Who or what inspired you to become a chef?
I think the first time I cooked was when I was three. I have always cooked with my mother since I was young, so being in the kitchen has been a very natural and familiar activity to me. Cooking is a sort of a meditation for me: I find that no matter where I cook, whether in a professional kitchen or at home, it feels very meditative. Looking at the fire and the sharp knife in the kitchen made me feel something different as a kid, and later I never exactly tried to cook, it was just something I started doing without reason.
Is there a ‘wow’ moment(s) in your career that stands out for you? Tell us more…
During my first world tour in 2018, I was able to see a lot of people from around the world experience real Wagyu for the first time in their life. This opportunity made me feel very special and every time it happens, it always delights me.
Tell us about some of your main food principles and cooking philosophies and where they stem from? How are they realized in your dishes?
While some people want to cook, I try not to cook “too much”. I don’t want to make my food difficult to understand or require some type of background to understand. I feel my food must be very very simple and vivid. Of course, we cook, but we don’t want to take our ingredients, which are our subject, out of focus. So a lot of my food can be understood by a five- or six-year-old, or an eighty-year-old.
It’s like music, in some ways: some music requires you to really listen to it to understand it, but maybe others, like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Michael Jackson, are instantly enjoyable and you don’t need to make yourself sophisticated to understand it. It may not be the most perfect example, but I do want my cooking to be like that. I think we are not the director of the food, we are the conductor and the editor of it, we’re just connecting the dots, and the connecting part is the cooking. The most important part of cooking are the elements themselves.
What inspires you most when cooking and thinking of dishes, and how do you remain continually creative?
For me, this may be like writing a book or drawing or something similar, it just comes to you. I don’t create my menu in the kitchen. If I’m watching a movie or out in nature, I will get inspiration. Climbing mountains, seeing a beautiful sky with clouds – are all sources of inspiration for me. Then when you return to the food, you create something new and different. So things like movies, music, arts, street food and nature are all great sources of inspiration for me.
Tell us more about where your passion for using Wagyu comes from…
Wagyu symbolises Japan itself. For 1500 years, we have dealt with this animal that has been part of our history and culture from the beginning. The Wagyu cattle have been there to help the farmers to cultivate rice paddies, to deliver heavy products from one place to another, and later when we decided to eat them, that was less than 200 years ago. So when I look back at how Japan has evolved, from old Japan to mid-century Japan to modern-day Japan, Wagyu was always there.
In the beginning, the cattle was like a very special car or truck, you couldn’t cultivate your rice paddy without it. And it’s not like you can just get this beef from the US and start farming it – it comes specifically from Japan and has been here for a long time. So it’s ultimately a very unique animal, and I truly believe Wagyu is the number one beef in the world. It’s like the next Sony or Honda for us to represent ourselves or Japan to the world.
You try to showcase the dedicated work of the farmers through your cuisine – how do you achieve this and why is this so important to you?
All the ingredients I use are carefully selected by myself. I’ll go to a place to see the farmers or producers, and if I’m able to be 100% sure of the product, then I will use it. Most of the time the product is represented by the producer him or herself. Like Ozaki beef “tastes” like Mr. Ozaki in some ways, as though his character is carried out in his beef. So while I don’t want to make my food very difficult, when some people have questions about the food, I will have all the answers. My cooking is very transparent, like an open window: you can see everything, and the farmers’ faces are behind the food. I can tell you who is making this soy sauce, this sake, this rice; I can tell you everyone.
These days, it’s so easy to just eat the food, and you can’t always tell who is making this beef or lettuce. But more and more, people are looking for the real connection – why are you eating this particular product – and I think it’s very important to know who is making it and hopefully, the person eating could travel to see the farmers in the future. But by being able to showcase the farmer’s work we can help them represent themselves outside of Japan, which is something that they are not always able to do on their own. I strive to be that bridge between the international guest and the farmer.
What do you think are the key elements that have led to the success of the Wagyumafia brand?
I feel the experience we have created has changed the standard and sense of Japanese dining. A lot of people come to restaurants not only because the beef is good but because they come for an element of joy and the integrity of entertainment and experience. We see this at Wagyumafia Hong Kong and WM by Wagyumafia in particular, when we have had the farmers and producers come to join us. There’s a unifying experience, where we are all one team or family at the end of the night, and that’s what we are all about.
Wagyumafia represents the farmers and we want to showcase their products to our amazing guests, and the guests show respect to the farmers and they become friends. It’s a very strong community and a very different experience. Before Wagyumafia, if you wanted to have Kobe beef, you’d have to sit down for two hours and then you would get a tiny piece at the very end, which is okay but a little boring. So now if you want to go with your friends, you have live music, you’re standing up, it’s like a house party, which is just the way we started. And you’re cooking for your friends. When you think of the restaurants who can do this, we are the only ones, unless you want to throw a party by yourself.
Read more about Wagyumafia District in Tokyo, the latest Wagyumafia opening in celebration of the brand’s fifth anniversary, here.
Images courtesy Wagyumafia.