Cuisine - - CON­TENTS - Recipe & food styling Makoto Tokuyama / Pho­tog­ra­phy Aaron McLean

Makoto Tokuyama of Ja­panese restau­rant Co­coro shares his jour­ney with Thomas Heaton

MAKOTO TOKUYAMA is well known for his food, and his seem­ingly fas­tid­i­ous na­ture hon­ours tra­di­tional Ja­panese cui­sine. Un­like some of the Ja­panese chefs you might have seen on TV or film, Tokuyama is not ex­clu­sive in terms of his style. He doesn’t fix­ate on a spe­cific tech­nique, one type of food – his menu is not solely sushi nor ramen. Rather, he’s in­clu­sive: he looks at his past for in­spi­ra­tion then in­te­grates lo­cal in­gre­di­ents into his cui­sine.

It all stems from his his­tory, his child­hood. Now 39, Tokuyama was brought up in a Bud­dhist tem­ple in Ja­panese ru­ral­ity on the is­land of Kyushu. Sur­rounded by farms, 30 years ago, the tem­ple was the cen­tre of the com­mu­nity of Saga. The mem­o­ries of his up­bring­ing are vivid, and food plays a lead­ing role. The large fam­ily ate sea­son­ally and the cooks were Tokuyama’s grand­mother and aunt. He chuck­les as he re­calls how they ate to­gether: “It was al­ways a big party.”

“My grandma was al­ways cook­ing bam­boo shoots. Se­ri­ously, she al­most cooked [them] ev­ery day.”

That was es­pe­cially so in the spring, as lo­cal farm­ers brought their ex­cess in as of­fer­ings to the tem­ple. He says it was the same with au­tumn, which meant plenty of eg­g­plant. “It [was] re­ally sea­sonal cook­ing. Sum­mer sea­son, ev­ery day cu­cum­ber.”

Al­though he says he tired of the in­gre­di­ents at that young age, it’s what he looks back on fondly. “Al­most ev­ery day, I ate fresh seafood and veg­eta­bles. Now I love it.”

His food is now a re­fined ver­sion of the tra­di­tional plates that may have lined his fam­ily’s ta­ble.

“My place was re­ally in the coun­try­side, 30 years ago. The fish­mon­ger bought [seafood] at the mar­ket and took it into his car – whole, fresh fish – and brought it straight away from the mar­ket [to our home] in the morn­ing.”

The fam­ily could select what they wanted, then the fish­mon­ger would take their choice away to clean and fil­let, bring­ing it back in time for din­ner that night. They ate cut­tle­fish, squid, man­tis prawns too, as well as laver; it’s a species of sea­weed Saga is well known for.

At univer­sity, Tokuyama worked three jobs along­side study­ing busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion. One of those jobs was at an Ital­ian restau­rant, cook­ing pizza. He didn’t leave the is­land un­til he was 22.

The jour­ney af­ter that, on what Ki­wis might call an OE, was what ce­mented his love for Ja­panese cui­sine. Try­ing new things and ex­plor­ing the world, as well as work­ing at world-renowned Nobu in Lon­don, was the cat­a­lyst for his new­found ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his na­tive cui­sine and cul­ture.

Now, years later, at his kitchen in Co­coro, the Auckland restau­rant he co-owns with Ricky Lee, Tokuyama can tell you the clas­sic ori­gins of each plate. He is bring­ing more than a coun­try’s cui­sine to the ta­ble, he’s bring­ing re­gional Kyushu to New Zealand. “In my heart, it’s still fol­low­ing my fam­ily’s recipe. But prob­a­bly if I go home and cook for my fam­ily, they might not think so.”

“It’s a lit­tle bit of the sci­ence side, mixed with my grandma’s method. Most of the things I’m do­ing this kind of way, brush­ing up on my fam­ily’s method.”

The chef started do­ing that at the now closed Soto, his first restau­rant with Lee, with his grand­mother’s omelette (now a firm favourite of Tokuyama’s young son).

When Tokuyama was grow­ing up, in their home each night the fam­ily would place of­fer­ings of hot sake on the shrine

to their an­ces­tors. Each morn­ing, it would then be re­placed with green tea. Nat­u­rally, his grand­mother would not let the sake go to waste, adding it to the tra­di­tional, sweet Kyushu-style omelette.

Tokuyama also adds sake to the house­made soy sauce at Co­coro. It’s a thicker, sweeter soy sauce that many peo­ple may not recog­nise. “One Ja­panese cus­tomer, she was from Kyushu, she no­ticed. Once again, the Kyushu roots of the sauce makes it darker, sweeter and thicker.

“We blend our own soy sauce. I think more than 95 per cent of Ja­panese res­tau­rants are serv­ing reg­u­lar soy sauce for sashimi. We blend our own: the kombu, bonito, the mirin, sake, and I blend two types of the soy sauce. Our sashimi soy sauce is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from other res­tau­rants.”

His restau­rant is well-known for those sashimi plat­ters – grandiose and kalei­do­scopic plat­ters dec­o­rated with dif­fer­ent cuts of fish, bi­valves and crus­taceans. Some are aged, some are served as fresh as pos­si­ble, some are cured. “It’s not just slices of fish – it needs more de­tail.”

Tokuyama says he tries not to over­com­pli­cate things, rather fo­cus­ing on the in­gre­di­ents. He loves gas­tron­omy but he re­coils at the sug­ges­tion of theatre tak­ing prece­dence over flavour.

“Some of the res­tau­rants are try­ing to be in­ter­est­ing. In­ter­est­ing is im­por­tant – wow fac­tor – but I be­lieve it must be de­li­cious.

“To be hon­est, I’ve never been to El Bulli in Spain, but my cus­tomers and friends have tried that restau­rant. They say it’s 50 per cent de­li­cious and 50 per cent in­ter­est­ing.

“They are pi­o­neers, so that’s OK, but that’s not my vi­sion. That’s not my di­rec­tion.”

That’s why, he says, he was es­pe­cially proud that Co­coro was named Mon­teith’s Best Spe­cial­ist Restau­rant at the 2016 Cui­sine Good Food Awards, along with be­ing awarded three hats.

Tokuyama uses in­gre­di­ents from around New Zealand, with just a few ex­cep­tions. That is what he be­lieves Ja­panese cui­sine is all about: us­ing sea­sonal pro­duce from your sur­round­ings.

“If the [Ja­panese] chefs came to New Zealand, I think that they would use lo­cal in­gre­di­ents. That’s what I think is real Ja­panese cui­sine.”

Tokuyama has set about do­ing real Ja­panese cui­sine for the last six years in his sub­ur­ban Pon­sonby restau­rant. His wasabi is fresh – from Can­ter­bury. His eel is sourced lo­cally, his wa­ter­cress too. Get­ting fresh wasabi was a trial. “I think I ne­go­ti­ated three years.”

He de­mands the root; a paste isn’t good enough. The longer it takes be­tween grat­ing and plating, the less colour and vi­brancy it has – he wants his pa­trons to grate it them­selves.

He strives to give New Zealan­ders a taste of what real Ja­panese cui­sine is – not sushi from a chain store or noo­dles from a cup.

Those two things are what alarmed Tokuyama when he first came to New Zealand in 2000 (he stayed for a year, then re­turned per­ma­nently in 2004). Ja­panese chefs had be­come seem­ingly com­pla­cent and had lost their drive, he says.

“I was re­ally disappointed by the qual­ity of raw fish… they all had the same species of fish: salmon and snap­per.”

Not only was the se­lec­tion lim­ited, what was avail­able wasn’t great. “Fif­teen years ago, when I went to the fish mar­ket… the qual­ity wasn’t good enough.”

All the good stuff was be­ing ex­ported, he says.

Fol­low­ing plenty of re­search, things are im­prov­ing. He’s more sat­is­fied with the qual­ity – much of his fish is now supplied by Leigh Fish­eries, who use long-line meth­ods and dis­patch fish us­ing the ike­jime tech­nique (in­sert­ing a im­ple­ment, like a sharp­ened pi­ano wire, into the spinal cav­ity to kill the fish while main­tain­ing the meat’s qual­ity).

There’s no doubt that this man’s quest for per­fec­tion, his hon­our­ing of tra­di­tion and the sheer work that goes into run­ning a three-hat restau­rant, is time con­sum­ing. But he al­ways finds time for his wife and two chil­dren, he says, as well as some­how fit­ting in study to­wards be­com­ing a fully fledged Bud­dhist monk, like his fa­ther, brother and grand­fa­ther. While he says he’ll prob­a­bly never be a prac­tis­ing monk, he’s do­ing it to hon­our his fa­ther’s mem­ory and, of course, tra­di­tion.

It’s only apt that Co­coro means “heart and soul” in Ja­panese. Tokuyama strives for both those things in his cook­ing – putting his story and val­ues on a plate.

“Peo­ple need to make a bal­ance be­tween phys­i­cal things and men­tal things,” he says. “Busi­ness is busi­ness, but I can’t cook with­out heart.”

Makoto Tokuyama of Co­coro in Auckland

OP­PO­SITE PAGE Auckland’s Avon­dale Mar­ket is a reg­u­lar haunt for Makoto Tokuyama

ABOVE Tokuyama with a haul of bur­dock root

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