My last meal / Tokyo
TV chef Kentaro Kobayashi is known for no-nonsense dishes and his show teaching men how to cook. Over a meal at his favourite Italian restaurant, he talks about his accidental route into becoming a chef.
“I like food to be easy. There are so many ‘new-style’ Italian, French and Japanese places but I like traditional restaurants. I’m not keen on ‘fusion’ or anything too stylish or cool. Doing something different isn’t hard – the challenge is doing something simple. This place is old-style, like Italy. They don’t mess with the classics. I come here once or twice a month, usually with my wife, Maki, or friends. I always order the courgette flower fritters stuffed with mozzarella. Perfect.
If I were cooking my own last meal I’d make white rice with pork and ginger and some miso soup. I spent three weeks in Italy once and my friend’s mother cooked every night. She was a good cook but it was too much. I needed to eat rice. If I were to going out though, I’d like to come here with my wife, my parents and sister. This place doesn’t change and I know what I’m going to get.
When I was younger I wanted to be an illustrator but I couldn’t get a job. My mother was a famous cookery writer and tv personality. Publishers used to come and see her at home, so I asked if I could work as her cooking assistant. I thought I’d meet people that way and be able to show my illustrations. But one day a publisher asked me to do some recipes for a men’s magazine. I thought it would lead to illustration work. As you can see, I just fell into this job by chance.
Food was very important in my house when I was growing up. Of course there was my mother but my father also knows a lot about food. I always helped my mother in the kitchen chopping vegetables or washing rice. I thought it was a chore back then. Now I can see how useful that training was. She cooked everything, not just Japanese – Italian, Korean, Chinese. People tend to think of Japanese food as difficult to make but my concept has always been about making food that is tasty and quick to prepare.
Working mothers were a rarity when I was growing up. My mother cooked for us every night even though she was working hard. She’s from Osaka. We talk about politics, we argue. We would have a very loud last meal! My dad knows so many things about politics and world affairs – he’s like an encyclopaedia. He always encouraged us to learn English and try different foods.
When I wrote my book about bento boxes I thought about my mother. She used to make me a bento every day. They weren’t fancy at all – just a small amount of meat and rice with a lot of vegetables. When I was young I wanted more meat. The book was a chance for me to make the bento I always craved. Now I’m older I can see what she means – I’m not the big meat eater I used to be.
I always wanted junk food. I remember one day my mother said she couldn’t come back at dinner time so I thought, great, I can order a pizza. But when I came home, she had already prepared some stew for me. Now I can see how caring that was.
I don’t consider myself to be a chef. A chef works in a restaurant but I don’t want to run a restaurant, even though I’ve been asked many times. I did do the menu concept for my friend Tok Kise’s place [Truck Furniture] in Osaka – Hamburg steak, curry rice and beef sandwiches. Good comfort food.
What I really like doing is writing the books. Television is a strange world. They always want something new or sensational. But that’s not what I do. I cook the kind of food I’d want to eat. I’m happy just eating curry rice or some sautéed spinach. After the show the crew eat the food. Taichi [Kokubun – co-host on Danshi Gohan] is getting much better. He’s cooking for himself now. I also do most of the cooking at home, maybe three or four days a week, even though my wife makes very good Japanese food. She’s from the countryside, from Mie prefecture, whereas I spent my whole life in Nishi-Tokyo.
At first, people associated me with my mother but I’ve found my own niche – cooking for men. I was lucky. The traditional family is changing here. Men in Japan are getting better in the kitchen. Many women are living alone and working and it turns out that more women than men buy my books. I like to cook for other people and we have people over for dinner most weeks. I think six or eight is a good number. I like to hear people talking.
It’s been a difficult time since the tsunami and nuclear disaster on 11 March. I don’t have children and I don’t worry so much for myself but friends with families have been relocating to Okinawa and Kyushu. If something bad happened I’d leave quickly. I’d love to go to Australia. There are so many good waves and plenty of good food there. I go there every year with my friend Kise-san, who introduced me to surfing.
I don’t drink much – I’m not good with alcohol. Plus I’m often on a motorbike – either my 1970 Triumph or my Yamaha srx6. I’m so busy these days, I do most of my writing at night but I take time for holidays and I make a point of never working in August.
Kentaro Kobayashi is one of Japan’s best-known TV chefs. He has his own show on TV Tokyo, Danshi Gohan (Men’s Cooking), which he co-hosts with pop star and self-proclaimed cooking novice, Taichi Kokubun. Kobayashi is also a prolific author of cookery books, specialising in easy to prepare meals that even the most inexperienced cook can attempt, such as Easy Japanese Cooking: Bento Love. He writes a weekly recipe column for the Chunichi Newspaper and another for the Sankei Express called “Kentaro’s Hitosara Shobu” or “Kentaro’s One plate challenge”. He is also an illustrator and member of the band Skunk Kyodai.
An old-school Italian restaurant, La Bisboccia opened in Tokyo’s Hiroo district in 1993. It’s always packed and photos of famous patrons line the wall. The day’s cuts of meat and fresh fish are wheeled to the table on a trolley. Florentine head chef Giovanni Cenni cooks central Italian recipes with the odd speciality.
Hiroo SK Building 1F, 2-36-13 Ebisu Shibuya-ku, + 81 (0)3 3449 1470
Courgette flower fritters with mozzarella
Grilled lamb chops
Radicchio with anchovy sauce
Summer porcini and clam pasta
Beef ravioli with butter sauce
Dessert selection plate
Surgiva sparkling water
Courgette flower fritters with mozzarella
Makes 4 courgette flowers
4 courgette flowers
For the batter (makes 4 fritters): 100g plain flour, 1g sugar, 1g salt, 1-2g yeast, 100ml water
Vegetable oil (not olive oil as this is too heavy)
Start by making the batter. Mix flour, sugar and salt together. In another bowl pour water on yeast, add the flour mix and let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes.
Take the pistils out from inside the courgette flowers.
For each flower you will need a spoonful of minced anchovies and 30g of mozzarella roughly mixed together. Use this to stuff into the flowers.
Close the flower and dip it into the batter.
Deep fry in oil at 170C for 4 minutes.