Bryan Nagao is best known in Hong Kong for cooking up a pan-Asian storm at Felix and modern Japanese at Kokage.
He was a protégé of legendary chef Roy Yamaguchi and has held prominent positions in restaurants in Hawaii and the US. He is now heading up the kitchen at D.Diamond, which is attracting a well-heeled, low-key celebrity clientele.
After trying Nagao’s decadently indulgent White Flag menu (link to Restaurant Highlight) I sat down to learn more about the menu and his plans for the future. Also included is a recipe for one of his signature dishes.
Did you always want to be a chef?
No. I grew up in a Hawaii and there was not a lot to do, I hadn’t heard about the banking industry back then (he said with a wry smile). The biggest industry was tourism and so I got a job in a hotel, which also allowed me to surf. I would often go to work straight after surfing.
I then moved to San Francisco and got a job at the Park Hyatt, it was then that I became more interested in food as I was doing a lot more cooking. I was also working with some really great guest chefs that had their own restaurants. I learnt a lot and had a lot of fun. This also led to more travel and work in other places, including returning to Hawaii to work for Roy Yamaguchi.
It was only when The Peninsula hired me to head up the kitchen at Felix did I realise I could make money cooking!
Now, I wouldn’t trade this job for any other, including a successful career in finance, it’s too much fun!
How would you describe your cuisine at D.Diamond?
Italian and Japanese ingredients and flavours combined. The restaurant was originally going to be an Italian restaurant, but the restaurant next door to us opened before we did and it serves Italian food so we added the Japanese twist.
There have been some articles or reviews that have called the food fusion. I wouldn’t call it that, but people are going to call it what they want and that’s OK.
Why Italian with Japanese?
Globally people enjoy both cuisines. And, the two combine well. In one way there are similarities between the two cuisines, for example noodles and pasta. In another they are very distinctive cuisines, but ultimately they are complementary.
Tell me more about your White Flag tasting menu?
The diner is served course after course until they metaphorically wave the white flag of surrender. It is an idea that I like and provides the diner with a different experience than ordering from the al a carte menu, a more unique experience. It gives the diner an idea of what is possible with the cuisine here.
It is fun for me to create and it is also fun for the diner.
We also have a regular tasting menu but the white flag menu gives me the freedom to go beyond that when I want.
There are still not a lot of diners that know about it, so far we have only done it for people we know.
When I tried the White Flag menu I felt that I was taken on a journey, that began quietly but that built and built and built, and instead of being dropped from a great height I was brought back down to earth gently, was that the plan?
Yes, the plan is to take the diner on a journey. It is based on the Japanese Kaiseki meal, each dish is a balance of taste, texture, appearance and colour and builds on the last until it peaks and then comes the final courses.
The goal is to take them on a food journey and to bring them back again.
I try not to give return diners the same white flag dish twice and I keep a log of their experiences to help me achieve this. We have some regular diners who have had the white flag menu five times.
What is the highest number of courses a diner has had?
Twelve, I would be surprised if they could eat more than that.
Most of the dishes on the white flag do not appear on the al a carte, is it difficult to come up with so many new dishes each evening?
No. The dishes just come. It is a pretty natural process.
Sometimes it will be inspired by something I have tried before and sometimes not. The basic ingredients, for example the suckling pig, comes from the main menu and what I do is just change a few of the ingredients or the sauce.
Creating the white flag menu gives me a lot of pleasure and is highly enjoyable. I cook from the a la carte menu every day, which is not the case with this tasting journey.
Which dishes on the a la carte menu do you consider signature dishes?
There are a number. For example, the Red Prawns with Lemon-Chilli Dust, Eggplant, Semi-dried Tomatoes and Campari Reduction, and the Hamachi Tartar with Frescobaldi Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Apple Wasabi Juice.
Saikyo Black Cod with Wasabi Gnocchi and Edamame is another.
Slow Roasted Suckling Pig with Pancetta and Manila Clams, and the Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Speck on Baby Spinach and White Soy Sauce are two others.
I tried the red prawn dish and thought it was a really interesting dish because of the use of Campari, which is a bitters, how did this dish come about as not many chefs are brave enough to experiment with bitter flavours?
I decided on using Campari because it is more unusual to use than many other Italian liquors being used in recipes. I wanted to play with something different. The sweetness from the red prawn, together with the lemon and chilli balances the combination. It took three attempts to get the dish right before it made it on the menu. Some dishes take more than that.
Do you believe a diner’s expectations (of the chef or the restaurant) negatively impact the dining experience?>
Yes. Expectations on the part of the diner are difficult for a restaurant.
The overall experience for the diner depends a lot on the eating habits of the diner and also the mood of the kitchen. Some nights I have not been totally happy with the food but the diner has loved it and vice versa. Every day is different so it can be difficult to always meet expectations.
In only a few short months the restaurant has attracted a regular clientele, why?
A number of factors account for this – very good service and staff, nice interior and the right location. I still consider us to be in the soft opening stage. The first three months is the hardest time for a restaurant as everyone wants to eat there and you have to maintain standards and not burn out. I am lucky because I still have some of the core staff in the kitchen that I started with.
You didn’t mention the food, this must be a large factor too.
The food is consistent. Like all chefs I hope that the restaurant can be a consistently strong experience for customers. I want them to have fun when they come here.
Interviewer’s comment – Bryan seemed genuinely shy about receiving praise for the food and did not place it above any other factor for the restaurant’s success and popularity.
What are your goals as a chef?
I would like to see D.Diamond become a success and for it to expand to other Asian countries. I would oversee the cuisine consistency at each of the D.Diamond restaurants.
I would also like to appear on the TV show “Iron Chef” and to be invited as a speaker to the Food & Wine Classic held in Aspen. I use to live and work in Aspen and have been involved in the event, which I really enjoyed.
What about a Michelin star, would you like one or two?
Bryan Nagao’s Miso Marinated Black Cod with Wasabi Gnocchi and Edamame
300gm Miso marinade (see below)
2.5kgs Black Cod
300ml Rice cream (see below)
100gm Wasabi Gnocchi (see below)
100gm Kabocha pumpkin, finely diced
80gm Cherry tomatoes
20gm Shallots, minced
10gm Garlic, minced
½gm Basil, minced
100gm Maitake mushrooms
100gm Sweet miso
Reduce sake and mirin and add miso, remove from heat and cool.
1 Fennel bulb
2 Cloves garlic
30gm Japanese rice (uncooked)
Saute fennel with garlic, add sake and reduce. Add water and rice and simmer for 30 minutes.
Blend and strain.
1 large baking potato
1tbsp Wasabi powder
Boil potato until soft, pass through a potato press, add wasabi powder, egg and flour. Knead into a smooth dough and cut into shape.
Filet and portion the cod into 10 pieces and rub with the miso marinate, leave overnight. When ready to serve cook under the broiler for 10-12 minutes until golden brown. In a saute pan add the butter and cook the shallots, garlic, mushroom, edamame, and pumpkin, add the rice cream, parboiled gnocchi and tomatoes, season with salt and pepper. Place the sauce in the serving bowl and place fish on top.