We caught up with the chef who wowed John Torode and Gregg Wallace with his inventive Japanese fusion dishes and took the MasterChef title in 2011
Who can forget Tim Anderson’s MasterChef dishes?
In the final, the Wisconsin-born (then) amateur chef created a trio of burgers in tribute to Los Angeles, Tokyo and London, the cities he said had shaped his taste.
His inventive dishes, which fused Japanese ingredients with what seemed like counterintuitive pairings (hello mocha steak), had judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace salivating and hailing him as the next Heston Blumenthal and won him the MasterChef title in 2011.
He was also wacky which earned him extra points.
With his first cookbook Nanban: Japanese Soul Food released this month (it has the same name as his intermittent pop-up restaurant), we caught up with the American chef to talk about why so many people make ramen wrong, why you should never tackle sushi first and where to go for good Japanese food in the UK.
Why did you decide to enter MasterChef?
"It wasn’t a big decision and I did it absent-mindedly. I liked the show and I liked cooking.
"When I look back I notice lots of mistakes, things that I know better now. When you’re on MasterChef you’re still an amateur, you don’t know any better and you have poor technique. I know I could do better now.
"I think if you ask anyone who’s creative, they always look for approval."
When did you first become interested in food?
"When I was 14 or 15 I watched this Japanese cooking show called Iron Chef, which was so over the top, I’d never seen cooking like it. I then went to Japan for a two-year working holiday and it was a good way for me to explore the cuisine."
If someone hasn’t cooked Japanese food before, what advice would you give them?
"Not to worry. I think people get quite nervous. It’s quite casual, quite doable with supermarket ingredients. Dive right in and find the dishes you like and then play with them. Follow the rules, that’s true, but people can do their own thing."
What are the dos and don’ts when it comes to Japanese cooking?
"Do make dashi. It’s essentially a light broth made from a few key ingredients. You can use dashi powder, which is convenient and quite good, but everyone should try and make dashi at least once. You can make it pretty easily: it’s an essential component and is one of the most quintessential flavours.
"If you’re dabbling it doesn’t matter, but if you’re serious then that’s the first thing you should do.
"Don’t try making sushi first. Everyone wants to and it looks easy on paper. It’s easy to make but hard to make well: cooking the rice takes skill and you need fishmongery skills to prepare it properly. People will try it once and never do it again because it isn’t good. Everything has to be perfect."
Ramen is everywhere at the moment, what are the main things people do wrong?
"People buy the wrong noodles. You need to get good Chinese-style or Japanese-style or fresh ramen noodles. The wrong noodles won’t hold the broth very well and egg noodles are practically already overdone before they come out of the packet.
"The way the noodle carries the broth and holds its shape is important. The broth is simple but you have to have the right noodles."
Where do you go for good Japanese food in the UK?
"Asakusa in Mornington Crescent, London. It’s inexpensive, casual and has a good range of dishes, and some unusual ones too such as monkfish liver. There’s one in Aberdeen called Yatai and the chef uses Scottish produce and mainly seafood to make the food. A big thing is the quality of the ingredients.
"Shofoodoh, which is a pop-up in Hackney, serves stir-fried noodles and a crepe, which sounds weird but it’s good."
10 quick ones
1. Tea or coffee?
2. What would we always find in your fridge?
"Miso, hot sauce and sauerkraut. I make a lot of it and it keeps on coming."
3. Three ingredients you couldn’t cook without?
"Onions, they’re everywhere and 90% of the dishes I make start off with them, soy sauce because it’s in a lot of what I cook and dashi powder for seasoning."
4. Signature dish?
"Yaki curry. It’s rice flavoured with vegetable curry, topped with melted cheese and served with a poached egg and pickles. It’s awesome."
5. Food weakness?
"The things I would eat any time if I were allowed are burgers and ramen."
6. Must-have kitchen gadget?
"I don’t like things that just do one thing. I traded in my £100 coffee machine for an AeroPress. It’s a versatile coffee brewing thing and it’s cheap."
7. Pet hates in restaurants?
"When it takes ages to get the bill and get out, which is weird because you would think they would want the table back."
8. If you could cook for anyone, who would it be?
"My dad because I don’t think he’s ever had my food since I became a chef."
9. Favourite cookbook?
"My mum made a family cookbook when I was 18, and I use that more than anything. It’s called The Anderson Cookbook."
10. Favourite chef?
"Tricky but probably Roy Choi."