Forgetting those years when he studied IT, Chase Kojima was always meant to be a chef. Born into a food-loving family – his parents ran a Japanese restaurant with his dad at the culinary helm – the San Franciscan spent much of his childhood helping out in the kitchen and falling asleep under tables. After his mum passed away, it was through his father that Chase learned the fundamentals of Japanese cooking and restaurant life.
“My dad is one crazy-perfectionist chef,” Chase states. “He’s really good and I know that personally because of feedback from guests and friends, and having worked next to him.”
“He’s old-school, definitely. I learnt from him the importance of working for a living.”
Unlike other kids who may have wanted to weasel out of duties, Chase took to cooking like a green tea-smoked duck.
“I’ve been in the kitchen from a very young age,” he recalls. “So it was basically like, destiny. Saying that, I did go to school for IT and found out I hated it. But cooking was definitely my thing – I knew I was good.”
Good is perhaps an understatement, but then again, Chase is a rather self-deprecating guy. As Executive Chef of Sokyo, he spearheaded the restaurant’s one-hat win in 2014 – a title retained since then – and received the Australian Hotel Association’s Chef of the Year award in 2015. While Chase mightn’t talk himself up, he isn’t afraid to tell it as he sees it… And when it comes to cooking, that means the Japanese do it best.
“I’m sure everybody respects produce, but the Japanese respect it more,” he declares. “We really think about how we can execute good flavour without hiding anything. For example, think of a simple piece of sushi. We would keep the fish really fresh and age it in a fridge where it’s at a really low temperature till we think it’s going to have maximum flavour.”
According to Chase, in Japanese cooking, a subtle touch can be transformational.
“You can see a big difference in texture, flavour and complexity of that fish just by aging it,” Chase explains. “And there’s no better complementing sauce than soy sauce. Yes you can use salt, but soy mellows that sea flavour.”
As fine dining restaurants begin to peel back the bells and dry ice, we’re discovering more and more that simplicity sits at the heart of so many great cuisines. This is perhaps most evident when it comes to Japanese cooking where as a pairing of two or three ingredients is often all it takes to create a dish.
For Chase, one of the first dishes to teach him that simplicity requires skill was tamagoyaki – a surprisingly tricky omelette used in sushi rolls.
“It’s like an omelette,” he explains. “But it’s square and has fish flavours and is really hard to make. You pour a little bit of your egg base and it’ll make a sheet. You have to use your hands and chopsticks to keep turning it, then add a little bit [of batter], so it’s layers and layers. At the end it’s this heavy square omelette you have to flip perfectly onto the other side of the pan.
“You go through so many attempts till you can get to the point when you do it without thinking. I remember the point; my dad said, “You can do it now”. It was a pretty cool feeling.”
It seems a paired back approach has also filtered into Chase’s fridge at home. Asked about which ingredients he most enjoys cooking with, the award-winning chef was stumped.
“This is a stupid answer but salt?” he attempts. “But I don’t need that much salt...”
Upon reflection – and a look-in at his near-empty fridge – Chase settled on something.
“It’s funny,” he gushes. “I eat so plain. [sic] I really like fermented soy beans called natto. You see all these super chefs all over the world, they’re doing so much fermentation and aging and natto’s been around forever, but they don’t use cause it’s such an acquired taste and texture. It’s definitely my favourite. I could live off of that and rice forever.”
Thankfully for diners at Sokyo, Chase channels his energy, inspiration and cooking smarts into creating truly special dishes. Amid the nigiri and sashimi, robata (Japanese barbecue) and ponzu-glazed duck; ‘rice and natto’ hasn’t made it on the menu. But like a doctor who ignores his own medicine, that doesn’t bother Chase one bit.
“When you make delicious food for somebody and you see them smiling and having a good time, it’s like, I’ve got the best job,” he smiles.
Tonkatsu is a well-known and popular dish amongst Japanese and Western people. However, it is quite rich and at its heart is just deep-fried crumbed pork. As much as I love tonkatsu, I hesitate… So I have created this chicken and vegetable katsu, a much lighter and less calorific version of its original.
There was probably a time when a sashimi salad would have thrown Japanese food purists into a conniption. Some are probably shaking their heads about it right now. But that doesn’t change the fact that these salads are some of the most popular items at casual and modern izakayas around the country and all over the world. The tender fish and fresh vegetables are perfectly offset by crispy shreds of wonton.