Father and Son: Ikuei & Masahide Arakane
Standing at the grill of a Japanese kitchen among the vegetable stalls at Melbourne’s Prahran market is one of Australia’s most noteworthy chefs. You’d never know it, unless you were to eat his food. But then chef Ikuei Arakane has never played by the rules.
His restaurant, Wasshoi, is an open market format, the kind of place you could eat lunch at every single day. Yet its quality is as brilliant as its setting is unassuming. It’s all so... Japanese, you might say.
Remarkable fact one: Ikuei Arakane – widely known as Kinsan – grew up in Japan. By the age of 20 he’d worked in a vegetable market, a fish market, trained as a pastry chef, as a French chef, as a traditional Japanese chef, and as a Teppanyaki chef. He came to Melbourne and was snapped up by a series of restaurants, though, naturally, he wanted to go out on his own.
Remarkable fact two: he opened a small restaurant in suburban Canterbury named Manju, based around an eight-course degustation menu. This was no ordinary menu, as it was tailored to each diner. In the two years he ran this restaurant, he never served the same degustation twice; such are his skills and his amazing dedication to delighting each and every customer.
“Depends on customer. If people want sushi, I make sushi, if people want French, I make French. Food is happy. I like to make people happy,” he says.
The ubiquitous chef
Of course, Kinsan was too good to be tucked away in a tiny suburban restaurant. He was promptly poached by Taxi Dining Room, where the awards rolled in, and his food and ideas have since been called on everywhere from Hobart (The Glass House) to Kuranda near Cairns, and umpteen places in-between. In fact, if you encounter a menu with any kind of Japanese influence anywhere along Australia’s eastern seaboard (or even in the Victorian snowfields), there’s a fair chance Kinsan either wrote the menu, cooked the menu, or was consulted.
Remarkable fact three: Kinsan can walk into the head job at just about any kitchen in Australia and yet he’s been known to take lower-rung jobs in order to learn more. “I have chefs come to me and say, 'What are you doing here, you should be the boss!' But I have to learn.”
In what can politely be called ‘unusual’ for a chef, Kinsan has managed his career and led his life in a particularly ego-less way. From the outside, at least, it seems as though learning has been of far higher importance to him than acclaim, or gain for that matter. When asked whether this was cultural, though, he won't have a bar of it.
“I like to make what is popular,” he says. “If people want French, I cook French. If they want Japanese, I cook Japanese. I see that people want Pan-Asian, so I go and learn Pan-Asian. In Japan, to look after customer is very important. Always I think, how can I look after customer?
“Even at Taxi, I stay to the end, after service finished, I help clean up, because if customer is still there, then I want to stay. They (the owners) would say to me, you can go home now. But if customer is still there, I would never leave. I am not like a boss, I am not like a head chef, even when I am, I am always just thinking of the customer, otherwise how can you understand what people think? Most important is what people want now.”
Chestnut rice, pasta served with Japanese flavours, miso braise; Kinsan’s influences are vast. Needless to say, he works enormous hours, usually 15 per day. “Even when I am not working, I am home working on menus.”
He does his own shopping – at the Footscray Market, Queen Victoria and Prahran Markets – because, he says, “Shopping make me happy too. Some market do whole fish best, some best fillet, some vegetable.”
Tradition and learning often go hand-in-hand in Japanese culture, with skills and crafts passed down through generations. Kinsan’s son Masa is also a chef, and also works hand-in-hand with his father. But when asked whether any particular care is taken with the passing down of skills, Kinsan referred the answer to his son. It was at this point Masa laughed out loud.
“He (Kinsan) is very untraditional. He does his own thing. He doesn’t like to be told how to do things.”
“I don't do much teaching,” Kinsan says. “He has worked under other chefs. But after, I have need for him. I am so lucky because my son has native English, and for me it is not native, and we have been able to help each other in communicating to people what we need to do.”
The irony is that Kinsan has spent the past 40 years feeding customers, yet is still hungry to learn more. Aside from developing recipes and running education sessions for Asian Inspirations, he employs and trains students in his various businesses. Even then, it’s not a one-way street. “I ask them what ideas they have. Maybe it is good. And then I say, maybe I have a better way to do that. We work from there.”