Chef Taro Takayama’s passion for Japanese cuisine carved out for him a career in the culinary industry that started with three-star Michelin restaurants in Osaka such as Kashiwaya in Senriyama and Koryu in Kitashinchi.
It did not take long for Chef Taro to rise through the ranks and by 2013, a mere eight years since he began developing his new-found craft, he was appointed Master Chef at the residence of the Japanese Ambassador to Singapore. It was a coveted assignment Chef Taro counts to be amongst the highlights of his career thus far, at one time even single-handedly planning and cooking a banquet dinner for about 500 guests during one of the many high-profile events held at the Ambassador’s residence in the course of his tenure. He has also served up his creations to celebrities and dignitaries, including Japan’s Crowne Prince Naruhito, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Taro Aso.
Chef Taro developed a deep appreciation for Singapore’s cultural diversity and local cuisine. Wanting to stay on after completing a fruitful stint with the embassy, Chef Taro went on to join Mandarin Orchard Singapore’s roster of celebrated chefs. With his passion for showcasing the authentic flavours and meticulous simplicity of Japanese food, he helped bring the iconic hotel’s Japanese culinary offerings to a whole new level.
Chef Taro is certified as a puffer fish processing specialist, a strictly controlled qualification that is only awarded to chefs after three or more years of rigorous training.
He now helms the kitchen at the recently unveiled Takayama at OUE Downtown Gallery, offering diners a multi-course menu that celebrates seasonal ingredients at the peak of their flavours. Chef Taro and his team curate every dish to exquisite perfection right before diners’ eyes. At the heart of dining at Takayama is the spirit of omotenashi, or wholehearted Japanese hospitality, personally delivered in the elegant ambience of this new and exciting kappo-style restaurant cocooned in midst of the Central Business District.
1. What is your philosophy when it comes to food?
My philosophy is pretty simple.
When it comes to food, fresh is always best. When I use seasonal produce, it is important to me to keep the integrity of their flavours intact.
Equally important, I believe food should be an experience that connects with all of the senses and brings people together.
2. Name your most Favorite dish on the menu? And why?
Takayama, being a kappo restaurant, does not have a staple menu. What I serve is very much dictated by the ingredients that are in season.
If I had to pick one particular dish that I truly enjoy preparing, it would be the Steamed Abalone with Uni, served with Abalone Liver Sauce. Abalone meat has always been a favourite amongst Asians, but a lesser known fact is that its liver can also be consumed.
Using fresh abalone is key in this dish as the liver would have to be steamed and whisked into an emulsion. Minimal seasoning is then added just enough to elevate the taste of the sauce so that it complements both the uni and abalone.
There is also a special seasonal condiment I use to accompany certain dishes in Takayama—a marmalade which is handmade by my mother. Her recipe entails a meticulous preparation process so she can only produce about 50 jars every year, some of which I then bring into Singapore all the way from Japan.
The sweet tanginess of the marmalade really complements meat dishes, and many of our diners at Takayama have asked where they could get hold of it. In fact, I now have a growing list of orders for my mother’s marmalade!
3. Main considerations when it comes to choosing your ingredients?
Japanese cuisine places great emphasis on seasonal ingredients. At Takayama, we are all about celebrating ingredients at their peak and allowing their natural flavours to shine through. Hence, freshness and origins are amongst my primary considerations as they would be good indicators of the taste and quality of the ingredients.
4. How do you see the growing demands for sustainable produce affecting the food world?
The evolving societal and environmental consciousness amongst chefs and diners alike is definitely a good thing. The more people are aware of the impact producing and consuming food has on the world’s depleting resources, the greater the chances we have of ensuring the generation of tomorrow get to continue enjoying good food.
At Takayama, our menu is inspired by Shiki, the four seasons. But alongside our use of the freshest seasonal produce, we also support suppliers that champion sustainable practices and methods of farming and harvesting. For example, one of the seasonal palate cleansers (Kuchinaoshi) we serve is Spot Prawn with Yuzu. Because of the simplicity of the dish, the prawn has to be perfect—sweet and delicate in flavour, and firm in texture. The prawns we use are harvested using a limited number of vessels and traps, and females with eggs are returned to the ocean to ensure the long term survival of its species.
At the end of the day, food sustainability is everybody’s business, and consumers hold a lot of power in the food choices they make. One great upside—sustainable food is certainly synonymous with healthier, better-tasting food.
5. If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
Before I became a chef, I did my undergraduate in law in hopes of becoming a lawyer. However, I did not become a full-fledged attorney-at-law as I was unable to pass the bar exam. Hence, I decided to try something different and applied to work at a medical company as an office worker. It did not take long before I resigned, as the job did not excite me and was filled with mundane tasks that did little to interest me.
One day, I was flipping through a magazine and chanced upon this picture of a chef preparing sashimi. I found it to be such a captivating picture and I could not take my eyes off it. I was so surprised myself that such a simple picture could have so such an impact on me, and I could not stop thinking about it. It was at that very moment that I knew I wanted to be a chef and aspire to be able to create something like that picture.
6. Do you have a memorable food experience that impacted you as a child or young chef?
One such memory that stands out in my mind would be when my paternal grandfather used to cook Tteokbokki, or Korean rice cake soup. My grandfather is actually Korean. In his interpretation of the dish he included lots of eggs which are my favourite. This dish is also always a feature during New Year’s when the whole family would gather.
Another fond memory I have of my childhood would be that delicious Aradaki that my grandmother and mother used to make. Aradaki is a very simple dish where sea bream head is simmered in soya sauce. In my house, it is normally made the day after any celebration, as the dish is made using leftover fish head.
It makes for a really funny story now that I look back on those days. I made my first dish when I was about seven years old and you couldn’t really call it cooking. The first dish I made was sesame cookies, with this girl that I had the biggest crush on. She asked me over to her house to bake cookies. Of course, I was not interested in baking cookies but I decided to go over anyways as I wanted every opportunity I could get to spend time with her.
7. What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
Foremost would be being able to indulge in my passion for food while connecting with people. To me it is a deeply personal experience—like sharing the best of me to guests in my own home.
Takayama being a kappo-style restaurant is no coincidence. In such a cosy and intimate environment, not only do I get to showcase my passion and creativity to my diners, I also get to know and interact with them on a more personal level. I find that food is a great medium to start a conversation, and it never ceases to amaze me how people really open up through the course of the meal. Seeing the appreciation on their faces after sampling my dishes brings me the greatest satisfaction as a chef.
8. Other than creating good food, what are the most important qualities that make a successful chef?
Among other things—all-consuming passion, plenty of creativity, careful attention to detail, a keen business sense, and a never-ending pursuit to learn more! A great chef must also be willing to accept criticisms and adjust as necessary.
9. If you had a choice of anything for your last meal, what would you choose to have?
You may be surprised but it would be my dad’s tea porridge, or cha-gayu, which he used to prepare for my two younger brothers and I every morning. No matter how busy he was, he would always prepare this simple dish for us. Back then I hated having to eat it every day, but now I appreciate the gesture so much, that it has become my daily comfort food since I moved to Singapore five years ago.
10. Do you have any tips for budding chefs or restaurateurs?
Be original. Put your heart and soul into everything you do. Never give up, and never be afraid of failures because not only do they make you stronger, but they pave the way to success.
6 Shenton Way, #01-09/10 Downtown Gallery, 068809