Kenji Maenaka: Izakaya Fujiyama
Although the cult of the celebrity and all its trimmings has a tight grip on some of the cheffing fraternity, Yasmin Newman pulls up a stool at Izakaya Fujiyama and discovers there are few chefs that can match Kenji Maenaka for passion, dedication and humility.
In Japan, reverence is bestowed upon food. Chefs are trained according to meticulous guidelines and it takes years to achieve ‘master’ (qualified) status. Even in the simplest of settings, ingredients are treated with utmost care and technique is God. Chef Kenji Maenaka was born into this milieu. Decades on and leagues away in Australia, the mindset still drives his food, and the ethos is omnipresent.
Maenaka has a long relationship with food. In Hokaido, in Japan’s north, he grew up helping his father, a sushi chef. He learned the painstaking Japanese process of preparing fish and perfected knife skills. Following in his father’s footsteps, he then trained as an izakaya chef, an experience which saw him learn the cornerstones of Japanese cooking – raw, grilled, simmered, steamed, deep-fried, vinegared and dressed. Where Japanese restaurants are, typically, divided by specialty, such as sushi or ramen, izakayas offer a mix, with small plate-style eating complemented by alcoholic drinks. Think the Japanese equivalent to Spanish tapas bars, a concept with which Aussies are now au fait.
The experience proved invaluable.
“In Japan, learning to be a chef is difficult. It is very strict and we have to do everything ourselves, including the cleaning. There are no kitchen hands,” explains Maenaka.
“With that, however, we learn everything in-depth and properly.”
He attributes his Japanese-tuned skills to his ease working overseas with different, largely Western, cuisines. As fate would have it, he would put this dexterity to use.
Maenaka arrived in Australia 10 years ago with a goal to set up his own izakaya. Visa restrictions quashed the dream, but they also started a chain of events that would bring him full circle.
His Izakaya Fujiyama opened in Sydney’s Surry Hills in July to pumping crowds.
“I’m very lucky,” he says. “A chef can be spend 10 years and still not be able to open a restaurant.”
Maenaka is the sole owner of his hip new venture. He credits his Australian work experience for modern inspiration and the support from industry friends for success thus far. As the interview was about to begin, Sarah Doyle, front of house star of Porteno and Bodega, where Maenaka worked pre-Fujiyama, was just leaving. “Everyone helps me,” he says fondly of his mates, referring to the restaurants’ owner-chefs, Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz, amongst others.
Maenaka met the boys when they were at Four in Hand, then followed them years later when they opened their Latin brainchild, Bodega.
“It was exactly the Spanish version of a Japanese izakaya,” recounts Maenaka of the revelation-like discovery. “I wanted to do the same thing – classic cooking, but with a modern feel.” He describes the disappointing quality of Japanese food when he first arrived in Australia, and the still base level of Sydney izakayas today.
“They don’t have proper chefs in the kitchen and the quality of food is very bad.” He likens the scene to a Sydney pre-Bodega. “Tapas bars were already around, but they [Abrahanowicz and Milgate] improved the standard.”
Surry Hills is a smart place to attempt a change of tide, where diners are receptive to new foods and a fresh approach. The chef considered Neutral Bay, a hot spot for Japanese restaurants, but opted for the open mind of the inner city over competition in the north. Providence also played its part; Maenaka used to walk past the untenanted spot on his way home from work, but the site – then undivided – was too large for his small dream. Once Orto Trading Co took up one of the sites, the landlord offered to split the remaining space into two. “He loves Japanese food and wanted me to come here, so, very kindly, he put in a wall.”
Maenaka has already lifted the bar. He prepares all the food himself along with one other sushi chef (he’s indulged in two kitchen hands, but that’s it for staff) and quality rules.
“Some people just want to make money. I want to make good quality food.”
The chef doesn’t open for lunch, so he can spend more time prepping, including going to the fish market everyday and Flemington four times a week. He’s a fan of Aussie produce – even seafood.
“Everyone says Japan is the best. There might be more choice,” he says, citing Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. “But it’s almost the same quality.”
The chef buys half a bluefin tuna every week and thrills at the direct contact he has with fisherman. “If I talk to the guy, he’ll go to the boat and get a fresh one! This is amazing, even in Japan, this would never happen.”
Maenaka prefers choosing produce himself, rather than deliveries from suppliers, who he believes send the oldest stuff first.
“This is a good thing to do. I may spend more time myself, but I don’t have to charge customers for the extra cost of top ingredients.”
It isn’t pure altruism; the chef’s theory is to keep the price low and keep ‘em coming back for quality. “It’s not cheap,” he qualifies. “I don’t make cheap food. But it’s good value and reasonable.”
At around $35 a head for seriously smart, well-executed fare, it’s not bad at all. Customers are responding. According to Maenaka, some people have come back multiple times since it opened.
“Diners are starting to understand what an izakaya is – you come in for two to three dishes, have some sake and beer, then go home without spending much. In Japan, this is what an izakaya is.”
Maenaka has also observed customers returning by themselves for a meal and chat at the bar, which he included in the design for the purpose. Is multi-tasking a challenge come Friday night when the house is full? Yes, but the open kitchen adds theatrics and energy to the small venue. It also holds the chefs accountable for the food they produce – everything is on show. Alcohol is also kept affordable; there are 40 sakes to choose from and each is sold by the cup, rather than by bottle. Around 10 Japanese beers are available, as well as a concise wine list.
Authenticity hasn’t dictated the chef’s approach; the term ‘izakaya’ refers to a way of eating more than a style of food, so he has free reign. The chef describes dishes as simple and classically prepared, but with Australian leanings – he “knows what we like”. The fixed menu is divided into clear categories – vegetables, seafood, meat and sushi, allowing diners to tailor-make their meal, with daily specials adding to the mix. Come the change of season, he might rethink things slightly, but for now, he’s realistic about kitchen and staff constraints. There may be no need; some dishes already have a near-cult following, such as steamed pork belly with hoba miso and baked eggplant; and agedashi tofu with braised shiitake mushrooms and okra.
Maenaka’s handmade Japanese plates and serving bowls come up. He spent a month sourcing products and décor in Japan before opening up shop.
“Food here is very simple. If you see simple food arrive on white plates, it looks sad,” justifies the chef for the striking tableware. “So I needed fancy plates! With these things, you can do simple food.” Maenaka’s food is unpretentious, but it’s far from straightforward – there’s care, detail and precision in each dish. A self-effacing attitude is a hallmark of the Japanese. “It’s been six years since I worked with Japanese cuisine,” says the chef.
He hasn’t missed a beat.