When cooking Japanese food, few people think of making their own katsuobushi—the traditional Japanese boiled, cured, smoked, and fermented bonito fish.
But Brandon Gray, the culinary director for Michael Cimarusti's Cape Seafood and Provisions in Los Angeles, isn't like most people. Making katsuobushi is exactly the kind of project that the renaissance chef-turned-fishmonger loves to tackle—intimidation be damned.
"I just want to try making everything from scratch, and I mean everything," Gray tells me. I was tipped off that he has been making his own stuff in-house to eventually use in some of the prepared dishes at Cape, making him one of two chefs in the LA area diving into umami-filled world of DIY petrified bonito. (The other chef is none other than Niki Nakayama of N/Naka, of course.)
"Once I find something I really enjoy, I want to learn more, and more, and more, and more, especially with as something as subtly complicated as dashi."
When I arrive at Cape, there is a stunning skipjack tuna on ice that was delivered to him earlier that morning through Dock to Dish. The eyes are about as black and clear as I've ever seen in a fish. Gray then coaches me through through the steps of making what is arguably the most umami-filled ingredient in Japanese cuisine, and one that date backs more than 300 years.
After the fish is filleted, it's slowly boiled in a stock made with prepared shaved bonito to amp up the bonito-ness. After a few hours, the fillets are taken out of the simple dashi and then completely slathered in a smooth, thick paste made from ground bonito, to add yet another layer of savoriness to the fish.
"It's essentially bonito on bonito on bonito."
From there, the fish is smoked every day for four hours for a month straight until it is about half its weight, super-dry, and stiff. After this, it is essentially ready to use, but you can inoculate it with a mold so that it can ferment and develop even more complex flavors. That is when it is shaved real thin and packaged to sell in Japanese stores, or used to beef up the umami in pureed soups like Gray does at Cape.
The chef, a native Angeleno and former soldier who served four years in the US Army, has long fantasized about making katsuobushi from scratch, as many of the restaurants he's worked in apply Japanese technique to their dishes. He first tried dried bonito while working in Dan Hunter's kitchen in Australia. He attributes his time there to piquing his passion for learning how to cook things that other chefs buy pre-made.
Surprisingly, he's even beat his teacher—the fish-obsessed Cimarusti—to the punch. Gray is grateful that Cimarusti trusts and gives him time to continue pushing the envelope at Cape. More importantly, Cimarusti has approved of his homemade bonito and is a fan.
Gray is aware that making katsuobushi is something that many people have spent their entire lives perfecting, and he doesn't claim to be an expert. But he has gotten some positive remarks about it from Cape's Japanese customers, so he'll settle for that.
His goal for now is to make enough of the stuff to supply Cimarusti's restaurants, and to refine his katsuobushi's flavor in every batch.
"It's pretty cool," Gray says. "When you see your own version of a product that many people just buy, you just get a proud feeling, like, 'I did that!'"