Creating Joy in Japan with Food Utilizing the senses to create an original cooking style and revive local culture
Born in Tsuruoka, Yamagata in 1969. Owner and chef of Italian restaurant Al-ché-cciano in Tsuruoka (a solo venture in 2000 at age 31) and other restaurants. As the chef and producer of local projects around Japan including in his role as “Goodwill Ambassador for the Food Capital of Shonai”, Okuda has launched several restaurants around the country. He acted as food supervisor for “Japan Night 2012” at the World Economic Forum at Davos, and has presented food demonstrations at international festivals around the globe. He is the winner of many awards including “The First Annual Shizuo Tsuji Gastronomy Award”, “Yamagata Prefecture Industry Award”, and “The Cooking Masters” by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. He lectures around the country and has written several books including his latest, Chihou Kaisei no Recipe.
Chef Masayuki Okuda is owner and chef of the Italian restaurant Al-ché-cciano in Tsuruoka, and continues to expand his work throughout Japan as well as overseas. We visited him at Yamagata San-Dan-Delo, a specialty shop and restaurant of Yamagata products, in Ginza, Tokyo.
Okuda’s inspiration comes from his attention to the five senses including sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. He has created a unique vision derived from finding authenticity in items and people that he applies not just to cooking, but to projects “designing time and space”.
In this two-part interview, we dive into Okuda’s remarkable world of cooking through two lenses – “Cooking and Time”, and “Cooking and Space”.
Masayuki Okuda on “Cooking and Time”
You’re a renowned chef, restaurant owner and local culture producer. Can you tell us what is most important to you?
Being a chef is at the core of who I am, and is the most important element.
I show my staff that I view human relationships as a circle, with cooking at the center. My family and staff come next. When my wife asks, “What’s more important, me or cooking?” I answer, “Cooking!” (laughs). My family and staff occupy the same position, and I’ve said to my son, “When you make it into the kitchen, I’ll accept you as a comrade.”
As long as I have my cooking, I can make it anywhere in the world. My reason for existing is to cook, and it’s through the preparation of food that I can support my family and bring people joy.
After the cooking, what is important to me is to make those around me happy. Without expecting anything in return, I find the greatest joy in making people happy and bringing a smile to their faces.
Relationships based on the concept of give-and-take, or about expecting something in return, ended for me in 2000. Plants, for example, are able to exist because of the birds and animals that rely on them for food. In our modern society, it is the people who can “provide” food for others that will come out on top. I hope my own existence falls into that spectrum, and I’m working hard to make sure I myself can grow as many “berries” as possible.
At KANSEI Project Committee, we believe comfort exists in the “space” between people, time and physical space.
The people you are comfortable spending time with have a great sense of timing.
In my work of introducing Japanese food and food culture abroad, I’ve had the opportunity to meet the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and many other prominent people all over world. I’ve learned that people who are classified as “world-class” are those who allow you to breathe easily. When in conversation, these people watch and understand the breath, and adjust their speaking speed and tone in a natural manner to put you at ease.
On the other hand, those people who don’t have share your timing, both in breath and conversation, create a sort of discomfort. The other day, I was on a radio show where the host asked questions non-stop without allowing me to pause, and I felt myself gasping for breath for the first time in my life. I didn’t have time to inhale or exhale…(laughs).
What are your thoughts on the concepts of cooking and time?
I make quick decisions about taste based on time. Five seconds, ten seconds after the attack. The “attack” is the moment you put the food into your mouth. Three bites later is the five-second mark, and the moment you swallow is the ten-second mark. I think about how the taste will transition in that short time span when thinking of my ingredients.
For example, ingredients that taste bitter in the first five seconds are combined with ingredients that stay pungent for six seconds. The tongue only grasps the strong pungency, and the bitterness becomes hidden. Time changes that “line” of tasting, and that’s how I determine which ingredients to use.
Cooking and time are closely related, as foods change in aromas depending on temperature. When you put something cold into your mouth, the rise in temperature changes its aroma, which I keep in mind as well.
In order to invite “time” into my own body, I hold my breath underwater for a minute every night in the bathtub. I used to be able to go for three minutes (laughs). A minute is sixty seconds, and by understanding how long that second is, I analyze various tastes and the movement of the staff around me, allowing me to move at three times their speed. Holding my breath underwater seems to be good for the immune system too.