You don’t have to go all the way to Japan to try quality sushi. Just in the last few years, Malaysia has attracted a number of renowned sushi chefs to open their own sushi restaurants in Malaysia. But how did things get so good?
At an event by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, I was given a peek inside the life of a Malaysian sushi chef, and what it takes to bring a taste of Japan to Malaysia.
Chef Cheong Chern Long is a chef at Sushi Oribe, one of the go-to destinations for quality sushi in Kuala Lumpur. Although he couldn’t be more Malaysian, 33-year-old Chef Cheong has won the gold medal at the 2016 Washoku World Challenge, a prestigious Japanese cooking contest– a very impressive feat!
Here’s what he had to say about his experience as a Japanese chef. Joining him was Chef Takuji Takahashi, owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant Kinobu in Kyoto and global ambassador for Japanese cuisine.
1. What is your favourite thing about Japanese cuisine?
Chern Leong: The challenge of Japanese ingredients and their seasonality really attracted me from the start. There are four seasons in a year, which means you only get to work with one seasonal ingredient for about three months before the season is over. The moment you think you understand an ingredient, you have to change to the next season’s ingredients! And then you have to wait a year to use those ingredients again.
Takuji Takahashi: I like that traditionally Japanese food has to be very healthy but also tasty at the same time without relying on things like a lot of sugar, salt or fat. In Japanese food, we keep things as minimal as possible and that’s what I love most about it.
2. What do you love about Japanese ingredients?
TT: Like what Chef Cheong said about the seasonality. It’s limited. Seasonal ingredients that you can eat once a year makes it feel so special. You’ll have to wait a whole year before you can enjoy it again!
3. What makes you happy about being a Japanese chef?
CL: I love being able to use expensive and in-season Japanese ingredients. Japanese fruit, fish, meat, vegetables– they’re all world-class. Being able to use them in my cooking makes me so happy. Beyond cooking skills, I also appreciate how working as a Japanese chef has taught me discipline and teamwork. The kind of teamwork required in a Japanese kitchen is totally different from any other kitchen. And the amount of practice– you have to keep practicing the same thing every day to hone your basic skills, because those are skills that you’ll end up using even for the most masterful dishes.
4. What message would you leave for young chefs who want to start a career in Japanese cuisine?
CL: Most importantly, be patient. Daily operations in a kitchen can be boring so you must stay patient and keep a strong heart. And keep practicing because the difference between an average dish and a good dish and then an excellent dish is really huge. So you have to keep practicing. And create your own concept to distinguish yourself from other chefs.
TT: Keep cooking all sorts of dishes, not just Japanese dishes. You’ll be able to see the commonalities and differences between the cuisines worldwide. Like in China, I saw the roots of Japanese cooking. And in Vietnam, I saw fishcakes like we use in Japan. It’s important to master the basics of your field, but don’t ignore other cuisines or culinary fields too. Enjoy learning new things every day!