Suzuko Enomoto: A chef as rare as her sashimi

Chef Enomoto visits the Japan House to cook a meal.

By Lillian Barkley

In the midst of Friday’s eight-course dinner, the Japan House’s guest kitchen staff frantically rushed the trays of food back toward the oven. A patchwork of Japanese-to-English and back translations reveal the issue: the oven was not set to celsius but fahrenheit. But among the clatter, Chef Suzuko Enomoto gracefully whisks the entrees onto a baking sheet and into the oven with a calm smile at the mix-up.      

On Friday, the Japan House, located at 2000 S. Lincoln Ave. in Urbana, hosted a kaiseki dinner, a traditional prix fixe Japanese meal served in multiple courses. Of the meal’s eight courses, Kindai Tuna was the featured item — an environmentally sustainable Bluefin tuna from Japan largely considered the rarest tuna in the world. And Chef Enomoto, also from Japan, was leading the preparations in serving the Japan House’s 21 guests.

Enomoto flew in specifically for the dinner after being invited by the Japan Illini Club. Despite the frantic energy around her, she moved with purpose across the white open kitchen space, smiling calmly between each delicate placement. Just as the tuna being set for the Japan House’s exclusive guests, Enomoto’s position as a trained female kaiseki chef is a rarity.

“Even though the female chefs and male chefs have the same ability to cook, the male chefs are more valued than female chefs,” Enomoto said through translator Shota Komatsu, freshman in ACES and one of four Japanese exchange students at the University on scholarship from the Japan Illini Club. 

As 21 member and nonmember guests took their seats, Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, Japan House director, introduced Enomoto. 

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Enomoto’s parents owned a Ryokan, a Japanese-style inn, where she read classic literature and loved the way food was described, Gunji-Ballsrud said. 

“I like to eat,” Chef Enomoto said, without a translator, when asked why she wanted to become a chef. 

She said she had been professionally cooking for roughly 20 years and owns two restaurants: one specializes in kaiseki and the other is a café. 

Chef Enomoto returned to the kitchen to prepare the next course with the help of two assistants — one from Japan, like herself, and the other, area chef Nick Foreman, who volunteered to help.

He said that while there were certain language barriers with casual conversation, the food preparation was easy to communicate and understand. 

“You kind of know what people are reaching for before they even reach it,” he said. 

The different cooking techniques and tools used by Enomoto, such as chopsticks and a specialized sashimi knife, were the most educating parts of the kaiseki experience, he said. 

Each kaiseki dinner follows specific rules, which makes it difficult to innovate the dishes, Komatsu translated.

“It is very important to think highly of tradition in kaiseki, but it is also important to create something new,” Komatsu translated. “The Japanese people think that the nature is very important for them, and so the nature is associated with the kaiseki dinner in a sense, so they really think highly of the order of rules in kaiseki dinner.”

For example, the sashimi course, which is thin slices of Kindai tuna, must be served during an odd-numbered course, according to Enomoto and Komatsu. 

Kindai tuna is the focus of the meal, Enomoto said. It was a farmed fish bred with Bluefin tuna by Kinki University Fishing Laboratory in Osaka, Japan. It is very famous, rare and expensive, according to Enomoto. 

Kaiseki dinners don’t normally used farmed fish, Komatsu translated, but in this case it was necessary. One side of the fish weighed 60 pounds, according to Gunji-Ballsrud. 

Kindai is also oilier than Bluefin, but contains plenty of toro, the fatty meat from the tuna’s belly, according to Enomoto. 

“They will cook Kindai tuna so that people living here can enjoy them,” Komatsu said of Chef Enomoto. “Most Americans associate tuna with sushi, but that’s not true, and tuna is used for a variety of dishes, so she’s trying to break the concept.”

Guests clinked porcelain glasses filled with sake across a serene, candlelit table in the dining room, their chatter and laughter drowning out the noise in the kitchen. Each guest paid at least $200 to attend the meal, with nonmembers having paid $225. 

“They get into it; they’re learning something,” said Nick Sakagami, a fish expert who introduced the night’s sake pairings and tended to guests’ questions about the meals. 

When the Kindai was served, hums of satisfaction filled the small space. 

“The tuna is amazing,” said Jeanette Nugent, one of the night’s guests. “I don’t think you can get this, even in Japan.”

The rest of the meal participants agreed with the appreciative sentiment. Thad Morrow, owner of Bacaro in Champaign, said he was fascinated by Japanese food, and it was clear that the meal was very personal to Enomoto. Doug Fields had never attended a kaiseki dinner before, but said it was interesting and different and there was nothing he didn’t like. 

“It’s another example of the extraordinary experience you can have at (the University),” Greg Lykins said.

This was the goal of the meal, according to Gunji-Ballsrud. 

“Food, to me, is a very traditional and important aspect of Japanese culture,” she said. 

She wanted people to be able to “share this cultural experience in the middle of a cornfield,” she said.

A croissant-like pastry called rusk, which is sold in the most popular department stores in Japan, was served as the final dessert course. But Chef Enomoto was in the kitchen, still smiling and serving the volunteers leftover strawberries dipped in sake custard. 

Eventually, she was led into the dining room and met with a standing ovation. Through a translator, she said she was nervous for the meal and was relieved that everyone enjoyed it. 

All of the guests received light pink gift bags filled with her rusks, which she brought with her from Japan. The rusks are just one of her twists on the traditional cuisine. 

“She tries to incorporate new concepts such as ‘kawaii’ into her dishes,” Komatsu translated. “She hopes she can show her new, innovative dishes to people all over the world.”

Lillian can be reached at lbarkle2@dailyillini.com