Is this your first trip to Hong Kong? “This is my second time here – the first time was 20 years ago so I don’t remember much. This time I have been eating a lot of local food, like congee and wonton noodles. I’m interested in what locals eat every day.”
What are your childhood memories of food? “My mother is good at cooking and I remember her miso soups and stews. When I was young I would invite my friends to come to my house to eat dinner after school, but after we finished eating I wanted them to leave right away. I never told my mother they were coming, and they came often.”
Did you always want to be a chef? “I never really thought about it. When I was young I liked drawing pictures and playing music, so I thought I would go into art or music. But it turns out I wasn’t very good at either. I became more interested in cooking than music.”
How did that happen? “When I was 25 years old, I worked at a venue for live bands as a part-time waiter. I didn’t earn much money but in return I got free meals and drinks. The owner of the venue cooked the food and it was delicious. He started teaching me the basics. He cooked all kinds of cuisines like Chinese, Japanese, French and Italian. I became so interested in cooking that I quit my job and focused on working in restaurants.”
Why did you choose French cuisine? “I got interested in French cuisine after reading a cookbook by Michel Bras [Bras: Laguiole, Aubrac, France]; he made the food look like art on a plate. The vegetables were displayed so colourfully that I was overwhelmed by the images. After I read the book, I wanted to make my dishes on plain white plates, like art pieces.”
What did you learn from chef Masahito Ueki? “After working in several French restaurants in Tokyo I went to work for chef Masa Ueki at Restaurant J, in Omotesando, and then [at Masaa’s] in Karuizawa, in 2003. At the time, French cuisine was a copy and paste of what they were cooking in France. But chef Masa was innovative – he used Japanese ingredients and cooked them using French techniques.
“I worked for him for four years and it was hard work. He was very serious about what he was doing and brought a lot of inspiration. There was a lot of pressure because he would spontaneously change the menu; he said cuisine should be spontaneous. He was tough on me because I was his sous chef so he expected me to do better.”
When did you decide to open your own restaurant? “When I was working at one-Michelin-starred Chic peut-être, in Hatchobori, I started thinking about opening my own place. Chic peut-être was like a bistro but the dishes were gourmet. I liked the style, but for my restaurant I wanted the interior design and food to be of a higher standard.”
The dishes at your restaurant, Ode, are monochromatic. Why? “So you can focus on the food. In the restaurants where I worked, everything was colourful, and as time went by I began to find beauty in things with less colour. With less colour you have to guess what is in the dish so it keeps guests interested in the food.
“The food may not look delicious but it will draw people’s attention. I explain to the guests that the grey colour is from the food, like sardines, so the customers will understand more about the food and become more curious about the taste.”
Do you still play the guitar? “When I was young I didn’t have much money so I only had a cheap guitar. Now I have three guitars, one of which is good to play with. I play the guitar two to three times a week at home. I get home from the restaurant after midnight, have a drink and then play rock, blues or jazz. When I get excited I forget to be quiet and my wife knocks on the door and says, ‘Be quiet!’”
What do you do in your downtime? “I play with my two daughters, who are six and eight years old. We cook together, make udon. Udon is easy – you just need flour and water, mix them together to make dough. Then we put it in a plastic bag and the kids stomp on the dough to knead it. After the dough is rested, we roll it out and cut it, cook it and the whole family enjoys it. It’s not so yummy, but chewy. But it’s really fun. If my daughters want to be chefs, they can, but I don’t recommend it!”
Yusuke Namai was recently a guest chef at Belon, in Central.