In a mansion standing in a prime location in Milan, a servant polishes silver tableware while a personal chef shows off his skills for the epicurean family that calls it home.
It's not a scene from a film, but a snippet out of the daily life that chef Tetsuo Ota experienced in his early 30s. At that time, Ota, who is now 38, worked under a company owner in the glamorous Italian city. Her house had a special room where tableware was kept. Each plate was wrapped in thin sheets of paper, and he recalls that even antique plates seemed new.
Ota got the job at the house after the chef who preceded him in the position asked if he was interested in it. Until then, Ota had been training at renowned restaurants in Italy and Spain.
Ota knew opportunities "to cook Italian food every day in an Italian home" weren't easy to come by, even if one had set their heart set on doing it. After also being offered an exceptional salary, Ota leapt at the offer.
There was one catch, though. The woman, who had appeared friendly and refined when he first met her, was actually notorious as one of the "three high-maintenance matrons of Milan."
Although she was a gourmet, she wouldn't touch pasta or meat and avoided garlic and butter. And when she gained weight, she erupted and blamed the chef, saying, "How could you!"
Ota learned to deduce her preferences from the way her eyebrows moved and came up with menus incorporating white fish and seashells that she liked.
Her husband, however, was fine with a simple pasta with tomato sauce. Having come from a noble family, he had never worked since he was born and going for a walk in the morning was a daily routine. Ota often cooked the dish, which he would eat for lunch at home.
Ota places a thin slice of butter on his pasta with tomato sauce. Butter, which gently melts like snow, is to be mixed with the pasta when it is eaten.
Ota says that for Italians, pasta with tomato sauce is what tea-flavored rice porridge is to Japanese: a simple yet profound dish that one feels like eating every day.
Ota worked for more than 10 years in Italy, Spain and Peru before returning to Japan in 2015.
He is the author of the book "Amazon no Ryorinin" (A cook in the Amazon), whose subtitle translates as "The place I reached when searching for the world’s top 'tastiness.’ "
Ota, born in Nagano Prefecture, is scheduled to open La Casa di Tetsuo Ota in Karuizawa in the prefecture sometime between late April and early May.
340 grams canned cooked tomatoes
200 grams pasta (2-mm-thick)
2 garlic cloves
Cut garlic in half lengthwise, remove shoot and crush. Place 1 Tbsp olive oil and garlic in pot and cook over low heat until aroma rises.
Add crushed canned tomatoes and two pinches salt to the pot. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes until sweet taste emerges. Remove garlic.
In another pot, bring generous amount of water to a boil, add salt and cook pasta until slightly harder than al dente (1 to 2 minutes shorter than the instructed cooking time).
Add cooked pasta to pot with tomato sauce, simmer briefly so taste seeps in. Mix and add 1 tsp olive oil to finish.
Serve on plate in a heap, top with thinly sliced unsalted butter.
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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column