Chef Tomoyuki Kon frowns as he ponders potatoes. Not any old potatoes, but those grown on Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido – and in particular, he is trying to pin down precisely why they are so tasty.
Eventually, he breaks into laughter as he concedes defeat: “Honestly, I don’t know the answer. It’s probably something to do with Hokkaido’s soil, water, climate, sea or snow. But whatever the reason, potatoes – no, actually all Hokkaido vegetables - simply taste really, really good.”
It is late on a Monday evening and Chef Kon is seated at a corner table in the intimate Restaurant Molière in Hokkaido’s Sapporo city, after serving me (and a full house of other diners) a delicious dinner.
The food – an array of visually striking French-style cuisine rooted in seasonal Hokkaido ingredients – perfectly complements the surroundings, which feels more like an elegant private residence than a conventional restaurant, with its seasonal flowers, artworks and exquisite ceramics.
Explaining the Hokkaido influences behind the restaurant, Chef Kon explains: “The techniques are from France. The heart is from Japan. And the ingredient are from Hokkaido.” He adds: “It is not the same as food you would find in a French restaurant in France. Its essence lies in the spirit of washoku – Japanese cuisine. We adapt classic French recipes using seasonal Hokkaido ingredients– white asparagus in June, oysters in winter, yurine lily bulbs in January and February. The food we serve here is all about simplicity, good ingredients and timing.”
And Chef Kon, a Hokkaido native, is clearly something of an expert on the matter, having spent seven years working as a chef in France, before returning 15 years ago to work at Molière (which was opened by iconic chef Hiroshi Nakamichi in 1982).
My meal is testament to Chef Kon’s Hokkaido-infused expertise: from the hint of aromatic sansho (Japanese pepper) in the dramatically monochrome presentation of abalone served in squid ink to the rice served takitate-style (just cooked), from the saucepan at the table. Not to forget those Hokkaido potatoes of course – in this instance, a creamy gratin cooked to perfection.
CHEF KON’S TOP THREE HOKKAIDO INGREDIENTS (in his words):
“It doesn’t matter if a vegetable is expensive or cheap. The number one most important thing is whether it is in season. Traditionally, after harvesting potatoes, we would cover them in straw and leave under the snow for a year, to allow them to rest and the starch to turn to sugar. We still do this today, but it’s normally in the fridge. It makes such a big difference to the flavor.”
“The marine produce from Hokkaido is among the best. Oysters from Akeshi in Hokkaido are my favorite, best to eat in the winter. We are surrounded by the sea and Sapporo is in the middle. It’s the perfect location to get access to lots of wonderful seafood. Today, the abalone, prawns and uni sea urchin were all from different parts of Hokkaido.”
“There are more sheep than people on a small island called Yagishiri in west Hokkaido. There are no predators – no snakes or bears – and no stress, so they are very happy sheep, they have a nice life. They also eat grass which is very rich in nutrients, minerals and salt from the sea wind, which affects the meat flavor. It’s very delicate. I normally prepare this in the summer after the meat has matured for three weeks, cooked over charcoal sumiyaki-style.”