A strange or unfamiliar product or ingredient either scares cooks, both amateur or professional or is a challenge to their skills and imagination.A trip to the farmers markets with all the fresh fruits , vegetables, herbs and flowers this morning along with the visual of all the abundance was enough for me to start conjuring some fresh and interesting combinations in my imagination. While engrossed in this exercise I remembered a conversation with chef Toshiro Konishi of Mesa18, in Lima Peru about his novel approach to transforming produce for his menus. Unlike him, I have not yet started asking a tomato, an ear of corn or a rabbit carcass what it wants me to do with it but I want to share this interaction with one of the most interesting cooks I have met recently. This article was published a few months ago but it is essentially a timeless conversation that will leave you with smile and maybe initiating a conversation with a vegetable, fish or piece of fruit.
Chef Konishi passed away on 16th April, 2016 from cancer and on my recent visit to Lima I missed his jokes and that welcoming smile. My friends in Lima had decided to keep the news believing that another defeat to cancer would be difficult for me to deal with. I am honored to have known and interacted with him and to have had the privilege of sharing our conversations with readers around the world. He will be missed but also remembered for his delightful personality and his music.
Toshiro Konishi, The Guru of Peruvian-Japanese Cuisine
By Geeta Bansal, Clay Oven Irvine Executive Chef-Owner
I met Chef Toshiro at his newest venture Mesa 18 at the ritzy Miraflores Hotel by Orient Express in Lima, Peru. I had heard and read a lot about Toshiro-san for a long time and was looking forward to meeting this member of the culinary royalty of Peru. Toshiro Konishi first arrived in Peru from Japan for a three year stint almost 36 years ago and never went back. Peru has that kind of magic that captivates you and makes you want to stay forever. I met a lot of chefs in Peru but Toshiro-san’s personality and good humor put everyone in the shade. He has created a cuisine using Japanese techniques and Peruvian products in a country where food has influences from multiple cuisines like Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Creole, Italian, Spanish to name a few.
Toshiro’s life story is interesting, to say the least. He entered the family restaurant kitchen in his native Japan under the guidance of his grandfather and trained there alongside Nobu Matsuhisa, another-world renowned chef out of Japan. I felt like I was entering history when at a local event, I met the owner of Matsuei, Lima’s oldest Japanese sushi bar where Toshiro and Nobu first arrived from Japan to work in Peru.. There were a lot of interesting stories I heard that evening! Toshiro is a much loved and liked personality in Peru with numerous cookbooks and television appearances. I got a taste of his celebrity when I accompanied him to a late night Paella and Cava party at Rafael Pequeras’ restaurant Maras at the Westin and saw him mobbed by friends, admirers, and the press. Virgilio Martinez of Central, Lima teased me about how I love Toshiro-san at a press conference in Mexico City recently. You can’t help liking this man and even more so after tasting his delectable cuisine.
Toshiro’s ‘Tiradito’ a sashimi style fresh scallop ceviche marinated in lime and topped with maca root , avocado and flying fish roe is the dish that made him known around the world when he first served it at Madrid Fusion, Spain seven years ago . I tasted these scallops and they are sublime and incomparable. Tiradito brought his culinary expertise into the international arena and now this dish is an intrinsic part of menus in Peru. Other chefs including Nobu Matsuhisa have their versions of this dish of lime marinated seafood with the famous Peruvian aji chillies.
|Scallops at Mesa18|
Toshiro-san has travelled extensively in Peru to get an understanding of the produce and the people in his adopted country including spending time on the Pacific shores with the fishermen to get to know the variety of seafood intimately and uses seafood from Casma, Pisco, Tumbes and Paracas (even the names sound magical) and many others.
Toshiro-san has a few cookbooks in Spanish and also writes a weekly column in the newspaper. I had a very interesting conversation with Toshiro-san in the contemporary dining room of his restaurant Mesa 18 in Miraflores the swanky seaside neighborhood of Lima a few months ago.
|At the table with Chef Toshiro|
Right off the bat I asked:
Do you still want to be a musician because I heard a story about a music disc in your youth that didn’t meet with your mother’s approval?
(He laughed heartily) How did you hear about that? It happened so long ago that I had almost forgotten about it. I did make a disc but my mother was not impressed and said it was terrible and that was the end of my career in music.
So how did you become interested in cooking as a career?
Well I come from a family in this business and I am the fourth generation. My teacher in the kitchen was my grandfather and he was very famous in southern Japan. I learned while playing in the kitchen from when I was 6 to when I was twelve. He would say if you cut onions I will pay you. If you wash the pots and dishes and he said even if you are the son of the owner you must learn this, I will pay you.
So you learned while receiving bribes?
You are funny! Yes I did in a way.
What do you enjoy cooking the most?
I enjoy cooking fish and vegetables. Saturday night I cook a vegetable only menu for vegetarians. 100% vegetarian food.
|Eggplant in a sweet and tangy sauce|
What inspires you the most? Nature, seasons, places?
Since I was a child I have been in the food world. My focus has always been the sea and fish from the sea. For me it is important to use the product from the sea while maintaining its form and it’s integrity. I also believe different vegetables and fruit are best at certain times. I also believe that they need to be harvested early in the morning to be at their best. In fact different vegetables need to be picked at different times. I think there are nineteen seasons all over the world, 28 types in Japan and 21 are the growing seasons for vegetables.
So you are talking about seasonality of produce?
Yes and I also like to talk to the produce and interact with them.
So you let them lead you?
No I tell them what I am going to do with them for example I say I am going to make seafood with rice and tomatoes and I talk to them and tell them what’s going to happen to them (I am not sure if he was serious or joking about this!)
What do you think of all the different scientific techniques that chefs are using in the kitchens these days?
I believe we should investigate the product before deciding how to use it. For me no molecular or sous vide cooking, more important for me is history and carrying traditions forward.
So do you believe that we must look back before creating in the future?
Yes, absolutely, but at the same time I will not stop looking into the new culture and inventions. I like to know about the new stuff and try it out myself but no chemicals or changing the color and form of products for me.
How do you pick your products?
I use all my senses my eyes, the smell, the touch. I don’t rely on books but on my own judgment. My problem is that I want to know too much and have to really understand before making a selection. I believe simple is the best and my cooking is very straight forward.
What do you call your style of food?
Toshi style! (laughing again)
|Causa with Crab|
Are you a perfectionist by nature?
Yes in my food and in my kitchen I like organization and perfection. There has to be order in the kitchen and in the tasting.
So do you like to travel especially to food related events around the world?
I spend at least 600 hours every year on a plane. It is very important to experience different cultures and learn about them. I like to see and learn different methods of cutting and cooking in gastronomy. I just like to experience them and not necessarily use them.
So do you like doing demonstrations?
Yes, I enjoy that very much as I love to connect with people. When I travel I meet the same chefs at different events and we spend time with them. A lot of chefs visit here in Peru and I enjoy meeting them.
(Somehow our conversation broke into a hilarious discussion on Inca chewing gum, Inka cola, coca leaves and it amused Toshiro when I referred to it as an acquired taste. We eventually returned to the pertinent topic of Toshiro)
Do you like Inca Cola?
Here it is part of our culture and we all like it. This drink is popular in all of Peru and South America.
All the chefs I have met in Peru look up to you and revere you. What do you think about the young chefs in Peru and do you think they are changing the face of Peruvian cuisine?
They are all very good and this new generation of chefs is always asking me my opinion about what they are doing. I always advise them first, not to get excited, you need to respect the profession and once they have the know-how they can then be creative.
When they are flying too high and getting super creative and changing the product I advise them to slow down.
They must listen to you as they respect you. Who are the chefs to watch?
They do listen to me and take my recommendations. This generation is quick and I am older and have experience that I share with them. My opinion matters to them and they do come to me for advice and I mentor them. Diego Munoz (at Gaston Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston), Virgilio Martinez (Central) have changed the way Peruvian food is presented and people are looking at our food with interest. I cannot pick one as the best.
|In the Mesa18 Kitchen|
So what do you think of the changes they are making?
When the mixture is good it will be a good wedding. If it is not a perfect match then it will not last. They will divorce (laughing again).They are lucky to have you and the time you give them.
What is the most important advice you give them?
Most important is cleanliness, to look for the best product, and love food and enjoy eating it.
What do you think about the casual dining trend, small simple restaurants getting Michelin stars, no tablecloths?
If they have a valid reason for doing away with tablecloths etc I don’t have a problem with it. For example in Japanese cuisine we still have a traditional way of doing things. For example in Japanese restaurants wine list is not so important.
|Fish in a miso broth|
Not even at Jiro Sushi in Tokyo?
Jiro is my good friend for years. First Japanese with three Michelin stars. Jiro is a simple man and a symbol to all of us doing all this at the age of 84. He walks to the central market everyday to pick his produce.
What is your favorite meal?
Everything. All foods, like children I love them all.
What are your hobbies, I know you like singing?
Well it’s drinking for one (he is a joker), walking and golf. I like to walk in the park, not on the beach.
What kind of music do you like?
Rock music, X Japan is a Japanese band that I like, I also like Jimmy Page, and I like Santana.
So do I!
(We broke out singing Black Magic Woman and laughing again)
Where do you go on vacation?
No vacation, only to different cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Rome and Chile and enjoying with friends. My favorite place though is Sardinia. The seafood in the Mediterranean has no plankton so it’s fish eating small fish so no balance in the cycle. Plankton is very important to get good seafood. In Spain the seafood is great in San Sebastian and in Catalunya because five rivers enter the Mediterranean there so the seafood is good because of the nutrients they bring. In Sardinia I love the white wine and have many chef friends there. I have been to tastings of Chateau Lafite and Margot and Romni-Conti as I enjoy wine, but no tasting compares to Chateau Petrus.
Now I want to know if your friends invite you over for dinner or are they too intimidated to cook for you?
No my amigos know that I will eat and enjoy everything so they do have me over.
Then I mentioned that I needed to leave to attend another party to which he was also invited. He said let me change and I will drive you to the party myself. Few minutes later I was in the car with him having a conversation about his daughters attending school in the U.S, all the other chefs we knew in common and really getting to know him and of course laughing!
I am going to see his smiling face again at the Mistura, Latin America’s largest food event next week and I can’t wait to share some more laughs with him.