Gastronomic nomad

Matt Wilce

Takayoshi Kawai, executive chef at the Pan Pacific Yokohama, dishes up some hot opinions over lunch with Matt Wilce.

Dubbed "hot pan" by the San Francisco Examiner - which devoted more columns to him than Wolfgang Puck - Takayoshi Kawai has the resume of a culinary king. After emigrating to Canada at the age of 22, Kawai has globe-trotted across North America and Europe, perfecting his skills in Michelin-starred restaurants under the gaze of master chefs such as Paul Bocuse. Traversing back across the Atlantic, Kawai was made sous-chef at internationally renowned Masa' in 1986 where he pushed the restaurant to even greater success for eight years. On a trajectory to become a celebrity chef, Kawai returned to Japan five years ago to take up residence as executive chef at the Pan Pacific Yokohama.

Why did you become a chef?
I like eating, and my mother was a very good cook. My parents had a vegetable shop, and my mom cooked all of the new foods that became available, like asparagus and mushrooms. Thirty years ago foods like that were very new here, but she would try to cook them at home. I was the guinea pig for her cooking - luckily most of it was pretty tasty. I made the final decision to become a chef when I saw Murakami, who was the executive chef at the Imperial Hotel, on TV. He was kind of chubby with a moustache - not really handsome - but he looked very sharp and cool. I thought I wanted to be like that.

Where did you train?
Three years in Japan, at the Tsuji cooking school, but it was very much top down. I didn't really like being at the bottom, because things weren't based on ability, just age. I didn't mind cleaning up but I didn't want to do it all the time, and I realized that I'd have to do it until the guy above me quit. But in the States if you are good enough you can be somebody. I thought about the future, and I wondered how long it would take for me to become a chef in Japan - maybe never if I'd stayed working in a small restaurant. At that time restaurants weren't very powerful, but now they are more influential than the hotels. That's why I left Japan to work at the Westin hotel in Edmonton Canada.

Was working as a chef tournot good preparation for taking over larger restaurants?
Hotels are open 365, so if a chef takes the day off, the chef tournot, goes in and does his job. It's really difficult because sometimes you are the saucier, sometimes you are in the vegetable section or you're the butcher. I really learned a lot moving from section to section.

How did you end up working at Masa's?
Actually I wrote a letter to JFK's chef in the States and sent my resume. He was just about to retire, so he couldn't take me, but he recommended me to Masa's. They were looking for a sous chef and made me an offer so I decided to go and work there. After that, I was headhunted by the Pan Pacific in San Francisco.

How do you describe your cooking style?
I cook healthy French and Mediterranean. A lot of people think that French cooking is oily, creamy and heavy, but it's not anymore. Most famous restaurants have French chefs because they know the basics really well, and they can take those basic skills and arrange the food in their own way. I don't use so much cream and butter - usually I just use them to flavor dishes - and I tend to use much more olive oil. To me Italian cooking is too simple. They haven't really developed their sauces. I like it, but I do something Italian, I tend to take the basic idea and then complicate it by introducing my own elements.

Do you cook Japanese food?
I love Japanese food. Many people in the States, like Nobu, cook fusion Japanese, and that's OK outside of Japan, but I don't want to cook that way here because I think it's insulting to traditional Japanese cuisine.

So you don't like fusion cooking?
It doesn't have the basics. Fusion cooks just mix everything up, and you end up not knowing what the dish is. It's just confusion. Maybe at the next level, going beyond simple fusion, it would work, but they aren't at that stage yet.

What inspires you?
Japanese and Chinese food, artwork and housewives' cooking. They have some really good ideas that I steal and develop a bit further.

You were a challenger on the popular TV show "Iron Chefs." How was that?
I'd seen tapes of the show and it looked like it would be fun. They told me I'd only have one hour to cook, but I thought it was just bullshit and that we could relax and take our time. But they really only give you an hour. I thought I'd won. But the Iron Chefs had lost three times in a row, and I guess they couldn't lose for a fourth time. At that time, they didn't reveal the judges' scores so I don't know what the difference in points between us was. I thought my final dish was much better than Sakai's [the French Iron Chef], and he made three mistakes that they didn't count - but I didn't realize until I saw the video in the States. Then I got really pissed.

What was the ingredient?
Dover Sole. I hadn't touched sole for over 12 years, and I never thought it would be chosen because it was June, and sole's not in season because it's a cold-water fish. They gave us three hints as to what the ingredient might be - sole, duck and fava beans. I thought because it was June it would be the fava beans, but I was wrong. So I had to make up one dish right there on the spot. It was fun, though.

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