Labours of love capture the imagination of chef Shintaro Esaki. As a child, his mother would bring him to cafes where he was utterly enthralled by master baristas expertly dripping coffee from bags.
“Why didn't I become a barista myself? These are one of the questions in my life that I don't know how to answer,” remarks the amused 51-year-old kaiseki-style chef. His diligence has rewarded his tranquil Tokyo restaurant Esaki with three Michelin stars for the past four years and will also be making a guest appearance at Fairmont Singapore's Mikuni Japanese restaurant next month. “Perhaps it was the different facets of cooking that convinced me to prepare meals for a living instead of drinks.”
It was in a French restaurant in Tokyo named Clonek that he was first introduced to the many meticulous techniques of the culinary arts, the former part-time dishwasher recounts of his modest induction. After graduation from university, Esaki toiled for 10 years in the kitchen of Yamasaki, one of the Japanese capital's most decorated watering holes, before moving to Toki restaurant in Kyoto's historic geisha district of Gion.
“Every single learning experience that I have ever received was essential, as Japanese fare is a unique combination of numerous methods, starting from how to first handle fresh produce,” he shares. “To me, our national cuisine is about nurturing one's own spirit, more than just perfecting techniques. Honing one's skills is a lesson in humanity where one has to tap on the ‘Japanese strong spirit' to deliver, even when one is feeling down or disappointed.”
Does the pressure of maintaining his four-year achievement get to him? “Every day!” He breaks into another raucous bout of laughter, gesturing with his hands animatedly. “However, I take it positively in my stride. I don't have a special secret — I just feel the need to be proud of what I do. If a customer says he or she has felt a difference in the quality of a meal, it is up to me to dig deep and improve.”
Esaki does disclose, however, that his management secret is to see his quaint 30-seater diner as a carefully timed machine, where departments need to be well-oiled with mutual trust. Perhaps the success that he has enjoyed stems from his desire to be present in his restaurant every single day, until the last dinner guest leaves.
It comes as no surprise that Esaki will close his restaurant whenever he travels out of town, such as when he visits Mikuni at the Fairmont Hotel in Singapore to be its guest chef from July 1 to 6. “I usually reject guest chef invitations but I connected with the spirit of Mikuni when I visited it. Its oriental space mirrored my establishment's off-kilter Tokyo style and it had a mysterious touch that enhanced the experience of its meals.”
Besides often digressing to profess his love for French presses and Columbian beans, the inquisitive coffee connoisseur also proclaims his fascination with uncommon ingredients, flashing pictures of his preferred breed of carrots from his clamshell mobile phone. “They're very sweet, have a taste almost similar to that of potatoes and require a bulldozer to harvest so that they are not damaged or broken,” he elaborates, swinging his palms wide open to approximate the size of his favourite metre-length carrots.
No surprise then that when he is not in the kitchen, Esaki visits the farmers who tend his produce. He engages in lengthy discussions with them, checking the types of fertiliser and soil that they use before permitting their organic harvests into his kitchen. “I have great reverence for fresh seafood and vegetables, and am always looking for new ways to combine and enhance their flavours,” he reveals. “I enjoy going the distance when I prepare meals or brew coffee.”
Yet when it comes to self-sustenance, Esaki finds himself reaching for cup noodles. His quirk is not unusual though — most chefs, Michelin-starred or not, are notoriously blasé about their personal meals. But rest assured that when you dine under him, you'll have none of that on the menu.
Mikuni in Fairmont Singapore will be hosting Chef Shintaro Esaki from July 1-6, 2013. For reservations, please call 6431 6156 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.