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Momotaro’s Mark Hellyar Honored by Japan Government

Monday, February 01, 2016 tgoandco

Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries department presented it's Taste of Japan Award to Chicago’s Mark Hellyar, chef and innovator at Momotaro in celebration for his work in promoting Japanese food and ingredients to Western culture. The Award recognizes chefs who prepare Japanese ingredients with passion, integrity and creativity. They celebrate chefs who bring international awareness about the popularity and artistry of Japanese cuisine.

Hellyar started his career in Washington DC for Michel Richard at Citronelle — a trailblazer of good taste and all things that taste good. He then moved over to DC’s Nora’s which is the first certified organic restaurant in the country and was the Chef de Cuisine. In pursuit of a dream, he moved to Japan and lived in Tokyo and while there, gained a deep appreciation and understanding for the dining, culture and way of life. He tried everything from highbrow to lowbrow peasant foods to get a clear understanding of the culture and how food is part of it. While living in Tokyo, He worked for a number of restaurants— most notably was Oak Door and Shunbou. Hellyar return to the states and landed in Chicago. He partnered with the Boka Restaurant Group in the Fall of 2014 to open Momotaro. Chicago Magazine elected it to be the Best New Restaurant of the Year in 2015.

Momotaro is innovative and promises surprises for guests who dine there. It is conceptual in that it seeks to develop and redevelop/redefine modern Japanese cuisine and showcase the features that make Japanese cuisine a stand out. Most notably in this endeavor is the pursuit of the umami taste sensation on the tongue. Umami gets triggered in taste receptors of the mouth when there is a presence of glutamates. Glutamates are found in savory products like meat broths or fermented products. Since glutamates receptors are quite distinct from other receptors that sense for salty, sweet, bitter or sour, foods in Eastern culture are more unique that they consider this flavor to be fundamental. Only recently has it been recognized in Western taste.

In western cuisine, umami is triggered by richness found in cheeses, salmon, tomatoes, mushrooms and some aged foods. In non-western cuisine, this can translate into a plethora of other sources such as soy sauces, fermented barley sauces and food pairings that include Dashi. Dashi is a stock base similar to chicken or vegetable stock but made with seaweed. Like chicken or vegetable stock, it finds it's way into much of the food. It is this feature that makes Japanese food quite unique in the flavor profiles. In bringing awareness of it, people in the Western world now look for it as they find they have been missing out on something quite wonderful.

The Taste of Japan Award ceremony was held at the Union League Club of Chicago and had three components. First was the ceremony itself with greeting from the Consul-General Toshiyuki Iwado. The award was presented by Michael Garbin, Executive Chef of the Union League Club who also sat on the nomination committee. Following the award presentation, a conversation/presentation entitled Exploring Shokuzai by Chef Hellyar and ABC7 Chicago Food Reporter and Writer, Steve Dolinsky was given. The presentation was more explorative and helped to bring understanding to much of the press that was in the room. For those who were unfamiliar with some of the ingredients present in Japanese cuisine, this was extremely informative and helpful. Shokuzai is an umbrella term for food ingredients that have become part of mainstream in Japanese food. This includes the spices, grains, meats, herbs and fish, but also bones, seaweed and lards. The focus on tonight’s short exploration of the evening was Miso, Seaweed and Wagyu. The final portion of the evening allowed attendees to taste food that were made with these ingredients and witness how some of the food was prepared.

The food was prepared with an emphasis was on the artistic presentation of fresh, seasonal ingredients which is a standard by which Japanese cuisine is judged. The food for the night’s sampling was prepared by M-Square Catering (specialists in Japanese catering), the School of Culinary Arts of Kendall College and Momotaro. It was extraordinary in not only in taste but visually. It helped to explain why Japanese cuisine is quickly becoming so immensely popular. This Taste of Japan event was the first in the Midwest. It is part of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries initiative to bring cultural awareness about the food industry to the US and Europe. The selection committee for the award is based in Washington DC with arms on both coasts and the Midwest. It is composed of luminaries from the food industry whose expertise is beyond that of just the Japanese cuisine.

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