Shanghai surprise

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Photos by Matt Wilce

Matt Wilce lunches with charismatic Chinese chef Sohzoh Miyamoto

Sohzoh Miyamoto may have started out washing ramen bowls, but he' risen to become one of Japan's most successful and well loved Chinese chefs. Currently the resident chef at the Tokyo Bay Hilton's Dynasty restaurant, Miyamoto is a regular face on TV shows, has won the popular "TV Champion" show three times and has come up against the "Iron Chefs" on several occasions. The native of Furubira, in rural Hokkaido, found time between live broadcasts from his kitchen to share his food philosophy and serve up some chit-chat along with the charshu.

How did you become a chef?
I'm from Hokkaido, and I wanted to come to Tokyo, but also my mother had been sick and I'd been doing a lot of cooking at home. When I got to Tokyo, on a group employment project, I started working in a ramen shop. I wasn't even cooking at that time, just washing dishes and delivering. One of my co-workers happened to be from Shanghai, and he decided to start his own restaurant - when he left, I went with him.

Why did you choose to specialize in Chinese cooking, and why Shanghai cuisine?
If I'd been working at a Japanese restaurant, I would probably have ended up being a Japanese chef. It was just by chance I ended up specializing in Chinese food because of my first boss. At that time [30 years ago] restaurants were mostly Shanghai- or Peking-style so that's why we concentrated on Shanghai specialties, but now Cantonese is more popular, especially in hotels. I was mostly friendly with chefs who'd come from Shanghai, and I realized that their style suits me better - I particularly like nikomi (a hodgepodge stew) and shark fin.

A selection of delicious appetizers start Miyamoto's summer Power Up China Lunch
Matt Wilce

Could you explain the difference between the southern and northern Chinese cooking styles?
The main difference is in the ingredients. In the north they use a lot of preserved foods, such as dried mushrooms and shark fin, and mountain produce. The south has a lot more choice when it comes to fresh vegetables and more seafood.

What's your favorite ingredient?
I really like preserved ingredients such as shark fin and namako (sea cucumber). The procedures for reconstituting them are really fascinating to me - it takes two weeks to prepare dried sea cucumber and shark fin properly.

What's your signature dish?
Probably nikomi. It's a little heavy for lunch but in my dinner menus I always have two kinds - usually fish or shark fin, which are my favorites.

What inspires you?
Going to other people's restaurants and eating different foods. I went to Nobu the other week while he was visiting - we have a mutual friend who introduced us. I really like the freshness of his menu. The dish I liked best was warm avocado with eel and foie gras with a black pepper sauce. The thing that impressed me most was that although we ordered the course menu, we both got different desserts. That kind of thought for customers is really important. Probably Nobu is like me and tries to imagine the meal from the customers' point of view and imagines what will please them - it's only by doing that that you can improve your cooking.

Miyamoto plays with fire in Dynasty's kitchen
Matt Wilce

You've won many cooking awards - which is the most memorable?
Even though I only came second, I'd have to say the International Chinese Cuisine Contest held in Shanghai in 1992, which was the first time I competed overseas. My friend Wakiya-san and Kenichi Chin [two of Japan's top Chinese chefs] were also there, and it was a really enjoyable experience.

Recently new style Chinese and fusion have become popular. What do you think of them?
I like it. Today the dish I cooked for you was French influenced [asparagus wrapped in beef with a handmade XO sauce], and I think as long as the final dish tastes good, mixing styles is fine. Of course it's important to preserve traditional cooking styles, but fusion appeals to young people and is a good way to introduce them to traditional elements and new foods.

The Shanghai prix fixe lunch allows diners to select their own menu of tasty treats
Courtesy of the Tokyo Bay Hilton

What other style of cooking most interests you at the moment?
I'm interested in moving away from cooking everything in a wok, and I'd like to use the oven better and more often. I'd like to find a way of serving properly so that hot dishes arrive hot and chilled dishes arrive cold, especially when cooking for a large number. At the moment, I'm especially influenced by Italian cooking, especially the idea of starting a Chinese menu with a salad. Italian cooking is so popular because it provides volume and good value - especially with large fresh salads. Lunch is a time for relaxing and having fun, so I wanted to start the menu for my current prix fixe lunch with a dish that surprises people with a large quantity of Chinese dishes influenced by Italian-style salads. Buffet-style meals are very popular because they offer diners volume at a reasonable price, but producing a good Chinese buffet is difficult. My idea was to give customers a menu that offered quantity as well as the freedom to choose each course at a competitive price.

How do you like to eat your gyoza?
I guess because I used to work in a ramen shop I like them fried so that they have a crispy base. They put starch in the water so that the bottom goes like senbei (rice crackers).

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