“Japanese food is boring,” mused Hidemasa Yamamoto, chef and owner of Hide Yamamoto at the iconic Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. “It’s only sushi, tempura, teppanyaki and ramen.”
And don’t get him started on chicken teriyaki. “I really don’t like it. The sauce is overpowering,” he says.
The defiant chef prefers his chicken cooked to a crisp instead. “I like mine with some garlic and olive oil.”
Tokyo-born but French and Italian-trained, Yamamoto’s brand of Japanese cuisine is anything but conventional. Out of his 14 restaurants worldwide, Malaysians are most familiar with his namesake restaurant in Singapore, where Yamamoto doles out elegant, well-executed dishes that are never over-the-top or pretentious, like handmade soba noodles with American sevruga caviar, miso and yuzu-marinated foie gras and truffle egg plans with sea urchin and snow crab.
Yamamoto has made this place his base and command centre for the past two-and-a-half years when he moved to Singapore permanently after a string of successful stints worldwide, including cooking for some of the most notable personalities around, like three generations of presidents in the US – Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton – and even King Abdullah II of Jordan.
On the experience, he had this to share: “I was preparing a meal for King Abdullah II at his palace. After dinner, the head of the palace said to me, ‘By the way, for tomorrow’s lunch…’ The King’s uncle wanted us to cook for him and seven others at his own palace the next day. As I had not planned for that, I told him that I was due to fly back to Singapore at 2pm. To that, he replied seriously, ‘If your airplane stays for you, can you stay?’ The next day, they delayed my Emirates flight for an hour and the prince got his lunch.”
His recent four-day trip to Kuala Lumpur was also all work – to promote Fresh Off Japan!, a brand new series chronicling the evolution of Japanese cuisine in Singapore on the Asian Food Channel (“It’s my first time here and I haven’t had the chance to step out of the kitchen yet!” he says). For the pilot episode, Yamamoto ambitiously whipped up 12 courses for the Chef’s Table and spent more than 10 hours in front of the camera. But that’s the man for you: he’s not about to slow down even at the age of 59.
We caught up with him before the event-cum-dinner for a quick chat:
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
Well, when I was younger, my father would always bring me to nice restaurants and I would eat so much till my stomach blocked my toes! But I began cooking proper when I was 10 years old. I started by helping my mother in the kitchen. By 13, I could cook for the entire family. I enjoyed cooking so much as a boy that my friends and I even held a competition to see who made the best ramen!
What’s your cooking philosophy?
I like working with quality produce. It’s all about emphasising the natural flavours of the food without having to overpower them with sauces or marinades.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about Japanese cuisine?
Some people tend to avoid raw fish because they claim it’s fishy. But fresh fish smells and tastes of the ocean. That’s why fresh ingredients are paramount in Japanese cuisine. The only sauce you can use is soya sauce and dashi, a bit of dried kombu.
What’s the one ingredient you cannot live without?
Olive oil. I use it with everything, even when I’m preparing Japanese food.
Throughout your career, which chef has impacted you the most and why?
Roger Verge, the French chef and founding father of nouvelle cuisine who passed away this year. Vergé taught me the right techniques for making liquor-based sauces that’s light and healthy.
You’ve served several US Presidents. Which one did you like most and why?
Reagan, because I think he knows his food. I served him at the presidential inauguration dinner back in 1984 when I was working at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington DC. He used to come in a lot; he loved seafood especially fish.
What would you say is the biggest accomplishment in your career?
Open my own restaurant, the first of which was Hide Yamamoto in Marina Bay Sands in 2010. I’ve worked 40 years as a chef and I wanted a change. I enjoy being my own boss and I like casino restaurants. I’d love to open a restaurant in Las Vegas someday.
Fresh Off Japan! premieres on Thursday, Dec 24, 2015 at 10pm on the Asian Food Channel (Astro Ch 703).
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