Food & Drink: THE PALATABLE FACE OF JAPANESE CUISINE

MASTERS OF MODERN COOKERY: 7; MARK EDWARDS
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A monthly series in which our most influential cooks share their expertise. This week, Michael Bateman meets the Barnsley-born head chef at one of London's smartest Japanese restaurants

Mark Edwards was born in Yorkshire in 1963, and later moved to Kent. At 13 he was already helping out in restaurants and by the time he enrolled at South Kent Catering College he was too advanced for his course. His first job was at the Cafe Royal in London from where he moved to Les Amis and then the Chesterfield Hotel. Eager to travel, he left London for Geneva, Bermuda, Singapore, Hong Kong and America. He returned to London when Vong, the restaurant he was working for in New York, launched in Knightsbridge. He joined Nobu in Park Lane as head chef when it opened in 1997

IN A FIRST encounter with Japanese cooking you might well recoil in culture shock - not so much because of the many unrecognisable ingredients on your plate, but because of the recognisable ones. The mounds of exceedingly raw fish, for example.

If only someone could take you by the hand and guide you through the Japanese menu. Well, that's the sustaining philosophy at Nobu in Park Lane which, within a year of its opening, has become London's most fashionable, chic and expensive Japanese restaurant. And its head chef is an Englishman.

The secret of its success has been its new, modified style of Japanese food. Co-owner, chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (otherwise known as Nobu) refined his style in California, adapting his cooking to suit American sensibilities. A Nobu in New York opened to much acclaim; last year he launched in London. And the chef he put in charge was Mark Edwards, who was born in Barnsley - the home of black pudding, tripe and onions, and cowheel pie, if it's culture shock you're after.

Standing in the kitchen of this modern, first-floor restaurant with views on to Hyde Park, Mark Edwards presents an unlikely approximation of a Japanese chef. A stocky figure, he more closely resembles a rugby forward - and he did play hooker - although his chef's trousers give him away (the kitchen staff wear a black silky number patterned with colourful images of exotic mushrooms). "I was walking down the street the other day when some Irish workmen on a scaffold shouted out, `I bet you don't drink Guinness!'"

In most respects this is an authentic Japanese kitchen, with all the tools of the trade: the wide, wooden tub like the bottom half of a barrel for making sushi rice; specialist knives for slicing raw fish; ingredients such as seaweeds and unusual mushrooms, exotic vegetables, unfamiliar herbs and leaves, seven-star spice mixture.

How on earth did a lad from Barnsley find himself in a job like this? East met west, and west met east in New York, he explains - Nobuyuki had arrived there from Tokyo. But Mark's own story started on the other side of the world. He was born in Lancashire, brought up by his mother, a teacher. School brought out the rebel in Mark. "I wasn't the best of kids," he admits. "I was a bit of a naughty boy. I was always in trouble."

They moved to Folkestone, where Mark found motivation (as well as a bit of pocket-money) in a restaurant kitchen; from the age of 13 he was preparing the vegetables and even cooking on the chef's day off. On enrolling later at South Kent Catering College, he found he was already too advanced for the course.

So Mark honed his skills in classic French cooking at the Cafe Royal and other London restaurants, before deciding to exploit his trade as a means of travelling. But his first stop, in Geneva, put him off French cooking for good. "I started to get bored with butter and cream. I was preparing the kind of food which takes a lot of man-hours to produce but doesn't really justify your labours."

He escaped to Bermuda. "Not exactly the culinary centre of the world," he grins, "but I got a taste for scuba-diving. We caught 300lb and 400lb gropers, huge marlins and swordfish. We'd cut them into steaks for dinner." But he had to get serious again and his next stop, New York, was a revelation. "When I arrived, I worked at the Rainbow Room on the top floor of the Rockerfeller Centre, which had just reopened. The chefs were cooking to European disciplines but using Asian ingredients extensively - lemongrass, ginger, soy sauces and so on, some I'd never seen. I started to learn all over again." Mark's wanderlust took him off to work in Hong Kong and Singapore (so many cuisines; Chinese, Malaysian, Nonya, Muslim) - exciting times for him.

Like Mark, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa also surprised expectations. He came from a middle-class Japanese family and was expected to take up a career in architecture, but instead headed for Lima in Peru, where some of his family had emigrated, and took his first steps as a cook there. Then, nursing an ambition to become a sushi cook, he moved to California and started working in Japanese-American restaurants. He quickly became a Hollywood favourite, and teamed up with Robert De Niro, a regular customer, to open his own restaurant, the Nobu, in New York.

"It was an immediate success," says Mark. "In New York there are very few stayers. A new restaurant opens every day, another closes every day. You've got to get it right first time."

By this time he was also back in New York, working at Vong, one of the Big Apple's most celebrated venues and another phenomenal success at fusing eastern and western cuisine (under an Alsatian chef who'd given classic French cooking a Thai twist).

Mark's rare trips to England made him despondent: London, he said, was 10 years behind New York. But when his mother suddenly became ill, he returned home. Happily, Vong welcomed him on board its new Knightsbridge incarnation. And, already comfortable in the French-Thai idiom, it was no great leap for Mark to move on to Nobu's Japanese-Peruvian-Californian- English formula when invited to.

Nobu's instant success has been astonishing, especially con-sidering the fact that Japanese food has been one of the last cuisines to find acceptance in the UK (in marked contrast to the positively promiscuous attention we pay the foods of India, China, Italy, Greece, Thailand, Malaysia).

When the first authentic Japanese restaurant opened in Mayfair some years ago, it was a less than immediate hit. I was among those invited to the opening, ushered into a room with minimalist decor, a single scroll painting, a lone stem in a vase. We were bidden to remove our shoes and sit at a low table; ladies in kimonos knelt at our sides dispensing sake into our thimble-sized ceramic cups (my bearded companion, more at home with jugs of real ale, struggled like Gulliver to moisten his tongue).

Minimal, too, were the thin slices cut with a surgeon's care from a whole pink fish, the table's centre-piece. These were passed to us with chopsticks to dip into a saucer of soy, peppered with wasabi (Japanese horseradish).

We recognised this as sashimi, one of Japan's unique contributions to gastronomy - slices of very fresh raw fish. We asked how fresh it was, and our host presented a drop of sake to the fish's mouth. Its lips trembled, and we saw it gulp: that's how fresh. Under the table, we grabbed our notebooks. Hold the front page!

Live fish is not cut up in front of you at your table in Nobu, although the kitchens are often filled with live, flapping specimens. "We have two deliveries a day," says Mark, "and quite a lot of it is alive when it arrives."

Mark's role is to translate the Nobu ethic for British customers. So while the restaurant incorporates an authentic Japanese sushi bar, manned by a team of trained Japanese chefs (which accommodates the most exacting demands of Japanese businessmen), the Nobu gourmet menu makes certain compromises.

The handling of raw fish is one such. Their most popular dish by far, says Mark, is the one they term Salmon Sashimi Nobu Style. He demonstrates it. He assembles nine or so fine slices of raw salmon, fans them out, and rubs them with garlic paste. He decorates them with chives and matchsticks of ginger, dribbling on soy sauce and the juice of yuzu, the Japanese citrus fruit. A final sprinkling of sesame seeds goes on and then he sparingly ladles over a mixture of boiling olive oil and sesame oil onto the fish slices to sear and seal the surface.

It's served immediately, warm on top, but cold underneath, in other words, raw fish. But your eyes don't let you know you're eating raw fish. Cunning, eh?

Mark's career as a Japanese chef will reach a dizzy climax in only six weeks' time, for he flies to Tokyo to open their first Nobu. After that, the world is his (sashimi-style) oyster.

Paris is also on the agenda. "They need a Nobu there, they're lacking in diversity," he observes. Then the other capitals, for sure. And if they can open in Tokyo, it will only be a matter of time before they launch a Nobu in Barnsley.

! Nobu, Metropolitan Hotel, 19 Old Park Lane, W1 (tel 0171 447 4747)

THE RECIPES

Like Mark Edwards, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, founder of Nobu, honed his skills all over the world: in Japan, Peru, Alaska, LA. These typical Nobu dishes demonstrate the Japanese idiom translated through other traditions.

SALMON TARTARE WITH CAVIARE

Serves 4

70ml/212fl oz wasabi paste (or to taste)

300ml/10fl oz water

140ml/5fl oz Kikkoman soy sauce

230g/8oz fresh raw sashimi salmon, finely chopped

12 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon finely chopped red onion

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot

2 teaspoons Beluga caviare

To serve:

shaved ice

In a bowl, combine the wasabi paste, water and soy sauce and set aside until required. Mix together with chopped salmon, garlic and onion.

Divide into four portions and mould each one into a cylindrical shape. Place the portions into four small glass bowls.

When ready to serve, pour the wasabi mixture around the tartare cylinders, and top each with shallots and Beluga caviare. Place these into a larger glass bowl filled with shaved ice, and serve immediately.

SALMON SASHIMI NOBU STYLE

Serves 4

350g/12oz fresh, cleaned salmon fillet

1 clove garlic, pureed

30g/1oz fresh ginger juliennes (fine strips)

1 bunch chives cut into 2cm/1in lengths

30ml/1fl oz yuzu juice (use lemon or lime if not available)

90ml/3fl oz Kikkoman soy sauce

1 part sesame oil, 1 part olive oil, mixed together

toasted sesame seeds

Slice salmon thinly and arrange on a large plate. Rub lightly with garlic, add ginger, chives, sesame seeds, yuzu and soy sauce. Heat a saucepan with the sesame and olive oil mix until it just begins to smoke. Quickly sear the salmon by pouring over the hot oil mixture. Serve immediately.

SCALLOPS WITH SPICY GARLIC SAUCE

Serves 2

4 large live scallops in their shells

25g/1oz fresh shitake mushrooms

4 spears fresh asparagus

12 teaspoon chilli garlic paste or sauce (or fresh red chillies and sliced garlic clove)

100ml/312fl oz sake (Japanese rice wine)

30ml/1fl oz soy sauce

25ml/1oz butter or olive oil

To serve:

coriander leaves to garnish

Clean scallops and keep roe separate. Slice mushrooms, peel and blanch asparagus. Flame 90ml (3fl oz) of sake and add soy sauce.

Heat heavy frying pan, add butter and place scallops in pan. Cook for one minute, then turn over. Add mushrooms and asparagus, and cook for a further two minutes. Add chilli garlic sauce and mix well. Flame frying pan with remaining sake, add soy sauce and remove from heat immediately. Garnish with the coriander and serve hot.

SKEWERED PERUVIAN CHICKEN

Serves 4

1 bunch of chives

1lb/450g diced chicken breast

8 bamboo skewers

wedges of lime to serve

For the yellow marinade:

30g/1oz Aji Panka Yellow (Peruvian chilli paste, or use red and yellow chilli pepper as an alternative)

40ml/112fl oz rice vinegar

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon fresh garlic puree

12 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon toasted ground cumin seeds

1 teaspoon fresh oregano

20ml/23fl oz olive oil

For the red marinade:

30g/1oz Aji Panka Red

40ml/112fl oz rice vinegar

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon fresh garlic puree

12 teaspoon of sea salt

1 teaspoon toasted ground cumin seeds

1 teaspoon fresh oregano

20ml/23fl oz olive oil

Prepare each of the Aji Panka marinades by mixing together all of the ingredients.

Divide the diced chicken evenly between the skewers and marinate half of them in each of the Aji Panka marinades for one to two hours.

Grill the chicken skewers over a charcoal grill until cooked, and rub any remaining yellow marinate onto the skewers.

Arrange on a dish, sprinkle with chopped chives and serve with lime.

ROASTED PINEAPPLE SOUP

Serves ???

2 medium sweet pineapples, skin on

200g/7oz caster sugar

100ml/312fl oz water, plus 750ml/24fl oz water

2 vanilla pods

2 sticks lemongrass

zest of one lime (the peel shaved without pith)

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Put the pineapples on an oven tray and roast for an hour. Remove from oven and leave to cool.

In a saucepan, dissolve the sugar in 100ml (312fl oz) of your water. Stirring constantly to prevent burning, cook until the mixture caramelises to a sticky brown substance.

Split the vanilla pods lengthwise, and remove all the seeds. Chop up the lemongrass finely. Shred the lime peel.

Peel the pineapples and then chop them roughly. Liquidise the chopped pineapple with 750ml water. When smooth, add the caramelised sugar and bring to the boil.

Reduce the heat, add the vanilla pods, chopped lemongrass and lime peel, and simmer for 20 minutes. Pass mixture through a fine sieve, discarding the pulp. When cool, chill in the fridge. Serve ice cold.

At Nobu this is served with a sorbet made from vanilla-flavoured sugar syrup, and cookies flavoured with a Japanese herb called matsuba.

TEN NOBU FAVOURITES WHICH YOU DON'T FIND IN BARNSLEY

1 The eyes of cooked fish. "When I'm eating with Nobu the eyeballs of a cooked snapper are the first thing he goes for. `I'm having those,' he says." Then the cheeks of the fish: "But we share those."

2 Fish air-freighted from the other side of the world. Belly of tuna at pounds 27 a kilogram, eaten raw as sashimi, or in sushi. White meat from Alaskan snow crab legs, 18cm long, at pounds 28 a kilogram. Soft-shelled crab (rolled in potato flour and deep-fried). Raw abalone, sliced razor-thin and stir-fried. Sea urchin, its tiny orange roe used as an intense seasoning.

3 Black cod from the cold, deep waters of Alaska (only the skin is black).

4 Wasabi. A flavouring to bring tears to your eyes, usually sold as a green powder. But Mark has the green roots flown in from Japan so that he can grate them freshly.

5 Seven-spice powder, otherwise known as "shichimi-togarash". A fiery, pungent mixture of ground spices, usually dried chillies, mustard seeds, rape seeds, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, dried tangerine peel and sanshu (a Japanese pepper, similar to Chinese Szechuan pepper).

6 Kinome. A very small leaf, with a fern-like pattern and a numbing effect on the mouth. "It tastes a bit like putting your tongue on a battery," says Mark.

7 Hijiki. A type of dried seaweed which, when reconstituted in water, resembles wet All-Bran.

8 Yuzu. Japanese citrus, with a clean, sharp taste which is neither lime nor lemon.

9 Sesame seeds and sesame oil. The key flavourings in Nobu's signature dish, New-style Salmon Sashimi.

10 Sake and mirin - rice wine and sweet rice wine vinegar. Together with soy sauce, they provide the essential seasoning to many of Nobu's dishes. And you may well need a shot of sake to help down a mouthful of raw squid livers, a favourite of both Nobu and Mark. Easy to come by, secreted between the tentacles and white flesh, though usually discarded by most cooks during preparation.

Comments