Q&A: KEIJI FUKU
The co-owner and head chef of Dinings on surfing, sushi and why the idea of a ‘pure’ cuisine is a fallacy
Interview: Viel Richardson
Images: Christopher L Proctor
How would you describe Dinings?
In Japan it would be called an ‘izakaya’, which is a relaxed, informal dining place. We serve our own unique style of sushi and sashimi as well as Japanese tapas.
Where did your love of food come from?
When I was a child, my father would always make a bento box for my lunch and I remember watching him cooking and making up the boxes. I always wanted to help but was restricted to cleaning the boxes. Also, our neighbour ran a ‘taishu shokudo’—in English it would be a cafe—and when I was 13, I started working there doing the washing up and some front of house work. There were lot of regulars coming and going and I found the food interesting. I also liked the smiling faces. Seeing the joy this simple place brought to so many people made a big impression on me.
When did you start working in kitchens?
My real love growing up was surfing. At 21 I moved to a place called Mie, north of Osaka, to pursue my dream of being a surfer. The brother of one of the other surfers ran a ‘sushi kaiseki’ place. I needed a job and had some kitchen experience, so started working there. That was the first time I was in a kitchen cooking for the public—all I did was eat, sleep, surf and cook. I worked there for three years before moving to France, because the surfing scene in Europe was more advanced.
When did your focus change from the surf to the kitchen?
I was travelling around Europe in a tiny car with two surfboards when I met chef Nobu Matsuhisa. I had gone for an interview at his Nobu restaurant in Paris and was stunned when I saw this huge restaurant serving Japanese fusion food and sushi, because I didn’t know of his reputation. That was when I really focused in on the cooking. I only trained in that kitchen for nine months because of visa restrictions, but moved to the Nobu kitchen in Park Lane and finished my training there.
How was the training?
It was very demanding, but very inspiring as well. Mr Nobu was always pushing the boundaries and creating something new, while at the same time serving amazing food. You had to master the technical skills but there was always space for creativity in the Nobu way of cooking. One dish I remember clearly was the sushi-sashmi ‘omakasei’, which is when the customer asks the chef to choose from the best selection of that day’s produce and create a dish for them. To do this well takes skill, a deep knowledge of the ingredients and a connection with your customers. It is a dish I love to do because it pushes your creativity.
How does your time at Nobu influence how you cook today?
I think that the biggest influence is in my creativity. Mr Nobu was always thinking of the customer. In those days not many people outside Japan ate raw fish. Mr Nobu changed this through innovation. In Japan, sashimi is normally fish with wasabi and soy sauce. But with Mr Nobu sashimi could have garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, carefully prepared vegetables, he used a wide choice of European or South American ingredients. That for me was very inspiring, it was true fusion cooking. That is still a key part of my approach.
You opened Dinings with chef Tomonari Chiba. Where did you meet him?
I met chef Chiba in 2001 in the Nobu at Mayfair. He was also head chef at Ubon [another Nobu restaurant] at Canary Wharf when I worked there. He is a brilliant chef and was the youngest Nobu head chef at the time.
Did he influence your cooking?
When creating dishes he was always talking about the customer’s experience. He said we are in Europe and the menu must reflect that. So around 70 per cent of his ingredients are European and 30 per cent would be Japanese. What he was always trying to avoid was producing some kind of pastiche Japanese food, like in some kind of Japanese show.
What is your process for thinking about a dish?
It always starts with the customers and the staff. Of course I will have ideas, but I always listen to see what the customers are saying and what ideas the staff are coming up with. I will also see what the market is saying. In the days of El Bulli, it was all foams and spheres, but now that has passed and there is a move toward simple, ingredient-led cooking as opposed to dishes designed to show off high technique.
Give us an example of a dish you have recently created.
‘Maguro’—tuna—is very important in Japan. They say that if you don’t serve maguro, you are not a sushi restaurant. I created very simple maguro sashimi with truffle and foie gras. That is one of our signature combinations and it is very popular. We are also making a sizzling plate called Japanese toban-yaki. The plate is the toba, on top of which you can serve beef, lamb, duck or fish with mushrooms, enoki, seasonal vegetables. This was actually an idea that Mr Nobu created, but we do it in our own way here.
It all seems very eclectic.
That is how all cooking is. Every cuisine borrows ideas from others as cooks travel around the world. There is no such thing as a ‘pure cuisine’. Whether it is ingredients, cooking methods or techniques, we are all learning from each other. This is why the staff and customers are so important to the direction the restaurant has taken. Yes, I am the head chef, but I could not do this on my own.
So, what is the core principle you are looking for in your food?
I am looking for simple clean dishes with a real clarity of purpose and defined flavours. You need to know what the dish is about. It is easy to pile layer after layer onto a dish, but then you can lose sight of the original idea—what is the main ingredient, and which are the supporting cast? Suddenly the dish has lost focus and the customer is not getting the best experience.
You have mentioned the importance of the customer relationship several times.
Everything comes back to this; it is why the front of house staff are so important. In fact, in Japan when you start in a restaurant you have to work front of house before you can work in the kitchen. In some places this can be for up to a year. The idea is that you understand this relationship when in the kitchen. Often it is the accompaniments and presentation that make the dish Japanese, and the front of house staff explain the history and context of the dishes so the diner understands and is excited about the dish by the time it arrives, and then gets more out of the whole experience.
In about 2003 I was working with chef Chiba at Nobu, but was thinking that it was time for me to do something on my own. Chef Chiba was also looking to branch out, so we started making and selling cakes in our spare time. People liked our creations, which gave us the confidence that there could be a long-term future for any venture. We looked at a lot of premises before being told about this place, which had been a restaurant but was closed. It was in very poor shape but had the facilities we needed and there was something about it that appealed. I liked the fact that it was opposite a wonderful church, which has a beautiful energy.
How was the reaction when you opened?
It was very good but low key, which was deliberate. There were only four of us at the start, chef Chiba, his wife on pastry, myself and one staff member. If the place had been busy from the beginning people would have gone away disappointed. We could not have done all that we needed to establish the concept and still produce our best food for the diners. It is why we let our reputation develop by word of mouth. That way, the staffing and the concept grew organically with the guests, which was what we wanted.
Do you still surf?
Yes I do. I go down to Cornwall when I can, which is a bit difficult with a business and young family. But I love it down there. It has great seafood and good surfing—what more could I ask for?