CINCINNATI - We invite you to dig into our weekly column spotlighting different chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. Each Sunday, WCPO Contributor Grace Yek takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves.
At 19, Hideki Harada could peel shrimp faster and better than any of his friends. The sushi chef he worked for made sure of it.
"He was very old school. His training was more about peeling shrimp and doing the basics," Harada recalled. "He never said 'good job,' only that I was getting faster and doing it correctly. It was humbling."
Harada, born in New York and raised in Cincinnati, was going to Columbus State University at that time. He needed a part time job and stumbled onto what was his calling: A culinary career. Harada realized that at the young age of 19 his hands would be his key to his success.
Harada's hunch was spot on. Today he is the executive chef and co-owner of Kaze, a Japanese gastropub and sushi bar in Over-the-Rhine. Harada's culinary journey was by no means easy or straightforward.
His work at various sushi bars in the early years quickly propelled him to the rank of sushi chef. Harada even led the opening of the sushi bar when Embers restaurant first opened in Kenwood.
Even as he easily rose to the top rank in sushi, Harada had the nagging feeling his ascent was too quick and too soon. "I even grew to hate it at one point," he said.
Harada took a detour into the hot kitchen to recalibrate himself. He worked at Boca in Oakley for a time, earning the name "I-robot." "We'd do '20-top' parties and I was kicking out plates of food really quickly and precisely. It came from my sushi training," he said.
As much as he enjoyed his work at Boca, Harada took another turn in his culinary journey. This time to Japan. "I enrolled myself at the Tsuji Culinary Academy in Osaka," he said. It was in Japan that Harada finally found what he had been looking for: an old world approach to culinary training.
Harada's first inkling he was not in Ohio anymore came when he and his classmates were handed buckets and mops.
"We were in lecture halls, and at the end of lecture, they brought out the buckets. We were wiping the seats down and cleaning the floors. This was not even the kitchen," he said.
Harada realized there were no janitors, and his duties soon extended to the toilets and bathrooms. The culinary teachers were just as rigorous.
"They make you sharpen your knives everyday with not just a steel but stone. If they're not happy with your edge, you don't get to participate in class," he said.
"You have to be able to take the poundings," Harada said. "If you're doing katsuramuki, and your knife is not sharp, the teacher will come over and slap you."
Students habitually came to class two hours early to practice their knife skills and ready themselves for class.
As harsh as culinary school was, Harada loved it. It was the challenge he had been looking for.
"I came away more humble than ever. What I learned in the States was nothing compared to what I learned there," Harada said.
His training took another leap when he apprenticed at Sushi Roku in Osaka.
"I went to the market everyday at 5 in the morning. I scaled and cleaned the fish, and set everything up for the chef," Harada said.
It was also in Japan that Harada met his wife. She helped him to elevate his "home-style" Japanese-speak to one that was more instructed. Harada had previously been seen as irreverent in the eyes of the older generation because of his less-than-polished vernacular.
When Harada came back to Cincinnati for a visit, he reconnected with restaurateur, Jon Zipperstein, for whom he worked at Embers some years ago. The two joined forces as partners and opened Kaze in early 2013.
Food and cooking philosophy
“Always take care of the food, and the food will take care of you. Let the knife do the work, and don’t use brute strength. Always work clean,” Harada said.
Harada believes in gentle and respectful handling of food.
“If you get a beautiful fish in, and you just slap it on the cutting board, the rough handling may cause the flesh to tear and change the quality of the meat,” he said.
"When you’re working, there are just brisk movements of sharp knives and no sounds. The thud of throwing food around just ruins the natural state of things. There’s a time to talk, and a time to work."
When he cooks, Harada doesn’t rely so much on written instructions. Instead, he cooks with his senses.
“When I’m cooking, I think about what I’m cooking. I don’t pay too much attention to what is written in a book. I don’t even think about time. I just focus myself into the product or dish,” he said.
Essential ingredients and tools
Harada’s kitchen must-haves include:
- Bone tweezers for fish
- Peti knife. Harada uses this knife “for everything.”
- Sashimi knife. The chef at Sushi Roku, the last place Harada worked at in Japan, gave him
- this handmade sashimi knife.
Harada’s late father bought him his first sushi knife when he was 19. It was his father’s way of nudging him to pursue his culinary interest. However, it took Harada well into his adult years before he began to understand his father.
“It was a love-hate relationship in the early days,” Harada said. “Being in America, watching my dad go on business trips, and only seeing him once a month … I hated it.”
When Harada went to culinary school in Japan, he saw for himself the incredibly disciplined work ethic people there lived by.
“Now I understand why he was raising me like that. My dad’s passing turned me into a man. I felt at that point, if I’m going to do this, there will be no more doubts. I’ll face it forward, and face it like a man," he said. "My father inspires my work ethic."
Harada’s mother was not only comforting when things got difficult with his father, she also cooked up memorable comfort food.
“She made the best comfort food – Japanese fried chicken, curry rice, and croquette potatoes. Not only that, they were consistently good,” he said. His mother’s food inspires Harada to this day.
Ferran Adria, known to many as the godfather of molecular gastronomy, inspires Harada.
“When I first read about what he was doing, I thought it was cool. I didn’t understand what it was, but his constant pushing and moving forward inspired me,” Harada said. “Game-changing chefs are always motivating.”
Sheer discipline inspires Harada.
“I can’t remember the number of empty sake boxes thrown at me, and the slaps on the head. Those are small moments, but they add up, and are formative,” he said. Those moments have pushed him to dig deeper and reach higher.
Favorite meal to cook for family
Harada doesn’t cook much at home. According to him, his wife cooks most of the time, and keeps the refrigerator stocked.
However, Harada loves mapo tofu. The restaurant crew at Embers heartily agreed with him when he first made it there for their family meal years ago. Harada doesn’t normally measure the ingredients, but approximated a recipe of how he puts the dish together.
- 1 pack medium firm tofu
- ½ lb ground pork
- ½ cup green onion
- Eggplant (optional)
- 1 tbsp tobanjan
- 1 tbsp gochujang
- 1 tbsp red miso
- ¼ cup sake
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 whole chili (optional)
- Cornstarch slurry (mix ¼ cup cornstarch with ½ cup water)
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- Salt to taste
- 1 tsp sesame oil to finish
Sauté garlic, add tobanjan, gochujang, and chili. Deglaze pan with sake. Add chicken stock, miso, tofu, pork, green onion, and season with soy sauce and salt. Bring to a boil. Add slurry to thicken. Add sesame oil to finish.