Takashi Miyazaki tells Joe McNamee how his little Japanese takeaway in Cork became one of the country’s most celebrated eateries.
IT was Stephanie who ‘discovered’ Cork, on a family expedition to buy her sister’s wedding dress.
She and husband Takashi Miyazaki had scoured the 32 counties seeking a suitable town to base a restaurant: Dublin, Belfast, Galway, and everywhere in between.
They would check out local suppliers (in particular, local fishmongers) and the general atmosphere.
“At the end of the day,” says Stephanie, “we were going to be living there, so that was important.”
At one stage Dingle was a serious consideration but they were nervous of a location where trade is seasonal and locals might take time to warm to Japanese cuisine. Cork won them over in the end.
“I said, ‘we have to come to Cork! It’s buzzing!’ It’s a great city, great people, great food,” says Stephanie.
At last, they had a location — they had yet to find a venue. That would take time again but Takashi and Stephanie know well what it is like to pass time en route to filling their dreams.
Today, Miyazaki is one of the most lauded restaurants in Ireland, top critics tripping over themselves in the rush to hail the Japanese chef and his remarkable cooking.
Cloud Atlas author, novelist David Mitchell, who lives in West Cork but for many years lived in Japan, declared in an Observer article that, it was the ‘the best street food I’ve had inside and outside Japan’.
Critic Catherine Cleary recently said it ‘was some of the best food you’ll eat on the island [of Ireland]’. The McKennas’ Guide crowned him Chef of the Year in 2015.
All the more remarkable when you consider Miyazaki is a former Chinese takeaway with barely room for the six stools and a narrow shelf that run along two walls — most Miyazaki diners do their scoffing from takeaway containers back home.
Believe it or not, but the gentle and impossibly courteous Takashi was once actually a ‘jock’, heading to university on a sports scholarship (Kendo, a Japanese martial art).
“I went to study trade economics but I didn’t study any because I left to work in a café at the airport. I had a motorbike and I needed money, to buy boots or something.
"I started cooking for my friends in university, and they loved it, and they asked me to cook it again, cook it again — while they drank beer! I then got work in a five-star hotel in my home town, cooking fusion teppanyaki.”
Teppanyaki is a style of grill cooking that became popular in Japan after WWII, where the chef cooks, one-to-one, for the customer in front of them at the counter.
It is a pricey system, more popular with foreigners, and Takashi wound up cooking for Rod Stewart, Sting and former French president Jacques Chirac, amongst others before eventually leaving to work all over Japan, to learn different regional cuisines.
After graduating with an arts degree from UCD, Stephanie had travelled to Japan, aged 21, to teach English in Hiroshima.
“I was working in an Irish bar when we met,” says Takashi, “cooking cottage pie, burgers, stews, fish and chips, bangers and mash, I was trained by, a woman called Lavinia, a chef from Galway.”
An Irish bar? “I loved U2,” he grins sheepishly.
After a spell, Stephanie decided to return to Ireland to train as a national school teacher and she and Takashi continued their relationship long distance for over a year.
“I came to Ireland in 2008,” says Takashi, “just as the recession had started. It had started in Japan too so I thought it would be good to get away from it!”
He laughs, “Well, then I found Ireland was much worse! I had a work permit to work in a restaurant in Athlone. I was supposed to be the ‘sushi chef’ but it wasn’t a Japanese restaurant.
"The owner gave me Thai rice to work with. To me, it tasted bitter. And I had to put smoked salmon in the sushi. That broke my heart. There is no smoked salmon in Japanese sushi.
“Then four weeks after, I arrived at work to find the doors locked and the business closed. Everything was gone, even the tiny little notebook I had kept since I was 19 with all my notes on cooking. I had to start all over again, get another work visa and find a restaurant that would hire me.
"I finally got work in a restaurant in Tullamore, owned by Turkish people, cooking garlic mushrooms, chicken supreme, pizza, pasta, burgers. I had no choice, I had to work, had to get a job, we weren’t married then.”
In 2010, Takashi and Stephanie married in Japan and he returned to take up a position as head chef in Co. Westmeath. That proved far more suitable, right up until NAMA came in, followed not long after by the bankers and Takashi was on the hunt again. And that’s when Stephanie and her mother and sister took their fateful trip to Cork.
“We’d been thinking about and planning Miyazaki since 2004,” says Stephanie, “[Takashi and I] had been to Kinsale but not really to the city. I thought Cork had a fabulous vibe. We moved two months later, lock, stock and barrel. We said we have to start somewhere.
“I was trying for the teachers’ panel and I got it in Cork, which was vitally important for me. [Currently on maternity leave, Stephanie teaches in Belgooly, Co. Cork.] We had no restaurant, we had nothing but we had ourselves and we moved to Douglas and started looking for jobs.”
“It was tough,” grimaces Takashi, “I couldn’t get a job for six months, sent CV to places and there was no response. For some places my CV was too good, and they had no idea who I was —‘Japanese, in Cork, moved from Offaly, what was up with this guy?’
"I got a job in the Bosun in Monkstown for two years. I was lucky, especially after looking for so long. [Owner] Nicky [Moynihan] looked after me so well from the start, put me in as sous chef straight away.”
“[Takashi] needed to do that anyway,” says Stephanie, “to get to know all the suppliers, learn the scene, who’s good, who’s not. We didn’t know Cork at all. We had to get out there, get to know the vibe, where’s busy, where’s not, eat in a lot of restaurants and drink in a lot of bars.”
“At the same time,” says Takashi, “I started getting in touch with auctioneers. We looked at loads of premises in the city but there were problems always, too big, too small.
"Finally, I saw the sign for the Yangtze River. The rates and the price were quite nice and it was just two minutes walk from the city centre. I wasn’t sure about the area but I thought it could be a good challenge.
"I looked inside and saw it was definitely a takeaway and I said to Stephanie, ‘maybe we start with that because Irish people don’t know Japanese food.’”
There are Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan that offer little more in the line of space and creature comforts but to local Corkonians, it was initially presumed to be just another takeaway in an area laden with them. They tell the story of how it opened, finishing each other’s sentences.
Takashi: “We opened on March 6, 2015, a Friday…”
Stephanie laughs: “The cherry blossoms were out…”
Takashi: “We opened at midday and we were very quiet…”
Stephanie: “All looking at each other, going, please, someone come through the door.”
Takashi: “We had no advertising, just opened the door and see who comes in. The sign was up outside, the geisha was painted.”
Stephanie: “In the early days, so many people were looking for curry chips and battered sausages. Or they’d order ‘whatever you’re serving’ and ‘a bag of chips’. We’d say, ‘no chips,’ so they’d leave disgusted. It took a long time for the lunchtime to kick off but we persevered, it will come, we said, and it did.”
Takashi: “We open at 1pm now and there is a queue.”
The queues speak volumes. It wasn’t just Irish food celebrities raving —locals equally embraced the Miyazaki offering.
“Ordinary customers were also very interested, especially in the dashi.”
(Dashi is a broth or stock made from kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes and is the keystone of Japanese cuisine, a first mouthful, all you need to fully comprehend the Japanese concept of umami, that savoury fifth ‘taste’ that exists alongside sweet, sour, salt and bitter.)
Since arriving to Cork, Stephanie has given birth to two boys, Sean (2) and Stephen (9 weeks) and the couple appear well settled but many local fans are terrified of some investor persuading Takashi to up sticks and open a proper restaurant in Dublin, to cash in on his national renown.
“We will open a proper restaurant,” says Takashi. “Where?” asks this particular local fan with some trepidation. “Cork!” they snort in unison. “Where else?”
Did Takashi expect the level of acclaim, the native response to his food? “I think he did deep down,” says Stephanie. “I was hoping but I think he did deep down, you know, ‘build it and they will come’.”
Takashi is a humble man but replies with a quiet certainty that is nigh evangelical: “I believed it would happen because other Japanese restaurants weren’t offering the right taste, they didn’t have the flavour. I was hoping that my tastes would explode as something new in Ireland.
"I believe that it was my job, my mission to communicate to Irish people how good Japanese cuisine was and that if I did it right, using really good local Irish produce, they would take to it.”
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