Iron chef Chen Kenichi and his son Chen Kentaro, executive chef of Shisen Hanten are in town this weekend. They are here for a special father-son cook-off at Shisen Hanten, Mandarin Orchard. We ask them to dish up the spice on all things Szechuan.
How would you describe your father-son relationship?
Iron Chef: We work very closely as bosses of our company. We are a family of chefs. My father (Chen Kenmin) was from Szechuan province. He first came to Japan as a tourist, thought it was a very nice place and decided to stay on. Since he was a chef, he joined a Chinese restaurant, met my mum there and got married.
When I was young, I often observed my dad working in the kitchen. I thought cooking was easy to pick up and rather ‘cool’. My father’s food was delicious, and I was interested to learn, so I decided to be a chef. Kentaro went through a similar path.
When he was young, he was curious about what I was doing in the kitchen and became a chef himself eventually. Relationship? I guess I see him as someone who takes over and carries on. Just like he is doing now, I became a boss when I was in my thirties too, but that was because my dad passed away. I’m 61 now. The baton must be passed to the next generation. Kentaro’s work improved year by year, so I decided to pass the family business on to him. This restaurant in Singapore, though, is completely helmed by him.
When you cook together at home, what’s a dish you often prepare together?
Iron Chef: We have a ‘Chen family’ recipe. We use simple ingredients like pork, radish, kombu to make double-boiled soups like radish soup, using my father’s recipe. We add ingredients like cucumber to leftover vegetables and pickled minced meat to enhance the flavours. I cook it the way my dad used to do it, and I passed it on to Kentaro. And the mapo doufu we do at home “has no ma”, it tastes quite different from the one we have at our restaurants, but it is the best because it has the taste of our Chen family recipe.
Chef Kentaro: Actually if we’re talking about home cooking, Mum’s cooking tastes better! (laughs)
Iron Chef: Yes, my wife’s a genius! Her food’s very spicy, but very good.
How do you see Szechuan cuisine developing currently?
Iron Chef: Every year, we make at least one trip to Szechuan province to check out the produce and see what the chefs are doing there. Chefs there now are thinking about going back to the roots of authentic, traditional Szechuan cuisine.
Any plans to for expansion of Shisen Hanten branches in the near future?
Chef Kentaro: We will be focusing on Singapore for now. It’s our fourth year here, and we want concentrate on making it better. Personally I’ve been delving into Japanese arts like tea-brewing and pottery, and I would like to pair them with my cuisine.
How would you sum up the unique taste of Shisen Hanten?
Iron Chef: I would say it’s in the use of our sauces. Those days when Japan had no diplomatic ties with China, it was impossible to have doubanjiang, original Szechuan peppers etc. My father had to use local ingredients to make the sauces. Now we get our doubanjiang from Pixian county in Szechuan province, from the same supplier that my father loved most. We also make some of our doubanjiang from scratch. And for each individual condiment, we have carefully selected suppliers. Here you can find the authentic taste of Szechuan cuisine.
Chef Kentaro: Yes, in Shisen Hanten, we always go with tradition, but also have some modern touches. For example, our signature foie gras chawanmushi with crab roe soup is Szechuan cuisine made with Japanese technique and Western ingredients. But our dishes evolve, even our signature dish mapo doufu. We tailor it according to the diner’s taste, including the level of spiciness. But I discovered that when we first started, diners found our traditional mapo doufu strong and oily; these days, they are able to accept and appreciate the authentic flavours.
Iron Chef: Even dan dan mian has changed a lot. It’s a dish that started out being a noodles with spicy sauce. My father adapted it to local culture as he realised that the Japanese prefer soup noodles or ramen. There is a special tomato sauce that my father tasted in Japan and added to it, and thought it was good. Chefs from Szechuan province came to Japan and tasted the noodles and liked the taste. They brought that taste to Szechuan as well, influencing the cuisine there too. So the cuisine is always evolving.
Any new dishes coming up for the restaurant?
Chef Kentaro: Seasonal produce guides our new dishes. For instance, when shishito peppers were in season last autumn, I decided to feature them in a dish with wok-fried marble goby. In the coming months when summer turns to autumn, I’d like to use mushrooms, not just from Japan but also from places in China such as Yunnan. I’d like to do more communal dishes because they convey a sense of home and they are traditional. I already have a lamb hotpot dish in mind!
Level 35 Orchard Wing, Mandarin Orchard Singapore, 333 Orchard Road. Tel: 6831 6262/6831 6266