Tadashi Michino immerses himself fully in his ideas while creating each dish and has earned the trust of his fellow chefs.
However, Michino, 64, chef of Michino Le Tourbillon, a French restaurant in Osaka, lost his way and went through tough times in his 50s.
Michino struck out on his own in 1990 when he was 36. Back then, chefs who had trained overseas were opening restaurants in cities.
Michino, who had worked at upscale restaurants in France and Osaka, was touted as a "maverick" and being "individualistic."
He would cook fish in the method usually reserved for meat and serve cold dishes warm.
"I simply wanted to be different. I thought that I would not age if I continued to change," he said.
Even though things went well for five years and another five from momentum, the pressure of having to come up with something new reached a limit.
Using fruits in dishes, not in desserts, and offering pork, an inexpensive ingredient, as a main dish were regarded as challenging at first, but they eventually became mundane. Michino began to lose business.
Then the new century arrived, and overseas chefs who were on the cutting edge began adopting cooking methods with scientific elements. The boom reached Japan as well.
"I woke up to the fact that all the younger generation were ahead of me, and I was done for," he said.
Michino went out and bought himself trendy utensils and studied ways to turn the sauces into a light foam.
But one day, a regular customer told him, "I didn’t come here to have you make something like this."
So there he was, out of the tunnel standing back to where he started from. It was not about appearing new but about evolving the taste.
He began to incorporate ingredients and cooking procedures that he had previously avoided, thinking that French dishes featuring them did not match Japanese cuisine.
Such ingredients included bamboo shoots and blowfish, which highlight the four seasons of the Kansai region
A symbolic dish is kelp-cured venison. Venison is dusted with a coarse powder of dried "kombu," left overnight and roasted slowly.
Michino got the hint from the process of "aging meat" that desiccates meat and enhances its flavor. He chose the "kobu-jime," the Japanese method of curing fish by sandwiching it between two layers of kelp, to get the same effect.
Although the rich taste is new, it suits the palate smoothly. The dish is born by the youthful heart of a seasoned chef.
150 grams deer thigh
20 grams kombu kelp (turned into coarse powder)
20 grams unsalted butter
2 Tbsp fish sauce (such as "ishiru")
Bit of cornstarch
350 cc kelp water
On the previous day, dust all sides of deer thigh with kelp powder and leave in fridge overnight. Make kelp water by immersing 20 grams dried kelp in one liter of water overnight.
Remove core from cabbage and cut into 1-cm-wide strips. Finely slice onion along fiber. Place pot with 10 grams butter over heat and sautee onion. Add cabbage. When tender, add 150 cc kelp water and cook. When almost no water is left, add 1 Tbsp fish sauce to season and turn off heat.
Rinse kombu off from venison with water, pat dry. Heat olive oil in frying pan and brown all sides of the meat. Roast in oven at 180 degrees. Remove when core of meat reaches 68 degrees. Place on dish, cover with aluminum foil and leave for 10 minutes in warm place.
Bring 200 cc kelp water to a boil in pot and reduce to half. Place another small pot with 10 grams butter over heat. When it colors slightly, remove and dip bottom of pot in water to prevent butter from burning. Add reduced kelp water to butter and place over heat, add 1 Tbsp fish sauce. Thicken with bit of cornstarch mixed with water to make sauce.
Lay cabbage and onion mixture on plate, place venison cut into slices 3 cm thick and pour sauce on top. Serve with coarse salt. (Salt in photo is mixed with pulverized kelp and roasted "nori" laver.)
Venison is available online, but choose pieces butchered hygienically at facilities approved by the municipalities. Members of the Japan Gibier Promotion Association, based in Nagano Prefecture, and the Yezo Deer Association, based in Hokkaido, are listed on their websites. Since eating game raw carries the risk of parasite infection, make sure to cook them.
* * *
From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column