Chef Koji Koizumi, from three-Michelin starred Kohaku, enjoys chilli crab and kaya toast

Sesame tofu with shio konbu and caviar. PHOTO: BUSINESS TIMES
Sesame tofu with shio konbu and caviar. PHOTO: BUSINESS TIMES

(BUSINESS TIMES) - Hideki Ishikawa is a Tokyo-based chef with three Michelin stars but none of the stern, inscrutable demeanour you would expect from someone of his stature. 

He hams it up for the camera, teases his young apprentices and chats easily with his guests whether in Japanese or halting English. Add this to his uncompromising approach to Japanese cuisine and you have someone who owns not just one three-Michelin-starred restaurant, but two others with three and two stars respectively - thanks to his ability to spot talent and nurture young chefs to greater heights.

One of them is Koji Koizumi, who first came to Chef Ishikawa's attention when the former was just 21 years old. He had graduated from a cooking college a year before and was working in the industry before being hired by Chef Ishikawa.

"I did not think about being a chef when I was in high school," says Chef Koizumi, now 37. "But a friend of mine was interested in cooking and asked me to go and visit a technical cooking college with him. It looked interesting, so I thought I would give it a try."

The rest is, of course, history. 

Under Chef Ishikawa's mentorship, he worked his way up to become his boss' right hand man, following his focus on purity of flavour and ingredients; and a spare, clean aesthetic that belies the painstaking attention to detail. When Chef Ishikawa decided to move his flagship restaurant in Kagurazaka to a new location just around the corner, he felt the time was right to give his protege his own platform. And thus, the original restaurant was converted to Kohaku in 2008, with Chef Koizumi proudly at the helm.

"My philosophy about opening new restaurants is that it has to start with people," says Chef Ishikawa, 52. "After more than 10 years of working together, I was confident that Koizumi-san was ready to become head chef - not just because of his cooking skills, but also his personality. I opened Kohaku to challenge him to take the next step." 

Chef Ishikawa has another restaurant, the two-starred Ren, also within walking distance.

Step up to the challenge Chef Koizumi did, and more, in a career that saw him steadily climbing up the Michelin ladder till he became level with his mentor, earning his third star in the 2016 guide.

Like Chef Ishikawa's namesake restaurant, a reservation at Kohaku is tough to get. But a group of special guests will get a taste of Chef Koizumi's cuisine in Singapore at the restaurant Les Amis, where he is helming the kitchen for a week of private dinners.

While it is his first time cooking in Singapore, he has visited the Republic several times, professing a fondness for chicken rice, pepper crab, kaya toast and dried Chinese sausages (lap cheong). He enjoys Singapore food for its "balance of sweetness, spiciness and sourness", he says, as well as the texture of the ingredients.

He has always been fascinated with non-Japanese flavours, which is what distinguishes Kohaku from Ishikawa. "It is a 'fun' challenge to use foreign ingredients to create brand new combinations and 'umami' which nobody has experienced before, while Ishikawa restaurant uses only Japanese ingredients."
 Wherever he travels to eat, he is always inspired by local restaurants to create new recipes back home. "But all dishes are, of course, based on traditional Japanese recipes and cooking techniques."

For him, it is all about balance and "not to be too fusion - it's important to "always remain Japanese cuisine".

While he went through experimental phases that saw his cooking take on rather funky twists, recent meals at his restaurant have become more streamlined and elegant. His twists are more nuanced, for example, in a plump shirako which is usually served grilled with salt or maybe ponzu sauce, but is served in Kohaku in a delicious hot gravy thickened with finely grated daikon. 
He also rethinks the deep-fried component of a kaiseki meal by using a goreng pisang-like batter that gives tender duck and bamboo shoots a crackling crisp crunch that has a satisfying bite. Powdered salt scented with star anise is a clever use of the spice.

And then there is the way he plays with texture and temperature, like a seemingly simple yet exquisite open-face sushi of hot mochi (sticky) rice topped with cold yellowtail sashimi and sprinkled with dried shrimp powder. He also pays tribute to stripped down cooking techniques such as grilling a naked crab leg over a tabletop charcoal grill so all you taste is the au naturel goodness of the crustacean. Even his giant crab dumpling, served in a clear dashi broth, is an example of elegant, refined technique.

And, yes, it does describe his personal evolution as a chef. "I'm getting old," he jokes. "You can say that my cuisine is becoming more mature, natural and simple."

Asked to identify the dishes that best exemplify his style and he picks his seafood dumplings, sashimi which he serves with his special sauce instead of shoyu, and traditional Japanese dishes that he amps up with his signature truffle sauce. An example would be his grilled mackerel fillet with burdock and onion, served with truffle sauce and showered with black truffle shavings.

His dining guests in Singapore will be getting a taste of his signature dishes with little alteration, "because I can get everything delivered from Tsukiji".

For someone with three Michelin stars, Chef Koizumi remains humble and down-to-earth, and was simply "happy and grateful" for his third star. He was even more touched that "so many people, including my family, friends, my mentor Ishikawa-san, staff, guests and suppliers were all happy for us".

He adds: "What I have to do now is to keep learning and give the very best performance every single day that is beyond the customer's expectation".

And finally, just so you do not think Michelin-starred chefs only eat haute cuisine every day, we ask Chef Koizumi what his favourite meal is when he is not working.

"Yakitori!" he says without hesitation.

So yes, Michelin-starred chefs are regular people, too.