Matthew Crabbe is a Sydney-born chef who now runs the kitchens of three restaurants and bars in Tokyo and one in Manila. He will be hosting a special Wild Harvest chef night with a one-off menu exploring Australia’s underutilised native ingredients at Harvest on 6 March.
Q. The Japanese have a tradition of harvesting sansai (wild plants) for home cooking, but I understand what was previously driven by necessity has now become a pleasure. Is it just the old people who do this in Japan, or is about accessing nature, being pesticide free, or getting in touch with tradition?
Matthew: Sansai are seen on menus all over Japan. Japanese people are very in tune with the seasons and the produce that is available in the different seasons. Sansai are plentiful in spring hence you see a lot of varieties at this time of year.
People of all ages enjoy Sansai; however, because of the usually bitter taste of most Sansai, younger people tend not to enjoy them as much as more mature people. Organic is definitely highly sought after; however, the higher price tag usually puts it out of reach of many people.
Q. Do you serve wild plants in any of your restaurants? What is the attitude of diners towards sansai?
Yes, in my restaurants we follow the seasons and are well known for it in the market. I think our diners appreciate the seasonality of the ingredients that we use; the flavours really do depict the season that they are harvested in.
Q. I see that in your Tokyo restaurant Two Rooms you pair mostly Australian wines with seafood and steak dishes on the menu. How are these wines viewed in Japan? Is it mainly expatriates at that restaurant or Japanese people?
Australian wines are now highly praised in the Japanese market. It didn’t used to be that way; however, that view has changed with the influx of high-quality wines, not just the mass-produced cheaper type that we saw in the early 2000s and before.
I would say that our clientele consist of about 60 per cent Japanese and 40 per cent foreign; these percentages were the other way around before the 11/9 tsunami when a lot of foreigners jumped ship because of the nuclear disaster. Being a very patriotic people the Japanese mostly stayed in Japan to protect their families and their beloved Japanese economy.
Q. I’ve heard that given the pressure on space in Tokyo, the locals eat out a lot more than in other cities because their private space is smaller. Is that true? If so, does that affect the way restaurants are viewed compared to, say, Sydney when you worked at Tetsuyas?
The average Japanese consumer does eat out a lot and have the most discerning palate that I have ever seen throughout the world. With so much competition in the restaurant market this makes it great for the consumer as the restaurateurs compete against each other, which in turn increases standards and quality throughout the industry.
Consumers have a choice from the cheapest ramen or gyudon to the best of the best in the world. All, from the very cheapest to the most expensive are of the very best quality and standard. Having lived in the inner city of Sydney I think the Tokyo lifestyle is very similar in terms of dining out on a regular basis.
Q. Are there different pressures on a head chef / executive chef in Tokyo and Manila compared to Australia? Is the staffing situation different?
A top-level head chef and executive chef has the same pressure anywhere in the world. It really depends on personal and company standard requirements.
In Japan and Sydney staffing is basically the same and depends on the operational requirements. Salaries are a large percentage of the cost of any hospitality business; however, not so much in places like Manila. In Manila we can afford to have more hands on duty compared to Sydney or Tokyo.
Q. It’s said that Japanese people highly value getting along with each other to form a cooperative team; do understated head chefs do better than the more temperamental and shouty ones?
In Japan I think it is wise to not be a temperamental chef, rather to create a more team-like environment with strict standards in place so that the staff feel included in the operation, which in turn produces a good experience for the guest (without guests we are nothing; they are number one).
Q. What excited you about visiting Byron Shire and Harvest in particular? What can diners expect on 6 March when you are guest chef at Harvest in Newrybar?
I have never been to Byron Bay but have heard so many great things about it so when I was approached to do this series I jumped at the chance. Harvest has a great name and they have had many well-known chefs do this series so I was very humbled to be asked.
On the night it depends on what we find on the forage, but expect a Japanese touch with simple presentation and notable flavours.
For me cooking is to be enjoyed by the cooks doing it and the people who get to consume the offering.
Matthew Crabbe is guest chef on 6 March.