Niseko's Food Revolution
Interest in Niseko is stronger than ever and, thanks to local food personalities like Shinichi Maeda, James Gallagher, Keiko Takaoka and Takuma Okada, it’s not just for the snow.
Niseko’s international reputation has been largely built on the vast quantities of light, dry snow that blanket the resort from November to April each year. It has long been a Mecca for the dedicated powder hunter, and will continue to attract hundreds of thousands of thrill-seekers for the 2015/16 winter season.
Less well known is that in recent years, Niseko has also focused attention on its dining scene, which is rapidly becoming a crowd-puller in its own right.
While abundant snow and world-class terrain have rightly become an expectation of any winter trip to Niseko, it’s the quality and diversity of restaurants, bars and cafés in the village that are leaving a lasting impression on many.
The international spotlight has naturally fallen on establishments like the iconic Michelin-starred Kamimura, the highly sought-after Rakuichi (soba restaurant) or Restaurant Asperges Niseko—led by the acclaimed 3 star Michelin Chef Hiroshi Nakamichi. But to focus solely on Niseko’s well-established high-end venues would not do justice to the fascinatingly diverse scene that is emerging, courtesy of industry personalities like Shinichi Maeda (An Dining), Keiko Takaoka and James Gallagher (Ezo Seafoods), and Takuma Okada (L’ocanda).
Their unique stories are a testament to how much Niseko dining has evolved over the last 10 years, showcasing the cornucopia of local Hokkaido produce and offering menus to delight a truly international clientele.
Shinichi Maeda – Executive Chef, An Dining
In 2014, Shinichi Maeda returned to his native Hokkaido after a 12-year stint in Queensland, Australia. In the closing years of his Australian journey, he worked as Head Chef at Brisbane favourite Sake Restaurant and Bar, winning a coveted Chef’s Hat in the Queensland Food Guide and, in the process, establishing himself as one of Australia’s top Asian chefs.
Following this successful and defining period in his career, Maeda was lured to Niseko with the prospect of a return to his home province and an opportunity to establish his mark in one of the country’s emerging food hotspots. He opened An Dining for the start of the 2014/15 winter season and just a year on is making waves in what was already a reputable Niseko dining scene. He has been referred to as a “poster child” for the new Niseko—his recipe for success combining years of international experience with an infectious passion for preparing Hokkaido produce.
A chef and an educator
Niseko’s popularity with Australian crowds makes it a fitting location for Maeda’s return to Japan. However, it is the town’s increasingly diverse clientele—particularly from other parts of Asia—that has him interested.
“Niseko used to be 60 or 70% Australian, but these days there are so many people from other parts of Asia—Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore...so many places.
“In the last 12 years, I’ve worked with people from 20 or 30 countries. Many cooked for me and shared a huge variety of different foods and cultures. It’s made me really understand a global culture—a mixed international culture. Niseko is [now] just like this.”
Maeda prides himself on finding creative new ways to showcase Hokkaido’s world-renowned produce, but his talents extend well beyond his ability to put food on a plate. He believes his overseas experiences have equipped him with the ability to interpret the Japanese food experience for his guests, to share his knowledge and passion with those who are new to Japanese-style dining.
Diners will often find the affable chef doing the rounds of the tables at his restaurant, always eager to respond to questions about his food and the inspiration behind each dish.
“I’m good at taking local Hokkaido produce and introducing it to international guests. My approach is not just to serve old-school Japanese food, but to teach people how to eat, which wines and sakes to pair with the food, as well as to share the stories behind the various components of their meal.”
Niseko: an agricultural utopia
Maeda’s passion for sharing and educating makes him the ideal ambassador for Hokkaido and its top seafood and other produce. Since arriving in Niseko, he has been delighted by the quality and diversity of local ingredients that are so readily available. He makes at least two early morning trips per week to visit the fishing ports (gyokko) in Iwanai and Suttsu, to check the day’s catch and find out what’s in season. He follows this with a strategic drive to farms and suppliers in the area, always on the lookout for the freshest ingredients or to expand his ever-growing network of farmers and industry contacts.
Depending on the season, his drives will yield fresh supplies of watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, broccoli, rice and potatoes. He is restricted from buying directly from the fishing ports himself, so he enlists the help of a registered middle man.
Maeda is full of praise for the place he now calls home.
“I think this [Niseko] is a miracle place. Within a 30-minute drive we can get everything. We can meet the farmers and fishermen and see the produce. We can put it together. We have fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, wines, sake and beer. Probably all we need is a soy sauce or miso factory somewhere, or someone making salt on the coast. Then we could truly survive within only 30 or 40 minutes from this town.”
Maeda insists he rarely sees other chefs on his outings, but he believes the regular trips are essential for following seasonal trends and getting the best products for his diners.
“I visit the farmers and fishermen every week and I always see something different. The fruits are changing, the vegetables are changing, and the fish are changing. That’s really unique. If you miss two weeks, you might need to wait until the following year [to see the same thing again].
“It definitely affects my menu at An Dining almost every week. Not always massive changes, but different sauces, different condiments. Even when I print the menu, I need to tell the customers: ‘Today’s different.’ Things are not always available. But this is a positive.”
Maeda’s dinner “course menu” is a traditional kaiseki affair with an emphasis on the five flavours—sweet, bitter, salty, spicy and umami. Seasonal variations make it difficult to predict exactly what to expect on any single occasion, though Maeda has a number of specialties that his guests keep coming back for.
As a former sushi chef of Tokyo’s Ichiz Ginza, his sashimi has become somewhat of an An Dining signature, for which he uses local catch from Suttsu and Iwanai—often wild salmon, flounder or kingfish. Maeda’s Jingisukan-style slow braised Hokkaido wagyu beef cheek is a regular favourite, as is his Takigawa duck breast with crispy lily bulb and mandarin vinegar. And there is perhaps no better dish to tuck into after a day on the slopes than the slow-braised Ebetsu pork belly with honey soy, accompanied by Kutchan potato purée (Niseko Hirafu’s neighbouring town).
Maeda is happy as long as his guests are taking pleasure in the food that he has become so attached to.
“I just want to show them how to enjoy”, he says.
James Gallagher & Keiko Takaoka – Ezo Seafoods Oyster Bar
James Gallagher is another Niseko food personality whose success has been built on a commitment to finding the best Hokkaido produce for his customers. But like many of the foreigners who relocate to Niseko, his career was initially in real estate, working in the property division for Hokkaido Tracks. It was through putting on “oyster nights” for his clients that his interest and knack for sourcing seafood began to take shape.
“These events were quite popular and each year the customers would ask me for ‘more of those great oysters’, so I learnt about where to source oysters to start with, and before long, scallops and crab”, says Gallagher. “I also realised that I quite enjoyed that kind of work.”
In 2009, the property market dried up and Gallagher left his job. It was an opportunity to start afresh. Just before the start of the 2009/10 ski season, he and his wife Keiko Takaoka opened Ezo Seafoods, a cozy seafood shop and oyster bar located on Niseko Hirafu’s Momiji St.
A dedication to quality
In the past six years, Ezo Seafoods Oyster Bar has become a Niseko institution, often booked out months in advance and a favourite amongst Niseko regulars. But Gallagher’s formula has stayed the same, and the numbers are a reflection of the hard work he puts into procuring the freshest seafood.
“I travel every day during the season to the Sapporo Wholesale Markets or coastal fishmongers and also have connections with salmon fishermen in the north of Hokkaido. It’s a five-hour round trip which is tough during winter because it means I have to get up at 4:30am! But I like to see the produce myself every day. It gives me an idea of what’s fresh and in season, and I learn a lot from talking to the wholesalers—knowledge that I can pass on to my discerning customers.”
Gallagher considers himself fortunate. “I think we are lucky to have an abundance of such excellent seafood in Hokkaido—oysters, crab, shellfish and fish, to name a few.” But he also knows there’s more to success than simply finding the best ingredients. “A lot of people also highly rate Chef Keiko and her team’s cooking.”
Head Chef Keiko Takaoka
Keiko Takaoka’s ability to get the most out of the seafood she uses has been a key ingredient in the Ezo Seafoods formula, an ability Gallagher puts down to her “simplicity, flair and discriminating emphasis on fresh produce and ingredients”. She is highly rated in the industry, in which she has a long family history.
Takaoka is the eldest daughter of a family that has cultivated rice for generations, and was trained in traditional Japanese cooking from a young age.
“My mother taught me the basics of growing and preparing vegetables—from using mineral rich soil, water and sunlight, to planting, harvesting, cooking and finally serving”, says Takaoka. “We lived close by to the port town of Choshi, so I grew up eating fresh fish and shellfish almost every day. I learned to prepare sashimi and how to grill, braise, vinegar and steam fish. In the kitchen we mostly used condiments of soy sauce, sake, sugar and ginger.”
These early lessons would go on to have a defining influence on Takaoka’s style as a professional chef—initially running a catering service in Niseko from 2005 to 2008, before finding her calling with Ezo Seafoods.
Many of the dishes that she prepares in the Ezo Seafoods kitchen are the ones she grew up eating and learning to cook under the guidance of her mother. Naturally she also uses her family’s rice —“Koshihikari”—in all of her rice dishes.
Over the years, Takaoka has expanded her repertoire through extensive travel and overseas training courses, tasting and experimenting with a variety of new foods and flavours. But there’s an ingredient that has remained constant through the entire journey.
“I would say ‘love’ is the most important thing about my food. I prepare each and every dish with love and consider every guest as a family member. I also make a delicious meals for staff every day. Just like family, I want them to eat and live healthily.”
Ezo Seafoods finds a second home
Gallagher and Takaoka’s success in Niseko ultimately led them away from Hokkaido, albeit temporarily. In June 2015 they opened “Ezo Seafoods Summer” in the beautiful Izu Peninsula, renovating an old katsugyo-style building with 180-degree views and large tanks supplied with seawater pumped directly from the ocean. Gallagher hoped this would inspire a different kind of atmosphere.
“It’s the sort of place you dream about going to after six months in the white world of Niseko’s winter.
“I wanted to create a space which the local ocean-loving population of divers, yachties and beachgoers can call their own, so encourage deck shoes, board shorts, wetsuits and fun summer attire.”
The Izu Peninsula was an obvious choice for the husband and wife duo, who were attracted to the area renowned for its beautiful coastline, seafood and ocean-connected lifestyle. The restaurant overlooks Izu’s Suruga Bay, which is the one of the best-known sources of seafood in Japan and supplies many of Tokyo’s most highly-acclaimed seafood eateries. But Gallagher couldn’t help but bring a little bit of Niseko with him.
“There is so much good fresh seafood in the area that we decided to take more of an international approach to the menu, offering cooked seafood dishes such as garlic shrimp, squid ink paella and acquapazza-style cooked fish. Of course we use local seafoods, but we have also “imported” some Hokkaido seafood as well, such as salmon and scallops. We also offer top-quality sashimi.”
Gallagher and Takoka have now closed “Summer” for the winter and, despite a steep learning curve and early teething problems, were very pleased with their first season. They used the same “display-style menu” that has been a hit with the Niseko crowds and, over the space of just a few months, built up a loyal base of customers.
They are now back in Niseko for the 15/16 season, and while they continue to strive to deliver the tastiest seafood to their guests, Gallagher has another simple goal.
“I am actually happiest when people praise the warm hospitality of our staff and the friendly atmosphere.”
Takuma Okada – Head Chef, L’ocanda
Like Shinichi Maeda, Takuma Okada spent many of his formative years as a chef outside Japan. After working as an apprentice in an Italian restaurant in Sapporo after high school, Okada embarked on an audacious move to Tuscany in Italy when he was twenty-six. He was attracted in part by the famed Tuscan cuisine but, importantly, because the region has a similar latitude to Hokkaido. The ingredients and harvest would therefore be similar and, in turn, the skills transferable. A transition back to Hokkaido and to his family’s base in Niseko Hirafu was in his mind from the outset.
Training in Tuscany
For Okada, finding and choosing a restaurant in which to work required a simple strategy.
“I would visit a restaurant and order a meal. If I thought the meal was good, I would visit the kitchen and ask the chef how the meal was prepared. Most Italian restaurants, big or small, have established systems for accepting and developing young chefs in the making.”
Okada eventually found a live-in role in a family-run restaurant and set to work learning traditional techniques and recipes. To supplement his training in the kitchen, he also took on work in a nearby butcher, which he discovered was a pathway to a deeper understanding of Italian food culture.
“In Europe, the prominent ingredient in most meals is meat. To get to know the culture of meat and its place in European cooking it was important not just to learn by the book, but to see the process in real life.
“I had the chance to see live cattle slaughtered in a very traditional way. It’s the reality of where meat comes from, and important to understand as a chef.
“Initially the customers who visited the butcher had more of an understanding about the different cuts of meat than I did. It was an eye-opening experience, because it’s very different from the way things are in Japan.”
A return home
In 2012, after four years abroad, Okada had a call from his parents requesting that he make the trip back home to help them open a family restaurant in Niseko Hirafu. Okada knew it was time.
He and his family opened L’ocanda shortly afterwards in a location just east of Niseko Hirafu village, with views over Mt. Yotei to one side and the ski resorts on Mt. Annupuri to the other. Okada took the helm in the kitchen, preparing traditional, wholesome Tuscan cuisine, while his younger brother—a pâtissier—took on desserts. His father assisted Okada in the kitchen, and his mother served guests and took care of the restaurant’s interior. It is a formula that has proved hugely successful since L’ocanda’s opening four years ago.
“I am proud to run the restaurant with my family. It is always valuable to have a ‘real’ opinion from the other family members when a new menu is introduced, and I can get advice from my parents about the local vegetables, which they are more familiar with. Each family member respects one another.”
The importance of family is a value central to the success of L’ocanda, and one that left a lasting impression from his years in Tuscany.
“I learnt about the importance of the bond of the Italian family, in which the ‘mama chef’, her cooking and her flavours play a vital role. This was especially evident during my time as a live-in chef. It was an element of the life there that I found very attractive.”
Connection to Niseko Hirafu
The influence that Okada’s years in Italy have had on him is clear to anyone who has met the chef and sampled his dishes. And yet, Okada feels a bond to his home town that is as strong as ever.
“I grew up in this area and I love Hirafu. I can feel and appreciate the connection that the local people have to the harvest. It confirms in my mind that there’s no other place I’d rather be.”
Okada is also proud to use local ingredients and produce in his cooking. It is a pride that he shares with Shinichi Maeda, James Gallagher, Keiko
Takaoko and many other chefs in the village, and perhaps sheds some light on why Niseko dining has evolved in a way that it is now drawing the attention of the world. Okada’s words, like his food, are worth savouring.
“I have a passion for cooking but, more importantly, I focus on being one of the local people. The most important element of my lifestyle is Niseko. My dishes are part of it. By truly appreciating the fresh, local ingredients, I get better results in my cooking. The better results connect people, which gives me joy because I can feel my influence. This is what gives me passion.”