Hideki Matsuhisa: «The knife and the cut are key in japanese cooking»
Hideki Matsuhisa (1972, Yamaha. Japan) is considered one of the best Japanese chefs in Europe. He owns four restaurants where he trains and prepares new teams of chefs how to promote their people and give them an opportunity. He has opened the first Japanese restaurant in Formentera together with Juanma Costa: «a relatively unexplored place gastronomically» Like any good Japanese person, he has a captivating smile and a contagious laugh.
Did you come to Formentera by chance, or was it a planned project?
It was a combination of things that came to fruition through friends, trust and people that have advised other restaurateurs in the island. I didn’t know Ibiza but I had been to Formentera on holiday, and have been visiting friends here for ten years. I never thought I would end up running a business here.
How did the idea come about to launch Kokoy in the new Five Flower Hotel & Spa Formentera?
I first got to know Juanma Costa through telephone conversations, I liked his tone of voice and he inspired trust, and later when we met this was confirmed. When he suggested the idea of a business venture to me, I went with my intuition. I have been offered many collaborations in the past, but with Juanma I had a good feeling. I came to visit the project in Formentera in the winter and it impressed me: sun, blue sky and something new. This helped me make my decision.
What type of cuisine are you bringing?
My gastronomy is based on Japanese techniques and Mediterranean products, and in the case of Formentera, with rock and sea fish such as red scorpion fish, weever fish, rotja, squid, and other island ingredients. We offer two type of cuisine at Kokoy: fish sashimi and chargrilled food, done simply, and maintaining all the flavour of the product. I also use products from the local countryside and eastern Spain.
Have you thought about creating a specific dish using the island’s famous prawns and lobsters?
We are going to make something with the prawns, enhancing the flavour and texture of the head, and also the squid, which is very fresh and extremely tasty.
Is the Japanese food in Europe being adapted to European flavours and tastes?
Making Japanese food the way I learned in Japan is complicated to do here; in Europe there is more fusion. We have to bear in mind that with globalisation we can use the same products and ingredients anywhere in the world, which permits us to draw closer to traditional flavours. What changes are the quality, freshness and flavour of the products.
Isn’t the fish from the Mediterranean the same as the fish you eat in Germany, for example?
You can’t find fresh seafood in central Europe like you can get on the Spanish coast, and in the Mediterranean where there are fish very similar to the ones in Japan. Mediterranean tuna, fish and shellfish have a very similar flavour. In the same way, it is different and important if you are cooking with olive oil, salt, garlic, parsley or soybean oil because the texture of the product changes. The ingredients are similar.
How important is rice in Japanese cuisine?
There are many types of rice and this also conditions the end flavour. The Japanese use white rice in the most well known dishes such as sushi and sashimi, but they don’t eat these dishes every day. In the same way we have meats and very special ways of cooking things on the chargrill. In Spain you don’t eat paella, tortilla or cod every day.
Why is Japanese cuisine so popular the world over?
Because it is healthy and natural and respects the original flavour of the product, adding an ingredient that enhances the flavour, but not changing or destroying it. It’s a matter of marketing – exporting gastronomic culture and selling products – but curiously in Japan they talk a lot about the Mediterranean diet, which is as healthy as Japanese cuisine.
Olive oil or soybean oil?
Olive oil is a great natural product and in Spain they also eat game meat and wild products from the sea and land, natural products and lots of ingredients. Eating raw food is more logical and natural because all animals eat sashimi (raw meat and fish). We humans are the only ones that cook our food. If a fish eats another fish, it is eating a good sashimi. (laughs)
What has winning a Michelin star in 2013 for your restaurant Koy Shunka in Barcelona meant to you?
Being awarded a star is amazing, but keeping it entails a lot more work. Everyone wants a star because it elevates your restaurant up to a superior category, it brings you prestige and customers, but later it becomes more complicated. My Michelin star has helped me to attract customers from all over the world, but it has its drawbacks. I’ve lost diners in Barcelona that don’t like going to a restaurant frequented by tourists.
Does the same thing happen in Japan?
There are restaurants that have the same problem. The advertising that the Michelin star brings you means an increase in customers that smaller restaurants can’t cope with. It’s a world trend with different viewpoints. For example, in Barcelona, tourism has become a problem because of noise and overcrowding.
Would you consider trying to achieve a Michelin star in Formentera?
It’s not a priority or a target. I am more interested in bringing people to Kokoy to eat well. Having a Michelin star is great but my desire is to make the guests happy and for my team to be content so they can convey this happiness to the customers. It is a chain of satisfaction, which adds value.
Is this current trend of having famous chefs in hotels a good and profitable idea?
There are many restaurants in hotels and outside of them where you can eat extremely well and they don’t have any stars. The Michelin Guide assessment is one thing and mine as a chef is another. I have my way of offering quality and satisfying my customers, if this brings me something else then it’s very welcome. When you take part in the Olympic Games and go for a gold, if you get a silver instead, that’s not failing, is it? It would depend on your expectations.
Is there any difference between having a restaurant in a hotel and having one in a city?
I’ve got four restaurants in Barcelona, and I have them under control because they are small. In a hotel there are a lot more people and you need a bigger team and level of confidence. The hotel guests are already staying in the hotel and are relaxed. If there is an interesting offer of gastronomy they will try it.
How many restaurants would you like to have?
I am more interested in promoting the cooks that I have and giving them an opportunity to be directly responsibility for a team and a restaurant, rather than opening more. People want to progress professionally and you have to give them an opportunity to do so, if they are interested. This is my business philosophy. The most important thing is your team. I have refused business offers because I didn’t have the right teams to maintain the quality of the brand. I have been working for 32 years and I know you have to improve a little bit each day, whether this is washing the knives and cutting boards well, or achieving a good cutting technique.
How many years does it take to dominate Japanese knife and cutting skills?
When I marked 25 years working as a chef I thought I had reached a good level until I met another maestro and I realised he was at another level entirely. I have seen others that cut to impress, and this image has remained in my mind. The cutting improves the flavour, for this it is important to have a good quality, well-sharpened, clean knife.
Why is it so difficult?
You need a very special technique for cutting and preparing fish, vegetables or meat without applying any pressure. If the knife doesn’t cut well it spoils the product, it tears it. If you cut a tomato or lettuce with a badly sharpened knife you will break its fibres and texture and spoil the flavour. That’s why we have knife-sharpening specialists in Japan. I try to transmit this knowledge and philosophy to my teams because it is fundamental in Japanese cooking.