In Food + Drink

Mastering The Art Of Modern Japanese Cuisine

There’s a lot to love about Japanese cuisine. The freshness of ingredients, the delicacy of its flavours, and the artful presentation which transforms a simple meal intosomething you could frame in The Louvre. It’s truly in a class of its own.

But, why is Japanese cuisine so good?

Aside from talented chefs, a big reason for its quality is the country’s deep-rooted culture of mutual respect. Respect for the seasonal produce, for the diners, and for the time-honoured recipes and techniques that have been perfected over the centuries.

Some of Japan’s oldest and most respected restaurants have devoted generations to their pursuit of culinary perfection, preparing just one dish in the same way day in and day out. Owariya restaurant in Kyoto, for example, opened back in 1465 and has been making traditional buckwheat soda noodles for at least the last three hundred years.

With that unwavering devotion to the techniques and traditions of old, however, comes a rather heavy weight. And it’s one which not every modern chef is willing to carry.

Australian chef Adam Lane, who joined the QT Gold Coast’s Yamagen restaurant as head chef in 2017, is part of a new school of ‘modern Japanese’ chefs who draw inspiration from the past but adapt it to take the cuisine in new and often unexpected directions.

Though originally trained in French cuisine, Lane changed focus to Japanese several years ago. He’s since worked in iconic Japanese kitchens such as the Michelin-starred Nobu in London and two-hatted Tetsuya’s in Sydney. It was during his time at the latter where his eyes were opened to the full potential of Japanese cuisine – and he’s never looked back.

“That’s where I really fell in love with Japanese cuisine,” Lane says. “The delicateness of the flavours, which is so different to the heavier and more robust flavours of French or English cuisine, and the fact that it stays true to the product you use… what’s not to love?”

Before Lane’s arrival, Yamagen had a much more traditional focus. However, as part of the restaurant’s $1.4 million refurbishment, it dived head-first into the modern era.

The restaurant now features a boisterous cocktail bar home to Queensland’s largest selection of Japanese whiskies (65 and counting), a robata charcoal grill, chef-led Omakase menu option, and an open sashimi counter manned by sushi master Shintaro Kosugi.

While a big fan of the authentic food and flavours, Lane says he’s more interested in the potential of the cuisine – incorporating new techniques and ingredients into his menu. Recent collaborations with Champagne house Perrier-Jouet and a six-course share menu for World Vegan Month, known as I-yama-Vegan, were perfect showcases for that.

For chefs such as Lane, ‘modern Japanese’ is an open term of almost limitless potential. It offers freedom to experiment, to trial new and different flavour combinations, and to not get weighed down with the mindset of ‘this has to go with that in this order’.

“I’m not a traditional Japanese chef, so I’m not bound by the traditional art form.

“Here at Yamagen, we use sous vide and smoke guns, we use different herbs such as fennel and dill. I draw on my French background with a wasabi butter. They’re things you wouldn’t normally see, but I feel don’t stray too far from the Japanese belief in quality, natural produce.”

Some of Lane’s experiments work, some don’t. His current trials involve shishito peppers, which only have a six-week season; and shiokoji, a culture often used in sake and miso paste but in this instance being adapted to tenderise meats such as chicken, beef and octopus.

“I like playing around with food and just seeing what works, and what’s doable for us.”

japanese cuisine

Teriyaki chicken served with charcoal roasted spring onions and warrigal greens, a spinach native to New Zealand; sakura (cherry blossom) smoked ocean trout with fennel and crispy leek; and sashimi tacos with wasabi salsa, avocado and watermelon radish are just a few of Lane’s innovative fusion dishes – and they’re all big hits with local diners.

“I don’t follow trends. If I did, I’d be doing poke bowls and water cakes. My goal with the menu is to simply keep pushing, to try new things with seasonal ingredients. That keeps it interesting for me, and that hopefully transfers onto the plate for our diners too.”

Other standout venues Lane recommends include the two-hatted Wasabi Restaurant & Bar in Noosa, which sources much of its produce from its own farm; and Kuro in Sydney CBD, which offers casual share plates through to a high-end Chef’s Table experience.

At the end of the day, Lane believes the core of Japanese cuisine will always be to stay true to the product, to treat it with the respect it deserves. Regardless of where modern interpretations may take it, so long as that remains, it will always be Japanese.

(All images: Yamagen / supplied)

Published 28 November, 2019