Masanori Tomikawa: from porter to a Michelin starred chef
Masanori Tomikawa is Executive Chef of the authentic Japanese Yamazato Restaurant in Hotel Okura Amsterdam. His interest in food started at an early age. His family – father, mother, two brothers and a sister – usually ate out because his parents had their hands full with three bookstores. That’s when young Tomikawa developed a love of pasta. “At the time, all I wanted to eat was spaghetti with meat sauce. At home we ate fish, mostly dried fish or mackerel, with rice. My mother didn’t really know how to prepare anything else.” During this period however, he also got acquainted with many other different tastes and dishes.
When Tomikawa grew older he wanted to leave Japan to travel and see the world. He felt that would be easier if he spoke English. Hence, he went to Canada to learn English after high school. When Tomikawa returned to Japan after this adventure, he started to work as a porter at Hotel Okura Tokyo. Tomikawa: “When I heard that cooks from Okura were often transferred overseas, I applied as a cook. Two years later I was able to transfer to Hotel Okura Amsterdam.”
In Japan it takes about ten years before a cook can call himself a true chef. “In part, that’s because cooks have to wash dishes,” Tomikawa says. “But especially because they have to practice cutting techniques. I have about twenty-five different knives and three knife sharpeners. I get great satisfaction from cutting fish and vegetables.”
What started as a way to see more of the world, soon turned into a new-found passion. When Tomikawa arrived in Amsterdam in 1983, Yamazato’s kitchen was run by former chef Akira Oshima who had only one goal: making it the best Kaiseki kitchen outside Japan. That mind-set turned out to be contagious. “He taught me to cook with my heart,” Tomikawa says. After working together for over 20 years, during which the much coveted Michelin star was achieved, the torch was passed to Tomikawa in 2010.
Tomikawa is equally obsessed as his predecessor, he lives for his profession. He often travels for inspiration, and he reads cookbooks – “I sleep among my books at home; I have more than three hundred” – and he eats at colleagues’ restaurants and asks to see the kitchen afterward. One of his favourite restaurants in Tokyo is Kanda. It has three Michelin stars and only has a few chairs at the counter. “Here we move rapidly, because we’re always in a hurry. But in Japan you see very beautiful, slow movements. Watching that gives me great energy.”