The only man to have been head chef at both Nobu and Zuma, Ross Shonhan talks to EDGAR about his AED 1,000 steak sandwich and why he picks through the bins at his restaurants.
“I’m a perfectionist and a control freak,” smiles Ross Shonhan as he sits in his new Dubai restaurant Netsu, at the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira. Already a huge success with almost a dozen casual restaurants in London, Netsu is Shonhan’s first premium opening. A huge fan of Japanese food and culture, Shonhan has travelled to the country many times, quite often ending up in peculiar situations, as he describes here. EDGAR had lunch with the Aussie chef and began by asking him to explain what a warayaki is.
The front of your menu says Netsu is a ‘warayaki’ restaurant. What does that mean?
Wara means ‘straw’. Rice straw is burned and the food is cooked over the flames. It’s quite an unknown cooking style that’s typical of the Kochi prefecture in south Japan. Say ‘warayaki’ in Japan and there’s a real chance many Japanese people won’t know what you’re talking about; it’s certainly unique here in Dubai.
When did you first see warayaki cooking?
I walked past a small restaurant in Japan and saw flames. I knew a lot about Japanese food but I’d never seen this before. I thought it was genius – so simple and delicious.
It looks very theatrical…
Yeah, it is, but there’s a point to it, it’s not just for show. It gives the food an earthy, natural taste, like a campfire. It’s very primal: people, fire, food.
How much more do you have left to learn about Japanese cuisine?
I’ve spent years learning about Japanese food but I reckon I could spend the rest of my life learning and still not know everything. It’s one of those cultures where food is so ingrained in life.
The decor at Netsu is extraordinary. How much input did you have?
I’m a cook, not an interior designer but I’m involved in a lot of it. It’s inspired by kabuki theatre. The open kitchen is the main stage and the walkway though the centre of the restaurant copies the type found in kabuki theatres. We painted old images from kabuki theatre on the walls. It’s a real restaurant with soul. It’s not a concept restaurant. We’re not trying to be flashy Dubai, we’re just trying to make people happy.
Looking through the menu, one dish stands out: the millionaire sandwich…
Okay, it’s a steak sandwich for AED 1,000 – but there’s a logic to it. Japanese beef is the most expensive beef in the world – fact. At Netsu we have the best Japanese beef from Japan. If you go to any beef restaurant in Japan they’ll serve a simple steak sandwich and it’ll be expensive but it’s simple. We put one on the menu here and added some gold flake as a tongue-in-cheek gesture for Dubai.
What about this luxury rice dish for AED 1,500?
It’s a Japanese dish with a western twist that’s a journey of creamy, salt and sweet that feeds about eight people. It’s mixed fish, sushi rice cooked in beef stock, vegetables and omelette. On top we put chives, salmon roe, some wagyu, sweet soy, caramelised onion, hollandaise and a bit of gold leaf – there a lot going on. It’s mixed at the table and looks pretty.
Let’s talk about your relationship with Japan. What grabs you about the place?
You get such juxtapositions of culture. The Japanese are fascinated by English and American cultures. I remember walking in Osaka once and seeing a group of rockabillies in 1950s clothing with gelled back hair on Harley Davidson motorbikes, dancing to music blaring from a stereo. It made no sense. I remember that like yesterday. There are so many things in Japan that don’t make sense.
What impresses you about their food philosophy?
Their respect for ingredients and keeping things simple. It sounds kind of funny but I dig through the bins in all my restaurants because I hate food waste.
Wait. You go through the bins?
Yeah, my chefs think I am crazy! If the chef is cutting off the ends of vegetables, does that mean their knife skills aren’t good enough? Are they throwing something edible in the bin because they don’t know how to use it? If a farmer has grown a vegetable it’s been harvested and transported to market, then to a restaurant, so I feel it’s our duty is to use every part of it, otherwise it’s just wasted energy.
Do you admire their cooking techniques?
Japanese cooking challenges everything you think you know and flips it on its head.
Can you give us an example?
I used to think I could filet fish well because I was taught by great European cooks. Then I worked with a sushi chef who watched me filet a piece of salmon and was horrified – he almost committed hari kiri! I realised that I had to start again.
How do the Japanese filet fish?
They make logical cuts that go with the skeletal structure of the fish and delicately remove pieces of fish. European fish fileting knives are very flexible but the Japanese deba knife is rigid – polar opposites. I threw my old knife away immediately.
You mentioned kabuki theatre earlier. Have you seen it performed?
Yeah, I was in Kyoto during blossom season, sitting by the river eating lunch. This Japanese guy sat next to me and started talking to me to practice his English. We chatted for a couple of hours and he invited me to have dinner with him and his friend. They gave me a ticket to see some kabuki theatre the following night.
How was that?
It was a tiny theatre, I’m six foot four and I realised that the people behind me couldn’t see anything so I had to fold myself up like a pretzel and sink into my chair. I sat there for three hours with no intermission, not having a clue what was going on.
I’m guessing your height means you stand out in Japan…
People stand next to you and laugh! Then they want to have their photo taken with you, it’s pretty funny.
With Netsu and all your restaurants in London, your schedule must be frightening…
Yeah, I don’t sleep much! In the London restaurant business you grow or die, but you don’t want to overstretch yourself either. I don’t want to be comfortable, you’ve got to push yourself, you know? My true age is 40 but my chef age is probably 60; chef bodies age much harder. Chefs are sick animals – we don’t think like normal people.
END OF INTERVIEW
Baume & Mercier enters the bronze age