The first few years of chef Yohhei Sasaki’s culinary career reads like a pitch for Hell’s Kitchen Japan. He certainly still bears the battle scars from his time working in Michelin-starred restaurants across Japan and Italy — not that his sunny disposition and peerless cooking would ever let it show.
“In my first job, the head chef told all us trainees that he was God,” Sasaki, now chef de cuisine at Hilton Singapore’s Michelin-awarded restaurant, il Cielo, recalls. “He’d say the sky was green and we’d all agree.”
Then just a 19-year-old fresh out of culinary school, Sasaki would learn to bunker down and churn out beef stroganoffs and other decadent French staples in just 15 minutes. And woe be the trainee who didn’t have it ready by then: He’d be on the receiving end of a well-aimed spatula from the head chef.
But aside from picking up two stomach holes and a few spatula-shaped imprints, Sasaki also developed a militaristic precision in his cooking that he attributes to his success. (“And at least I could still walk after that — my friend couldn’t,” he adds brightly.)
He then spent the next six years sweating it out in kitchens of acclaimed Italian restaurants across Tokyo — thankfully, the only egregious thing to happen during that time was an impulsively-thrown block of parmesan — before deciding to bite the bullet to pursue his passion.
Sasaki was already a sous chef in Tokyo when he decided to move to Italy to perfect his craft, even if it meant resetting his career progression to zero: When he arrived in Tuscany, he was a trainee with no pay, he called a windowless wine cellar his home, and he couldn’t speak a lick of Italian.
Sure, he knew his anatra from burro, but how do you parse that into a kitchen-ready sentence? To say that he was thrown in the deep end was an understatement.
That Sasaki is so willing to subject himself to such treatment says less about a secret masochistic streak than it does about his desire to elevate his cooking.
Today, he helms Hilton Singapore’s rooftop Italian restaurant, il Cielo. And yes, he gets that double-take often: A Japanese chef doing Italian food? It’s got to be fusion, or some aberration of ‘real’ Italian cooking.
But the recently refurbished restaurant — like its head chef — staunchly resists being pigeonholed. It isn’t fusion cuisine per se — there are separate degustation menus dedicated each to Italian and Japanese — but Italian food done by a Japanese chef who happens to know his stuff pretty damn well.
Where Sasaki’s four-year pilgrimage really shines is in the restaurant’s seasonal menus. The seven-course experience serves up a harmonious symphony of both Japanese and Italian cuisine: In each of the courses, guests are invited to choose between an Italian dish and a Japanese one. His latest Winter menu is redolent with rustic cold-weather favourites from both Italy and Japan: choose between grilled Japanese eel topped with the lavish Shimonita green onions (said to be an Imperial Family favourite) and slow-cooked wagyu beef tongue topped with the succulent Radicchio Tardivo — Italian for ‘winter flower’.
There’s almost an abstract sensibility to Sasaki’s plates — but make no mistake, each course is a hearty, delicious meal in its own right. Here, from il Cielo’s latest Winter menu, is the slow-cooked wagyu beef tongue, and the ravioli di lasagna stuffed with A4 Miyazaki wagyu.
(Image: Hilton Singapore)
It’s all very clean-tasting (you can go through all the courses without feeling heavy and sluggish by the end of it), and made with a finesse of someone intimately acquainted with both cuisines.
“Italian and Japanese food are actually quite similar,” adds Sasaki, who frequently returns to Italy to mine for inspiration (his Autumn tasting menu was borne from his latest trip to an amber-hued Tuscany).
“For example, both cuisines love seafood, they both focus on seasonal items and produce. Where you would use white wine in Italy, you’d use sake in Japan — so it’s pretty easy to fuse them both together.”
And if his ever-changing seasonal menus are any indication, he’s having a ball of a time experimenting with the limits of both.
Out of the kitchen, though, the battle-hardened chef prefers to take a back seat. Where does he eat when he’s not on duty? “My wife cooks,” he laughs. Now that’s one kitchen surely devoid of stray blocks of lobbed parmesan.