic, he returned to academia to produce a master’s thesis on the place of the restaurant industry within the food distribution system.

With all humility, Namae remains unclear how all this might qualify him as an icon of the same stature as previous recipients of this award, such as Yoshihiro Murata, the legendary head chef of Kyoto’s Kikunoi restaurant, or South Korean Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan, a master of temple vegetarian cuisine.

“To me, each of them are complete, experienced individuals,” he says. “They are mentors, educators, philosophers and veterans of the food industry. Compared to them, I feel as if I’m not yet fully formed.”

Namae will be presented with his award at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 ceremony in Singapore on March 28. Ahead of that, he does have one piece of advice.

“If you want to be a great chef, don’t go to university,” he says. “It’s a detour, a major waste of energy and time. However, in my case, it was an effective way to build up my character. I don’t regret it at all.”

Source: The Japan Times