I’m spending my Sunday morning chasing a group of chefs around Footscray. They move quick, considering their hangovers.
At the centre of the flock (made up mostly of chefs from the kitchens of Marion and Cutler & Co.) is Junya Yamasaki. Born in Japan, he was most recently owner of London udon restaurant Koya, which he closed in 2015. This week the chef is in town for a four-day kitchen takeover at Andrew McConnell’s Fitzroy wine bar, Marion, which begins on Tuesday evening.
We start at D&K Live Seafood, a narrow, bright-blue aquarium on Leeds Street. It’s lined with bubbling tanks and is attended by gentlemen in baseball caps and slick, cerulean aprons.
Yamasaki stares into a tank holding mud crabs the size of toy poodles. “In Japan we have smaller ones,” he says.
Shoulder-length hair tucked behind his ears, he peers into crates of black sea urchins and deep-red lobsters that go for $150 a kilo. He stops at a tank of periwinkles, an edible sea snail, marked at $12 a kilo.
“Good for nibbling,” he says. “In Sichuan [China], they cook it in chilli oil. It’s really cheap. It’s a popular food with cheap sake and cheap alcohol.”
I ask if it’s chewy. “You can cook it soft, same as abalone.”
He plans to buy some for Marion, which he’ll prepare in neither the Sichuan nor Japanese style (the latter cooked slowly with soy sauce).
“For a wine bar, it’s better to be more quick and refreshing, so maybe cook in seawater. I ask the fisherman to get lots of seawater.” He’ll put a bit of lemon on the side, too.
We walk around the corner to a packed fresh-food market. Vendors yell prices in different languages, wedges of ripe avocado and feijoas are passed around for tasting.
At Thien Loan Supermarket he stops at a plate of cut-up pomelo (which looks like a giant, pale grapefruit). He dunks the citrus piece into a tub of provided chilli salt. “I love it,” he says, reminded of how watermelon is served with salt in parts of Asia.
Yamasaki will cook for up to 100 covers during service at Marion. I ask how he feels about not only dropping into an unfamiliar kitchen, but one in a foreign country.
“One of the exciting things is to meet a new food, a new produce, a new vegetable, a new animal, new fishes.”
“Yesterday I tried Tasmanian mountain pepper,” he says. “It was shockingly spicy! I’d never had it. It doesn’t disappear – my mouth is on fire.”
Cooking in a new country can be a bit of a comedy of errors, too.
“Things don’t happen in the way you expect. You prepare so much and you do your research. Then you get there you say, ‘Oh, this is not what I imagined’, when you taste it. There are so many things in Australia I have never tasted.”
“It’s like international marriage,” he says, laughing. “You have lots of fights, and you just have misunderstandings. You learn a lot by doing this. Lots of miracles happen because of that.”
Junya Yamasaki cooks dinner at Marion Wine Bar from Tuesday June 21 to Friday June 24. There will also be a lunch service on the Friday.
The event is now booked out, although there is a standing bar and stools along the window for limited walk-ins.
Call (03) 9419 6262 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for enquiries.