With discerning diners in search of constant novelty, the a la carte menu might seem a bit boring. You go to a restaurant and order their signature dishes. But then what? One way to deal with that problem of choice is Omakase, the Japanese concept of letting the chef decide what you should eat. Thus doing away with choice altogether.
What is Omakase?
Literally meaning “I leave it up to you” or “I entrust to you”, the concept finds its roots in Japan where one would typically enter a sushi restaurant, be seated at the counter in front of the chef and allow the chef to prepare a meal from the freshest ingredients he has that day. In the culinary world, this is the highest form of trust you can put in a chef. You have no idea what you will be eating, but trust the chef to woo your palate with the finest ingredients he can find, crafted into exquisite dishes just for you. This is individual service, the epitome of luxury.
Tracing its roots
Chef Gabriel Fratini doesn’t agree with the Japanese taking credit for omakase meals, though. The highly acclaimed Italian chef helms the kitchen at Domvs by Gabriel Fratini nestled within Singapore’s Sheraton Towers. “But this is the way we Italians have been eating for generations,” he exclaims in his trademark style, and adds with a twinkle in his eye, “much before Japan was even discovered!”.
He insists that in Italy, you walk into a café and the chef asks you what kind of meat or pasta you wish to eat and serves you a meal basis those preferences. “If you see someone poring over a menu in Italy, you know they’re tourists,” he says with a smile. And he would know. He’s been doing this for close to 30 years now. “I started omakase in Singapore,” he claims, “all these young chefs came much much later”. Domvs means ‘home’ in Latin and that is the concept at his restaurant, to serve food as if the guests came to your house for a meal.
You wouldn’t ask a guest in your home to choose from a menu, would you?
The young but highly talented Austrian chef, Stephan Zoisl runs Chef’s Table by Chef Stephan, one of the only two restaurants in Singapore that I repeatedly return to for a meal. Dining here is like dining in a different restaurant each time, the dishes are never the same yet they never fail to please. Chef Stephan admits that he had an a-la-carte menu when he started out, as well as a chef’s table right at the back facing the open kitchen where he served the diners what he pleased that day. For him, it was more of a natural progression towards an entirely omakase setup as all his diners begged to be seated at the chef’s table, and did not wish to decide for themselves.
Omakase vs degustation
The nomenclature omakase, however, may be a colloquial term now. Omakase in Japan typically centres around meat in every course with barely any carbs or desserts. The French call it degustation where the chef serves a variety of his signature dishes, over several courses usually evolving from cold to hot, with bread on the side, culminating into a spectacular pastry course (or two).
But with the central idea remaining similar, these terms seem to be used interchangeably now. “I call it an omakase experience because people in Singapore are familiar with that term,” admits Chef Stephan.
The real difference between these different concepts from opposite ends of the world may lie in the surprise element of it. If a degustation menu (sometimes also called a tasting menu) is printed out and you know what you’re going to eat in every course, it immediately differentiates itself from an omakase experience. The portion sizes also may differ with degustation portions being smaller and more bite-sized.
Somewhere along this blurry line lies two Michelin starred restaurant, Gaggan Bangkok, recently awarded No.1 in the list of 50 Best Restaurant in Asia. The menu only hints cryptically at what each dish might be. Something called ‘Charcoal’ might look unmistakably like a piece of charcoal on a white plate, until you bite in and discover its fishy brilliance.
Closer home, restaurants like Wasabi by Morimoto (Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai), Fenix (Oberoi, Mumbai) and Yataii (Shangri La, Bengaluru) are testing waters by offering omakase dining.
Planning an omakase menu
But as fascinating as the experience may be for a diner, one wonders if it poses a challenge to the chef in terms of sourcing. “On the contrary,” says Chef Stephan, “With technology connecting everybody so seamlessly, sourcing the best ingredients from anywhere in the world is possible with the click of a finger. Each morning, my suppliers call me from Changi airport, telling me what they have fresh that day and I tell them what to send over.” J.I.T. (just-in-time), a supply chain formula that worked well in the automobile industry seems to have found its way into restaurants too. “This also reduces wastage,” he adds earnestly, “as we don’t stock anything we won’t be cooking with that day”.
Chef Fratini has a more hands-on approach. He makes his way to a wet market in the wee hours each morning, where he seeks out the freshest ingredients that day and gets the lot delivered to his restaurant. The vegetables are easy, he says, but the fish is what needs his personal attention. The vendors know him well. Arrive early enough and you can see them chatting away with him gaily, reserving the best of their wares for him.
Once the ingredients are all in, the chefs at an omakase restaurant will brainstorm on how to use them differently that day. It is a lot like painting on a canvas, you experiment with techniques, with combinations, with plating, and come up with a masterpiece that you’ve poured your soul into, with the hope that it will be appreciated. And the next morning, you start all over again. It is not easy for the kitchen staff as they need to re-train every single day. There is no list of 20 dishes that they need to perfect and then serve day in and day out. It’s like playing a different sport every day at the Olympics.
Accounting for variable change
Recognizing the fact that diners do like to be presented with a piece of paper when they are seated at a restaurant, Chef’s Table by Chef Stephan gives out a sheet that merely lists out 28 ingredients that they have sourced that day. If you have any allergies or preferences, you are asked to point those out on the paper and then the magic begins.
At other omakase restaurants, it may not be as structured, but you will be asked if you have any allergies.
Work and play
“We once had a customer who crossed out 21 ingredients out of 28, leaving us with only 7. I think it was to challenge us,” relates Chef Stephan. “We had plenty of fun preparing the meal with those too!”
And that perhaps encapsulates the emotions behind an omakase meal, from the chef’s perspective. At one end, he is laying out his soul, his journey, the way he sees the world, out for you on that plate, course after course. But on the other hand, it isn’t all work and no play. It transforms the kitchen into a playground for these chefs who work gruelling hours otherwise. You have different toys to play with every day, and it’s up to you and your team what unique pieces of art you create with them. Sometimes they work, sometimes not as much, but there’s never a dull moment in the kitchen (or on the diner’s table, for that matter).
Harnoor Channi-Tiwary is a marketing specialist who wandered into the world of writing and never left. She has been writing about food and travel for more than a decade. She blogs at TheThoughtExpress, tweets as @HCdines.