Takashi Miyazaki

17th January 2018

Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Dan Dennison

17th January 2018

Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Dan Dennison

Part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland

It’s a crisp September morning with the first whiff of autumn in the air when we set off to visit chef Takashi Miyazaki at his home in Cork city. Just beyond South Gate bridge, we pass his eponymous restaurant, Miyazaki. This small, unassuming spot was for many years a Chinese takeaway, the first in the city; now, with pleasing synchronicity, it’s Cork’s first Japanese takeaway – but the six counter stools for eating in are some of the hottest seats in town, and everyone we’ve met has raved about it.

When we arrive at Takashi’s home in the south of the city, the clouds have gathered and it is chucking it down. The perfect time to take refuge in the kitchen, where all is calm and cosy. We move the long family table parallel to the kitchen counter, creating an additional work space so that Takashi can chat while he expertly kneads, folds and slices udon dough (“This is like a cooking school,” he says cheerfully).

The kitchen windows start to steam up as the stove gets busy. Takashi’s wife Stephanie – a primary school teacher in Belgooly, Co. Cork, currently on maternity leave following the birth of the couple’s second son – makes reviving Japanese tea, which we sip from small glazed cups as we hear about the couple’s far-from-straightforward journey to this point – from Japan, where Takashi was cooking teppanyaki for the likes of Rod Stewart, to Ireland just before the economy collapsed.

 

On the counter is a sculpture that looks like a dusty-white hydrangea on a plinth – except it’s not a sculpture, but a huge maitake (hen-of-the-wood) mushroom still attached to its root, an extraordinary thing that is destined for our lunch. And what a lunch it is: we start with translucently thin slices of monkfish cured overnight in fresh West Cork seaweed, sticky and slightly saline when unwrapped, topped with crisp pieces of chorizo, wonton wrappers and aromatic shiso. Then a bowl of deeply savoury rice with that crazy mushroom, and finally the noodles, cold and wonderfully springy, served with dashi broth, delicate flakes of katsuobushi and a wibbly onsen egg.

“Simple, isn’t it,” Takashi says of his udon dish with endearing and what seems like characteristic modesty. “If there are too many elements, they kill each other; you have to keep the balance.” He definitely makes it look easy and it is simple, but it’s the kind of simplicity that requires confidence and incredible skill.

Continued below...

Do you often make noodles at home?

Takashi: [laughs] The story is –
Stephanie: He used to when we had time!
Takashi: When we moved to Cork, I couldn’t get a job for six months. I was really going mad. I wanted to cook. I didn’t make udon in Japan because I could buy good stuff but after coming to Ireland, I started making udon and sauces and then changing the recipes. In Japan, you don’t need to make these things but in Ireland if you want to eat them then you have to make them. Udon is really cheap: just salt, water, flour. That was a great experiment. I tried soba but to be honest, I couldn’t make soba.

What do you need for soba?

Takashi: Soba is a buckwheat noodle. Buckwheat breaks up so easily. If you try to make 100% buckwheat noodles it’s impossible. A few restaurants in Japan do it and it’s a really strong flavour; I like it but you need to have really good technique. Generally the soba noodles you eat are 20-30% buckwheat and the rest just plain wheat flour. They’re still tasty.

How did you meet?

Stephanie: I was living in Hiroshima, teaching English. I was actually in the countryside, but I was on the train linked to the city. I would go in for a bit of sanity; I couldn’t speak Japanese and no one else in the village could speak English. The kids cried when they saw me. I’d go to the shop and walk around and grannies would follow me and look at what I was putting into my trolley. So I’d go into the city just to chat in English. There was an Irish bar in Hiroshima, Molly Malone’s, and Takashi was head chef there.

I had no idea what Irish food was like. What are bangers? Bangers and mash, cottage pie, no idea

How did you come to be cooking Irish food?

Takashi: I had no idea what Irish food was like. What are bangers? Bangers and mash, cottage pie, no idea. As a chef, I wanted to learn and there are so many different regions in Japan with different ingredients, so I was travelling around. I was in Hiroshima and saw they were looking to hire a head chef and I thought, hmm. And I liked it, I didn’t know what an Irish pub was, but I liked Irish music and I loved U2 [laughs] – and then I met her.

And that was that! How long were you at Molly Malone’s?

Takashi: Five years. Stephanie stayed three years and we were apart for a year and a half. I was trying to get my Irish visa, and it was so hard to get it. When I finally did, my work permit meant I could only work in one restaurant. I was there for four weeks and then it was gone.
Stephanie: They went bust.
Takashi: Yeah – I went there one morning and it was locked. I rang them and no answer. That was a really bad start in Ireland, like. That was 2008. In Japan the economy had started to go down and the recession started – I left in August and was like, yes! I came here to get out.

I really wanted to make what Japanese people eat every day. In Europe it’s sushi, sushi, sushi. I always say that Japanese food is like a treasure box: open it and so many different things come out

And then it all exploded.

Takashi: I was stressed, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had wanted to open a restaurant but no way, I just had to try to get a job first. Then, one place said, yeah, yeah, no problem, I can get the visa for you, blah blah blah. That was a pretty dodgy restaurant. They needed me. I worked six days, 60 hours and they treated me really badly but you know, some people are like that. In 2010 we decided to get married. And I got a new visa, Stamp 4, as Stephanie’s Irish, and that’s how we could open the business.

What a rollercoaster.

Takashi: Isn’t it. I couldn’t tell my mum and dad. I didn’t want them to worry about me.

What made you decide to move to Cork?

Takashi: I’d been working in a hotel cheffing and then just travelling looking for a place for my restaurant. We went to Belfast, then County Clare and Galway. Cork was the last place. And then it was like, Oh! It has to be in Cork. I had the feeling, you know, having grown up near the ocean [in Fukuoka].
Stephanie: Within a few weeks we were down here. You know, people who grow up by the water always say, I have to get back to the water. I’m from Offaly, in the centre of Ireland. It’s a different type of landscape, vast and flat.

Jess Murphy has a great palate. For me, she’s the best. She’s from New Zealand, I’m from Japan. We are immigrants, but we are Irish chefs. We are making Irish food.
Takashi on his favourite chefs and restaurants

How long ago was that?

Takashi: We’ve been here for five years.
Stephanie: So everything happened here: the business, the kids [the couple have two young sons].

And when did you open Miyazaki?

Takashi: Two and a half years ago. 6 March 2015, was it?
Stephanie: Yes. It was the start of cherry blossom season, the first day I saw the blossoms open.

You knew that you wanted to open your own restaurant – but did you know what type of food you wanted to cook?

Takashi: I really wanted to make what Japanese people eat every day. Because there are sushi restaurants everywhere but we don’t eat much sushi in Japan, it’s something for special occasions like graduation. But in Ireland and in Europe it’s sushi, sushi, sushi – though it’s not proper sushi made by a trained sushi chef. I always say that Japanese food is like a treasure box: open it and so many different things come out – like dashi for example. That’s what I want to share.

How important is dashi in Japanese cooking?

Takashi: So important. If you order a €5 dish in Japan there will be so much dashi [a savoury umami-rich broth made from dried seaweed and bonito flakes] in it, but you can’t get it in Ireland because no one serves it, so I feel that’s my mission. Because what I’m doing is Japanese food but I try to use Irish ingredients, whether that’s meat, vegetables or seaweed – I use lots of seaweed.
Stephanie: It’s so good for you. We’ve got so many amazing things right here on our doorstep. The produce around Cork is just phenomenal.

On The Menu

Lunch with Takashi and Stephanie Miyazaki
Cork City, September 2017

To eat:

Kombu-cured monkfish, Gubbeen chorizo crisp and seaweed dressing »
Ballyhoura maitake takikomi gohan onigiri (Japanese mixed rice)
Teuchi hiyachi udon, onsen tamago (Japanese soft cooked egg), spring onion and katsuobushi in dashi

To drink:

Tea
White wine (Sancerre)

What’s a normal day like? Do you manage to eat together?

Stephanie: Days off are when we eat together really. Takashi might do something similar to this [the maitake rice] and we’ll sit down with a glass of wine when he comes home from work but it’s not a meal meal. When you’re off, that’s when you do the cooking.
Takashi: Yeah, it depends on the season. Sometimes when it’s nice we barbecue. My brother sent me a Japanese barbecue [shichirin, see Objects] for my birthday. I was saying that I missed Japanese stoves. We used to barbecue – my dad had a small one – and we’d just chuck so many things on it. We’d do the broad beans from my granny’s garden and aubergine, fresh whole fish and beef.

What else might you make at home?

Takashi: I use leftovers, stuff like that – I go to the English Market on my day off and just find stuff there. I make good spaghetti. I do one with squid ink pasta, fresh mussels, cooking chorizo, tarragon and chilli. I make a Japanese carbonara salad with onsen egg, nori seaweed, Japanese yuzu dressing – and loads of cheese.

Wow. That sounds amazing.

Takashi: It’s really nice. Next time. [laughs]

My brother sent me a Japanese barbecue for my birthday. We chuck so many things on it – broad beans from my granny’s garden and aubergine, fresh whole fish and beef

Did you cook with your family growing up?

Takashi: My mum wasn’t a good cook. It’s okay, I always say it! My granny’s a great cook. But now my mum is a really, really good cook. Before she was busy – she worked in the hospital as a nurse. But then she finished that and she started cooking more. And she goes to good restaurants.

So she’s more interested now.

Takashi: Yeah.

You mentioned your grandmother was an amazing cook – what would she make?

Takashi: She did lots of different but really traditional things: rice, and stewed fish and chicken.

Do you remember the first thing you ever cooked?

Takashi: I started cooking for my friends at university [in Fukuoka, Takashi’s hometown]. You know, people were drinking and I thought, okay I’ll cook. And then they asked me again, cook please. I’d make macaroni cheese with rice: macaroni and rice together with loads of cheese. I made what we liked at that age, not fancy but made from scratch. I’d started a part-time job in a cafe in the airport: everything there was so simple, service needed to be fast. I was like, oh, cooking’s fun. I used to play Kendo, the Japanese martial arts, and I got a scholarship but I cancelled that.

Where did you work after the cafe?

Takashi: I got a job in a five-star restaurant and I was shocked – I didn’t know anything. I was young. All the chefs were so strict at that time. I had to learn. So long hours, hard work, no time to sit down.

How long were you doing that for?

Takashi: Two and a half years. That kitchen was quite upmarket. It was teppanyaki [a type of Japanese cooking where ingredients, often meat or seafood, are cooked over a grill in front of you, to order], like a fusion of Japanese and French cuisine, so I was familiar with European dishes. I was put in charge of dealing with celebrities – Sting and Rod Stewart – so I was kind of doing well. Then I worked at an izakaya [a Japanese bar] and an okonomiyaki [Japanese pancake] restaurant in Hiroshima. There are so many different regions in Japan and as a chef, you know, I wanted to learn about the different cuisines. So I travelled around.

I love cooking, and I love to see people’s happy faces. Miyazaki is really tiny but I love that inside it’s real Japanese; when you open the door it’s a different world

What’s next? Are you planning another restaurant?

Takashi: Hopefully next April [2018]. In Cork City, close to Miyazaki.
Stephanie: We’ve all the ideas. It’s just finding the place that ticks all the boxes [they have since found a space on Sheares Street and the restaurant will be called ichigo ichie].

What would your ideal space be like?

Takashi: I want to keep it small. A traditional white wood counter for five people that I’ll cook behind, and tables for 20.
Stephanie: You love to be able to see people. It makes a big difference if you’re not just a head over a pan.
Takashi: I love cooking, and I love to see people’s happy faces. Miyazaki is really tiny but I love that inside it’s real Japanese; when you open the door it’s a different world.

This is part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland.

For more about Miyazaki restaurant, click here.

Follow Takashi: Instagram | Twitter

Posted 17th January 2018

In Interviews

 

Interview: Sophie Missing
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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