Ode to Kono

by organizedferment

Japanese cooks are the hidden soldiers of Northern Italian cuisine.

They leave their homes seeking a better life. They work and live illegally. They advance. Cooks become sous chefs. Sous chefs become chefs. But they can only go so far. In Italy, where the food is simple and the standards very high, bravado and personality separate elite chefs from the ranks of very good chefs.

And quite simply, Japanese chefs are not marketable. Italians do not want to eat Italian food made by Japanese. Neither do tourists. They want to see a portly Italian man behind the stove, red in the face, singing opera and kissing everything.

The highly skilled Japanese chef has three choices: return to the grueling, thankless work required of cooks in Japan, play second fiddle to an elite Italian chef, or work as a chef at a simple osteria with little room for creativity and no chance for glory.

Kono chose the third option, and I got to work with him this year at a small restaurant in the town where I lived. He might be the best chef in Piemonte, but no one will ever know about him. I don’t think anyone even knew his full name.

But Kono was very, very good. Given a great kitchen, great ingredients, and a great supporting staff, he would be great.

Kono produced a seasonal, creative menu that changed everyday, in a kitchen that never seemed to have any food in it. In Kono’s kitchen, on a Saturday night at 7:30 one could walk through and see ramekins of different salts, branches of dried herbs, half a head of garlic, three or four mandarin oranges, and nothing else edible.

When orders come in at 8, Kono seems to produce everything on the spot, spinning between the six-burner stove and the refrigerator right behind it. He measures perfect portions of pasta with his hands. He tastes the pasta water for salt. He plucks a strand of spaghetti from its boiling water to test for doneness. He pokes a steak searing in a cast-iron pan and then flips it with his thin, stainless steel tongs that look more like big tweezers.

Kono’s work on the stove was impressive, but I was equally impressed by all the simple things he did. Kono gave beauty to mindless jobs that chefs normally delegate. He cleaned porcini mushrooms like an archaeologist cleans dirt from a precious shard of ancient pottery. He gave every scrap of leftover food a perfectly sized container and neat seal of plastic wrap. I never knew what became of the single raw shrimp or half an apple once they were wrapped and put away in Kono’s fridge. I trust they were not wasted.

Kono never raised his voice. Never seemed flustered. Never directed his staff. Everyone worked hard in Kono’s kitchen because they knew Kono was working harder. If you couldn’t do your job, Kono would do it. If you failed, Kono wouldn’t say anything. The punishment would be failure in itself.

Kono liked to tease the dishwashers and his fellow cooks. He swore in Italian, pulled pranks on the waitresses. Still, he seemed to suffer silently against the restraints of the osteria format. The owners and customers expected simple, traditional food. Prices had to be low, and with the restaurant’s meager turnover, expensive, new ingredients posed too much risk.

Kono still found ways to leave his mark. I’ll never forget his stacks of seared orange rounds, sliced roasted lamb, and herbs. His grilled octopus with fruit became the restaurant’s signature entree. He switched Stichilton for gorgonzola and made a creamy sauce for his homemade gnocchi: a brilliant twist on a classic, from a man born in a country without cheese.

Kono’s signature dish.

When Kono decided to leave, another Japanese chef took over. The new guy had worked over ten years in Italy, and even opened his own small restaurant in Japan, where he did everything (wait tables, cook, clean, wash dishes) by himself.

I don’t know what happened to Kono. He mentioned working in Sardegna for the busy tourist season. Perhaps he found another job in Piemonte. I don’t think he will go back to Japan. He deserves his own restaurant, a place where he decides exactly what to put on the menu, and customers come because they know he will be cooking.

I like to think Kono finds happiness in draping a beautiful leaf of sage over a mound of steaming pasta, or finishing his plate of octopus with a sheen of olive oil and just a touch of something green from the garden, but I’m pretty sure Kono wants more. He has earned it.