Toshiro Konishi: Guru of Peruvian-Japanese Cuisine

Categories: On the Line

Geet and Konishi
Every week, Clay Oven Irvine executive chef/owner Geeta Bansal shares an interview that she's done with some of the heavyweights of world cooking. Today, she interviews Toshiro Konishi, one of Peru's most famous chefs. Enjoy!

Toshiro Konishi, The Guru of Peruvian-Japanese Cuisine
By Geeta Bansal, Clay Oven Irvine Executive Chef-Owner

I met Chef Toshiro at his newest venture Mesa 18 at the ritzy Miraflores Hotel by Orient Express in Lima, Peru. I had heard and read a lot about Toshiro-san for a long time and was looking forward to meeting this member of the culinary royalty of Peru. Toshiro Konishi first arrived in Peru from Japan for a three0year stint almost 36 years ago and never went back. Peru has that kind of magic that captivates you and makes you want to stay forever. I met a lot of chefs in Peru but Toshiro-san's personality and good humor put everyone in the shade. He has created a cuisine using Japanese techniques and Peruvian products in a country where food has influences from multiple cuisines like Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Creole, Italian, Spanish to name a few.

Toshiro's life story is interesting, to say the least. He entered the family restaurant kitchen in his native Japan under the guidance of his grandfather and trained there alongside Nobu Matsuhisa, another-world renowned chef out of Japan. I felt like I was entering history when at a local event, I met the owner of Matsuei, Lima's oldest Japanese sushi bar where Toshiro and Nobu first arrived from Japan to work in Peru.. There were a lot of interesting stories I heard that evening! Toshiro is a much loved and liked personality in Peru with numerous cookbooks and television appearances. I got a taste of his celebrity when I accompanied him to a late night Paella and Cava party at Rafael Pequeras' restaurant Maras at the Westin and saw him mobbed by friends, admirers, and the press. Virgilio Martinez of Central, Lima teased me about how I love Toshiro-san at a press conference in Mexico City recently. You can't help liking this man and even more so after tasting his delectable cuisine.

Toshiro's 'Tiradito' a sashimi style fresh scallop ceviche marinated in lime and topped with maca root , avocado and flying fish roe is the dish that made him known around the world when he first served it at Madrid Fusion, Spain seven years ago . I tasted thse scallops and they are sublime and incomparable. Tiradito brought his culinary expertise into the international arena and now this dish is an intrinsic part of menus in Peru. Other chefs including Nobu Matsuhisa have their versions of this dish of lime marinated seafood with the famous Peruvian aji chillies.

Scallops at Mesa18

Toshiro-san has travelled extensively in Peru to get an understanding of the produce and the people in his adopted country including spending time on the Pacific shores with the fishermen to get to know the variety of seafood intimately and uses seafood from Casma, Pisco, Tumbes and Paracas (even the names sound magical) and many others.

Toshiro-san has a few cookbooks in Spanish and also writes a weekly column in the newspaper. I had a very interesting conversation with Toshiro-san in the contemporary dining room of his restaurant Mesa 18 in Miraflores the swanky seaside neighborhood of Lima a few months ago.

At the table with Chef Toshiro

Right off the bat I asked:

Do you still want to be a musician because I heard a story about a music disc in your youth that didn't meet with your mother's approval?
(He laughed heartily) How did you hear about that? It happened so long ago that I had almost forgotten about it. I did make a disc but my mother was not impressed and said it was terrible and that was the end of my career in music.

So how did you become interested in cooking as a career?
Well I come from a family in this business and I am the fourth generation. My teacher in the kitchen was my grandfather and he was very famous in southern Japan. I learnt while playing in the kitchen from when I was 6 to when I was twelve. He would say if you cut onions I will pay you. If you wash the pots and dishes and he said even if you are the son of the owner you must learn this, I will pay you.

So you learnt while receiving bribes?
You are funny! Yes I did in a way.

What do you enjoy cooking the most?
I enjoy cooking fish and vegetables. Saturday night I cook a vegetable only menu for vegetarians. 100% vegetarian food.

Eggplant in a sweet and tangy sauce

What inspires you the most? Nature, seasons, places?
Since I was a child I have been in the food world. My focus has always been the sea and fish from the sea. For me it is important to use the product from the sea while maintaining its form and it's integrity. I also believe different vegetables and fruit are best at certain times. I also believe that they need to be harvested early in the morning to be at their best. In fact different vegetables need to be picked at different times. I think there are nineteen seasons all over the world, 28 types in Japan and 21 in the growing seasons for vegetables.

So you are talking about seasonality of produce?
Yes and I also like to talk to the produce and interact with them.

So you let them lead you?
No I tell them what I am going to do with them for example I say I am going to make seafood with rice and tomatoes and I talk to them and tell them what's going to happen to them (I am not sure if he was serious or joking about this!)

What do you think of all the different scientific techniques that chefs are using in the kitchens these days?
I believe we should investigate the product before deciding how to use it. For me no molecular or sous vide cooking, more important for me is history and carrying traditions forward.

In Conversation

So do you believe that we must look back before creating in the future?
Yes, absolutely, but at the same time I will not stop looking into the new culture and inventions. I like to know about the new stuff and try it out myself but no chemicals or changing the color and form of products for me.

How do you pick your products?
I use all my senses my eyes, the smell, the touch. I don't rely on books but on my own judgment. My problem is that I want to know too much and have to really understand before making a selection. I believe simple is the best and my cooking is very straight forward.

What do you call your style of food?
Toshi style! (laughing again)

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