Japan’s Sugiura, Hawaiian food master Lee collaborate on pop-ups
An introduction to Hawaiian food was long overdue for Hitoshi Sugiura, an award-winning Japanese chef who spent years in the U.S. working for the Patina Restaurant Group. At the suggestion of a friend who was a fan of the now-shuttered Ono Hawaiian Food, Sugiura visited the isles and got a cooking lesson in Hawaiian food from another kitchen master, Vivian Lee.
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An introduction to Hawaiian food was long overdue for Hitoshi Sugiura, an award-winning Japanese chef who spent years in the U.S. working for the Patina Restaurant Group, owned by legendary chef Joachim Splichal.
While cooking at Patina’s Patinastella restaurant in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, Sugiura tried to become familiar with classic regional cuisine in the U.S. but had never tried Hawaiian food. He now runs Patinastella in Tokyo.
At the suggestion of a friend who was a fan of the now-shuttered Ono Hawaiian Food, Sugiura visited the isles and got a cooking lesson in Hawaiian food from another kitchen master, Vivian Lee, who spent some 30 years cooking Ono’s dishes.
Sugiura’s verdict: “It’s amazing. I’ve been thinking of American food as oily and heavy, but I ate Vivian’s meal and it was so natural, so smooth and healthy. Hawaiian food is like Japanese food in that we don’t use much oil.”
Their meeting also resulted in collaborative pop-up dinners last week at Square Barrels in downtown Honolulu and Leahi Concept Kitchen in Waikiki. The menus featured classic Hawaiian dishes such as squid luau, pipikaula, lomi salmon and more, delivered by Lee. Sugiura prepared the laulau and kalua pig following her recipe and techniques, plus a couple of his own dishes.
At Square Barrels, the chef created his version of a poke bowl based on Japanese zuke don, a marinated raw tuna dish served over rice. The tuna was marinated in a soy-ginger sauce and served with tiny dices of cucumber, avocado and red onion over Nanatsuboshi rice from Japan, then topped with seaweed and tendrils of fried leeks. The dish was well balanced, with the avocado lending just the right touch of creaminess to the sweetness and strong shoyu flavor.
Sugiura said he began designing the dish by first becoming familiar with the local palate, then adjusted the salty, heavily shoyu-based flavor of classic zuke don to include some sweetness. Zuke don utilizes brewed Japanese shoyu that develops a deeper umami flavor than local shoyu, reflective of Japanese cuisine’s emphasis on saltiness.
He also prepared a sirloin dish that was seasoned with his signature soy-ginger sauce and topped with several types of mushrooms, for an American beef dish with Asian flair.
Sugiura describes Patinastella’s cuisine as modern American. Still, said the chef, “I’m curious: What is American cuisine? I respect all the chefs in America because in Japan our food culture is long. On the other hand, the American food culture (is influenced by) so many different countries. It’s the reason American chefs have to learn all kinds of cuisines, ingredients and cultures. They learn traditional cuisine elsewhere, then come back to America and create original cuisines. It’s always changing.”
But Sugiura isn’t all that different from his American counterparts. Though he has garnered awards in Japanese culinary competitions and has certifications as a sake master, cheese sommelier, sushi master and is licensed to process fugu (blowfish), he doesn’t tire of “discovering new techniques, cultures and products.”
“It’s good for me as a chef,” he said. “Now, in Japan I can describe Hawaiian cuisine.”
BOIL BEEF TWICE FOR STEW, ONO COOK RECOMMENDS
After working at Ono Hawaiian Food for 50 years — 30 of them cooking — Vivian Lee knows a thing or two about top-notch salt beef watercress and beef stew.
The key: “Boil the meat, throw away the water, wash the meat clean and boil it again.”
This is necessary, said Lee, “because the meat is dirty.” She’s referring to the scum that rises while boiling or simmering beef. “That doesn’t taste good.”
The end result is not just better flavor, but more pristine gravy and broth — “this helps with presentation, too.”
Other notes: For beef stew Ono used clod, a cut from the shoulder, a great choice because the meat stays firm after cooking. Chop the meat into 1-1/2-inch cubes. It’s the perfect bite size and the meat doesn’t fall apart. Even 2-inch pieces are too big, Lee said.