“I was never really good at making people smile, like with a sense of humour or any other way, but as I got better and better at cooking and I fed people I saw their smiles, so I thought wow this is a good way, my way to make people happy…!”
Chef Takumi Saito has been in the restaurant industry for 15 years, he started out in a professional kitchen where he trained under chef Seung-min Han, now 14 years later they are reunited. We caught up with the busy chef at Sai Woo Restaurant for a Q and A:
Why did you choose this industry?
“At first I started cooking because it was an easier and cheaper way to feed myself, I got into kitchen work really so I could have my meals and a paycheque so for me it was about surviving at the time.”
Was there a pivotal moment when you found yourself developing a passion for what you were doing?
“I was never really good at making people smile, like with a sense of humour or any other way, but as I got better and better at cooking and I fed people I saw their smiles, so I thought wow this is a good way, my way to make people happy and at the same time it just made me happy as well. So for me it was a win-win kind of thing and that is how I was hooked into cooking.
“That was the start of a great thing, to be better and better, to make people smile even more I had to hone my skills, so I was competitive in the kitchen I had to test my skills I had to keep learning something new.”
Was that very difficult to achieve?
“My character trait is when I learn something new I want to master it, once I get to a place where I am completely satisfied with mastering something new, I want to move on and learn again, learn something else that I don’t know. I am always wanting to learn, it is what keeps me engaged and curious. I love learning new things and mastering it before I move onto to something else.”
Tell us a bit about your culinary journey?
“Well, my roots are traditional Japanese and North American-Japanese food. But I started out working in a Japanese-Korean kitchen which is where I met Han, and that is where I started learning about Korean cuisine because I was working with a lot of Korean chefs and they would make Korean staff meals and I got to learn a lot from these chefs about traditional family meals.
“After that I moved onto to more a fusion style of Japanese and north American cuisine, I got to see my traditional cuisine from a different perspective; how others approach the Japanese traditional food and turn that into a more western style. I learnt so much and I mastered a lot too.”
You spent some years out east, correct?
“Yes, I moved out to Toronto because I wanted to learn more about an urban non-coastal cuisine like what is popular in big cities. I got to learn about what is popular in Toronto, I learnt about French Italian and East Coast food.
“After that I went back to my roots in japan. I wanted to really learn about my traditional food. I worked in a Michelin star restaurant and there I learnt a lot about fermentation, amongst other things.
“So yeah, I have learnt so much about food and cooking in the past 15 years, like French, Italian, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese too, and of course Canadian West Coast and East Coast styles.”
Wow, so what is next to learn?
“My next big thing to learn is Vietnamese cuisine, and that could happen if I hire some people here, I can learn from them and they can learn from me too. I am looking for people to join my team so we can start creating together…as soon as I get some more chefs, I will get to finish my new menu”.
Have you learnt a lot from chef Han?
“You know, Han I go back to the start of my career, back when I worked with him I didn’t know anything so he was teaching me what he knows, his culinary knowledge, so yeah even though back then I wasn’t looking at a culinary career, like I said, I was trying to feed myself, and I was enjoying the family feeling one gets in a kitchen.“
Tell us about the family part?
“Well, I left home when I was 14 years old, I came to Canada as a high school student to study here, after I graduated I didn’t want to go back, I felt like this was my home. My parent told me if I wanted to stay I could, but I would have to financially support myself. Like I said, I loved it here so much, I agreed to find my own way and that is how I got into kitchens, really to feed myself, and well I found my passion too. And as I mentioned earlier, learning and cooking and eating with everyone in the kitchen, they became my family. So yeah I will always feel like home is in the kitchen.“
Now that you and chef Han are reunited, do you have the same culinary vision?
“Now, I am reunited with Han after 14 years and although we are on different cuisines…Han is more the Korean/Mediterranean/West Coast inspired cuisine guy…and I am more like a West-Coast/North American cuisine-with-a-bit-of-Asian twist kinda a guy…our vision is a little different when it comes to cuisines but we will always share the passion and the discovery of cooking and learning about new culinary influences and old culinary traditions.
“The biggest things Han and I have in common is feeding people, and supporting local, that is the fuel that keeps us going and learning. For me, and Han, we will always definitely choose local and local organic as much as possible, we both have a healthy vision of food as it relates to people and planet.“
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