Last week, while I was in the U.S. to demonstrate Suncraft's knives in Chicago, I was fortunate enough to hold a soba and tempura workshop at Boltwood restaurant in Evanston. Check out the video clips to see talented Isaac Bloom and I make soba noodle dough.
I'm so grateful to have met the Boltwood team, and came back to Japan inspired by these young, innovative minds. Isaac was gracious enough to write up a little story about his experience, and I just couldn't wait to share this with all you foodies out there.
Special thanks to all of you who made my trip so memorable. Arigatou Chicago!
I fell in love with soba while living in Japan. Whether driving down the sunlit coasts of Kyushu, or relaxing in a ryokan after wandering the streets of Kyoto, I often found myself searching out soba shops to explore the local interpretations of the versatile noodle. Subtle and complex, tender yet firm, soba can manifest itself in so many different ways. And while I had boiled dry soba noodles at home, and eaten my weight in fresh soba throughout my months in Japan, I had never seen the process or had the opportunity to make fresh soba noodles myself. It was through this adoration for the noodle, and a desire to know its secrets, that I came across Chef Shuji Ozeki’s website online.
I first found Ozeki-san’s website while researching cooking schools online. I had decided that I wanted to return to Japan, and thought that studying traditional Japanese cooking would be a fantastic way to do so. He very graciously agreed to meet with me on Skype, and we got a chance to talk about cooking, soba, and Japan. It was in this conversation that he mentioned he was coming to Chicago! I was very shocked, and equally excited. What a gift, I thought. If you can’t make it to Japan, Japan will come to you! I invited Chef Ozeki to Boltwood, the restaurant at which I work, to conduct a soba workshop for our staff and families. He agreed, and we immediately got to work.
Ozeki-san was traveling to Chicago with his friend Shoichi Kawashima, the CEO of Suncraft, a knife and housewares company in Seki City. Kawashima-san’s company had procured a booth at the International Housewares Show (at McCormick Place) and had invited Ozeki-san along to do some knife-technique and cooking demonstrations during the four-day event. He and his team agreed that it would be a great opportunity for Ozeki-san to do the workshop, and allowed him to leave the show early in order to do so. To thank the Suncraft team, and most importantly, to thank Ozeki-san, we hosted the whole group for dinner at our restaurant the evening before the workshop. We wanted to show them our new American style of cooking, and our chefs prepared a wonderful meal (and I even got to try a few bites myself). The first course consisted of grilled brunuusto (bread cheese) plated with apple butter, prosciutto ham, and arugula, and a fresh pear salad, with taleggio cheese, shaved fennel, toasted walnuts, and celery greens. We then had a fish course with grilled octopus and pan seared turbot, plated with sun-dried tomato arrabbiata. We then transitioned to meat and served a crispy pork shank! We finished with a chocolate mouse cake. It was a delicious meal, but not even close to the soba we shared together the following night.
Ozeki-san and I arrived at the restaurant early to begin our preparations. I had the great honor and privilege to be his assistant for the event. We began by making two different dashi stocks, one for tempura dipping sauce, and the other for the soba. Ozeki-san had brought beautiful konbu and bonito flakes from Japan, and it was a joy to use such wonderful ingredients. Boltwood’s Chef de Cuisine Brian Huston had provided us with some local ingredients to use as well, and we combined the two to make a new form of soba noodle. Ozeki-san called it a soba revolution! We began to simmer the stock and prepare the local vegetables for tempura. We used mushrooms from Michigan, sweet potato and squash from Indiana, and eggplant as well. And then came the soba.
Watching Chef Shuji Ozeki make soba from scratch was the greatest gift of all. Like the noodle itself, the process is at once simple and complex. Ozeki-san brought soba flour from Japan, and it was unlike any buckwheat flour I have ever tried in America. Mixing the fresh soba flour with water produced an aroma similar to peanuts, and the dexterity and care with which the flour was mixed was truly incredible to watch. Ozeki-san said that the mixing of the flour and water is the most important step to making good soba noodle. The care in which he mixed the two was to ensure that each grain of flour would be equally bound to the water, and that the flour didn’t get a chance to clump, which would create an imbalance in the final rolled dough. The magic was that he made it look so easy, when it was in fact quite difficult to do. Rolling the dough was another incredible visual experience. Ozeki-san turned a ball of dough into a large rectangle, by rolling and turning the dough over and over again. It was finally made into a perfectly uniform shape and thickness and folded onto itself in preparation for the cutting. The technique was stunning. We were truly in the presence of a master chef.
The dish we made was kamo seiro. We seared aged duck breast and thinly filleted the duck into 5mm thick medallions. This duck was lightly and quickly boiled in a broth made of dashi stock, aged shoyu, and real three-year aged mirin (also brought from Japan). We added some local mushrooms, and charred spring onion as well. It was the best dish I had eaten in a long, long time. The staff of Boltwood was utterly impressed, and we all got to sit down together to eat tempura and kamo seiro at a large communal table in our restaurant. It was a lovely evening, and one we will be talking about for months to come.
It was truly an honor to assist Ozeki-san in his soba workshop, and the experience really inspired not only me, but the entire staff at Boltwood. I look forward to our next workshop together, on either side of the Pacific!
Thank you, Isaac, for the kind words. You and the Boltwood staff were a joy to work with, and I hope that you will soon make your way here, to Japan!
Next time on the blog, I will be showing you how to make hoba-zushi, a variety of sushi that was traditionally eaten mid-day by farmers out on the rice paddy. With spring just around the corner, hoba-zushi is the perfect picnic food. See you soon!