THOMAS HEATON CHARTS ONE CHEF’S JOURNEY FROM RESTAURANT. A JAPANESE TEMPLE TO A THREE-HATTED AUCKLAND
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