TOKYO – Hiroyuki Sakai’s passion for cooking began as a child. He always knew a career as a chef was in his future, but he never could have predicted he would become one of the world’s most popular television chefs.
Born in 1942 in Kagoshima Prefecture, Sakai got his start at age 17, learning his trade in Japan’s Shin Osaka Hotel.
At 19, he traveled alone to Perth, Australia, landing a job at the Hotel Oriental. After nearly two years there, he returned to his homeland and again apprenticed for three years at the restaurant Shaki in the Ginza district.
He later opened his own eatery, La Rochelle, at age 38. It is here where we meet in the city where he now owns three thriving restaurants.
Sakai is largely known in the United States for being the defending champion French chef in the much-heralded “Iron Chef” show on the Food Network. The program airs Monday through Friday at 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. as well as Saturday at 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
It’s a thrill to meet the man behind the famed dishes, and especially to dine with him, as he “dishes” even more throughout the evening:
Q: Can you make sense of why “Iron Chef” has such a big following in the United States?
A: It’s been three years since the show ended in Japan, but I am very happy to hear that it’s still going strong in the U.S. I still get fan letters, more than 1,000 a month and I write back to (everyone). I think it’s special because the show is based on real time. It’s tough on the chefs because they have to express their styles in 60 minutes. They worked very hard. This effort of theirs moved the audience.
The other reason is what the show producers called “combative sport.” There is always a victor and loser. When you combine the fine art of cooking and combat, it creates a fighting spirit. This is why I think the show appeals to Americans.
Q: How did you get picked for the show?
A: I didn’t want to do it at first. I kept saying no. I was so busy running three restaurants. But the producers heard of me and that I was a very versatile chef who could deal with any ingredient. So they kept coming to my restaurant every night for a month, begging me to be on their show.
There were only three episodes left for that first season, so finally I said, “Fine, fine, I’ll do just a few shows to get them off my back.” I ended up doing it for six years.
Q: Why did you stay if you were so busy?
A: Well, I kept telling myself I would stop but the ratings kept going up and up, and by that time, I figured out how to incorporate the show into my schedule. And it was very exciting to be on the show. Very stressful but also challenging. There were more serious and professional chefs who came to challenge the defending chefs.
Q: Of all those six years, which were your memorable shows?
A: There were two. I kept winning when I first appeared but on my ninth episode, I was defeated. I was stunned. It made me work even harder.
(The other) impressive moment was the very last show of “Iron Chef.” It was the last battle between Mr. Chen Kenichi, the Chinese chef, and me. The theme for that contest was Omar lobster. It was a two-hour show. I had that lobster theme three times before and lost every time. I had this feeling I might be beaten again.
(So) I made the simplest preparation, and it led to my victory. When the contest ended, Mr. Chen and I hugged each other. We had worked frantically and it didn’t matter who won after we finished. That was unforgettable.
Q: What were the dishes you cooked for the last show?
A: I made many but for the central dish that got me my victory, I used the Kaiseki method. It’s simple, traditional Japanese cooking using seasonal, local ingredients.
I put four lobsters and seaweed in a pot and then burning stones and sea salt. Instantly the lobsters caught fire because of the stones. The principle of that cooking is that you return the sea to the sea. It’s simplicity that is augmented by beautiful presentation and right timing. The sea water steamed the lobster in the pot. I also made papaya salad and lobster soup.
Q: Is fusion cooking, say between French and Japanese, popular here in Japan?
A: I myself had never been trained in Europe. I learned Kaiseki first. It’s also considered traditional cooking that incorporates the four seasons of Japan. Each season provides a series of ingredients that must be used. In the late 80s, Japanese with disposable incomes began to develop a taste for foreign cuisine, especially French, but they often found French food too rich and heavy. So I incorporated Kaiseki with French food and established my own French-style cuisine. I made a kind of breakthrough with cooking in Japan. It was the right timing, and I was blessed with good luck.
Q: On the “Iron Chef” shows, have you ever been taken aback when the secret ingredient is revealed?
A: Many times. The most surprising was the milk battle. They brought a milking cow into the studio, and I was shocked.
We were supposed to milk it for fresh milk, but I had never done it before and the milk wouldn’t come out. So they had a professional milker standing by. Fresh milk is very delicious, and I made ice cream and it was perfectly done.
The second one was the live octopus ingredient. The moment I saw it I thought, “I’m defeated.” I wished the show would end right then and there.
They revealed the aquarium and in it several pods where the octopus lived. I had to reach in and pull it out. My challenger had no problem. He reached in, grabbed it, and sliced it into sushi. But when the octopus saw my arm, it grabbed with its tentacles and the suctions pinched my skin and I yelped. It didn’t look very good. Needless to say, I lost.
Q: How did you find the judges? Were they fair?
A: Judges can be very different and judging depends on personal taste and preference. It is hard to be fair in such matters. But part of it also depends on presentation. “Oh, how beautiful!” is something I often hear they say when we present our dishes. But sometimes, some celebrity judges can be so uninformed. They would say something like, “There’s too much balsamic vinegar in the sauce,” and I had to hold my tongue (because) I didn’t use vinegar in the sauce. Waiting for them to judge, I think, was the most unnerving and uncomfortable part of the show.
On the other hand – now that I’m part of this new cooking show called “Apron of Love,” where I’m the judge and famous movie stars and models cook for me – I have to say that many don’t know the first thing about food and they can’t cook to save their lives. Sometimes it’s pretty awful, but you still have to act polite and say, “Interesting dish, isn’t it?”
Q: What is your favorite food?
A: If I have to choose one, it would have to be soba (buckwheat noodles).
Q: Do you taste the other chefs’ cooking on the “Iron Chef” shows?
A: In the program, the challenger’s food is tasted before the iron chef’s food. Sometimes, I would go over and if there was anything left on the dishes or cooking pots and pans, I would dip my finger in and taste to see if it was good. I could sometimes tell if I would win or lose by simply tasting their sauce.
Q: Why is it that there aren’t that many famous women chefs in Japan?
A: It’s very heavy labor, but in the area of desserts, most of the well-known chefs are women. Also, there are now female chefs that are emerging, and though they don’t appear on TV as much as the major chefs, they do exist.
But in general, it’s traditional here for a woman to give up her profession and give her family first responsibility. It’s difficult here with cultural expectations that are placed on a Japanese woman.
Q: Have you seen the American “Iron Chef” version? It’s hosted by William Shatner.
A: No, but I heard that it’s not very good. Someone told me that the chefs are told of the ingredients ahead of time, so it takes the fun away from it.
Q: But if the Japanese “Iron Chef” show renews in Japan, would you do it again?
A: Absolutely not. Once is enough.