Kenji Ito's eponymous Adelaide restaurant has consistently pleased the crowds for the past six years with its creativity, kitchen garden produce and elegant dishes.
Kenji Ito

1 Feb 2012 - 4:16 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

I had not long turned 30 when my wife, Noriko, and I moved to Australia 12 years ago. We’d been living in Tokyo and while working there as a chef I’d seen so much beautiful South Australian seafood, such as abalone and lobster, that I knew Adelaide was where I wanted to be.

The fact that it was a smallish city appealed to me, too. We’d decided to leave Japan because I wanted to find my own way as a chef in a place where I wouldn’t feel so bound by traditional ways of doing things. I felt that living in a smaller city where I’d have the opportunity to do everything myself, including sourcing and growing my own ingredients, would give me the best chance of realising that dream.

When we arrived in 1999, it wasn’t the first time I had lived in Australia. I’d spent a year here 10 years earlier as an exchange student studying business at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. There were only a couple of Japanese restaurants in the city at the time, and none in Bondi where I lived. I quickly got used to eating Australian food.

Japan was in a recession when I returned home, which made finding work difficult, so I enrolled at a cooking school instead. My mum had never been one to cook much at home when I was growing up, so I spent a lot of time eating in restaurants – first in Gifu near Nagoya, where I was born, and then in Tokyo’s Ginza.

I lived right next door to the Tokyo [Tsukiji] market and visited it daily, buying fresh fish and other food, and that’s how my love of cooking developed. From there I knew that, provided I worked hard, as a chef I could do anything I wanted to.

I met Noriko when she was working in a pickle shop that delivered to a restaurant I was cooking in, and it didn’t take long to realise she was my soul mate. After we’d married and moved to Adelaide, I began working in a very traditional Japanese restaurant, but what I really wanted to do was learn about Australian cuisine. I branched out and was fortunate to cook under some clever chefs, like David Swain, and at some inspirational restaurants, including d’Arry’s Verandah Restaurant at d’Arenberg Winery in the McLaren Vale. In the beginning, I’d even work for free just so I could gain experience. Finally, in 2006, I was ready to go out on my own and Noriko and I opened our restaurant.

I’d describe my food as a fusion of traditional Japanese and more contemporary cuisines. Sushi and sashimi, and even the Japanese dinner degustation, kaiseki, are always on the menu, but less-expected ingredients such as fennel, duck and artichoke, and herbs like rosemary and thyme also make regular appearances. And we change our menu quite often depending on the ingredients that are available.

I will always love the philosophy of Japanese cooking. The preparation and presentation methods are precise, almost mathematical, so that there’s a different style of knife to prepare each type of fish and there is a specific reason for every single cut that is made. Japanese cuisine is very deep and methodical in that way.

But I don’t want to do things the safe way. What’s most important to me at my restaurant is that we believe in what we’re doing, that we believe in our way, and that our customers want to keep coming back.