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Le Filet’s Chef Yasuhisa Okazaki

It’s noon on a Saturday. I step inside Le Filet wondering if I’m at the right address. Months after my last visit, it’s not what I remember. There’s no clatter coming from the kitchen, no loud bistro chatter, and the usual upbeat jazz has been replaced by soft melodic piano.  It may be quiet now, but in a matter of hours guests will come flooding in to be wined and dined by Chef Yasuhisa Okazaki.

Yasu, as he prefers to go by, has a lot to brag about.  His restaurant, brimming with people on a Saturday night, still receives rave reviews from the nation’s critics four years after opening.  In fact, this past week it placed among the top fifty of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants.  His dishes, creative yet simple, have made Le Filet a standout on the Montreal food scene.  To top that off, he’s part of a team of highly accomplished restaurateurs who own Le Club Chasse et Pêche and Le Serpent, two other restaurants that grace top-ten lists time after time.  Despite such success, Yasu remains humble and unassuming, preferring to avoid the spotlight.

Yasu greets me at the door with a smile and ushers me to a table for two beautifully set and draped with a crisp white tablecloth. As I begin firing questions at him eager to learn what goes on behind the kitchen doors, Yasu stops me so he can turn down the music.  I wait for him to do so, but there’s no need. He’s got an app for that.  “Sometimes I’ve got to do the cooking and the deejaying,” he laughs.

Yasu’s love affair with food began early in his life.  “When I was a kid, I used to love to look at the cookbooks we had at home. I think I was even too young to read,” he says.  “I just stared at the pictures.” 

Despite his love of food, he never envisioned himself a chef, falling upon his career rather by accident. In fact, he never went to cooking school or formally trained as a chef. While studying at college in Tokyo, he worked at a bar preparing simple pub food.  He took a liking to it, and soon after, he was hired as a line cook at KIHACHI, a French-fusion restaurant in the city. It was there where he met his inspiration: Chef Kihachi Kumagai. “He was really passionate and he showed me a lot of things,” explains Yasu.

Kihachi, a Japanese-trained chef, gained years of experience working at the famous Maxim’s in Paris and learning from French food bigwig Joël Robuchon. It’s no wonder Yasu knows both French and Japanese cuisines like the back of his hand.

When Yasu made the move from Tokyo to Montreal he knew he wanted to remain a chef. His experience got him a job at Restaurant Beatrice (previously BICE), on Sherbrooke Street. There, he added to his repertoire, mastering Italian cuisine.

Everyone knows everyone in the restaurant business, so it wasn’t long before Yasu met his future business partner, Claude Pelletier. Over a drink at Pelletier’s Le Club Chasse et Pêche, Yasu received an unexpected, yet welcomed proposition to join Pelletier in opening Le Filet.  Before he knew it, Yasu was faced with the challenge of creating a new menu. “Making a menu is like composing a song,” he says. If you put in the wrong note or something that doesn’t go, you ruin the whole thing.”

Intentionally skipping the cheese course after the main, and dividing the menu into sets instead of courses, Yasu isn’t afraid of bending the rules. “We’re trying to break the image of a high-end restaurant. We encourage clients to share the plates, but they don’t have to. It’s casual. It’s not just for special occasions.”

Yasu prides himself in the versatility of his restaurant, explaining, “You can have a full meal, starting with champagne and oysters. Then move on to meat with wine, ending with a digestif and dessert. Or, you can stop by the bar and order pasta and one glass of wine.” Le Filet, unlike many upscale restaurants, is one-size-fits-all.

Despite the fact that his dishes look as if they belong in an art gallery, he remains humble.  “I try not to impress people with my presentation. If you’re in a museum, you get tired because you pay so much attention to all the things going on in the artwork,” explains Yasu.  “When you pay too much attention to presentation, it makes people tired. I don’t want my guests to be tired.”  Next time I order a dish covered with six sauces, lingonberries, and a tree branch, I’m going to remember Yasu’s wise words.

Yasu’s menu doesn’t change often, which is no surprise. Clients always return for their favourite dishes, especially the tuna tartare and cavatelli, which have both been on the menu since the 2011 opening. Yasu tells me that although quite simple, the pasta dish with olive oil, garlic, and chili powder is the most difficult to perfect. “Anybody can do it, but not many can do it well.  It’s like making sushi,” he adds. “Some people think it’s so easy. Just put a piece of fish on rice. But it’s actually quite difficult to prepare well.”

When cooking for himself, he also keeps it simple.  “There’s not much difference between the way I cook here and the way I cook at home.”

He explains that making an impressive dish, whether for yourself or for friends, doesn’t require hours of slaving. He recommends buying a good quality cut of meat and seasoning it with salt and pepper. No fancy sauce or reduction needed.

When Yasu is not busy with daily mise en place (culinary lingo for “kitchen preparation”), he likes to develop and test new recipes. He’ll come in alone early in the morning to experiment in the kitchen. “I have to work alone to concentrate. I take time when I create something. Sometimes it takes a few weeks,” Yasu says. “Sometimes I’ll spend so long on a recipe that just never works out. Then I move on to my next experiment.”

Much like a writer or composer, he has a notepad to write down any ideas that pop into his head.  And, some ideas literally do come out of thin air.  “I was simmering red pepper juice and the smell reminded me of grapefruit. So I thought they must go well together… grapefruit and red pepper.” That’s the type of thinking it takes to be a chef. For most people, inventive flavour combinations rarely go beyond ham and cheese.

Yasu explains how even four years after opening Le Filet, his job is anything but monotonous. He parallels working as a chef with training as an athlete. “If you do a great job today, there’s no guarantee you’re going to do a great job tomorrow. Every day is a new day. You have to take one day at a time.”

When asked about the future, Yasu insists that he is a chef first and restaurateur second. “Some people like to own many restaurants. But me, I would like to remain a cook. A lot of chefs step out of the kitchen and move on to management, but I’d like to stay in the kitchen.”

Thank goodness there’s no spotlight in the kitchen, or else Montreal would never have had the pleasure of tasting Yasu’s wonderful creations.

Yasuhisa Okazaki’s Fluke, Cucumber, Wasabi, Japanese Plum, Potato Chips.

Photos by André Cornellier.

Katrina served as the Campus Correspondent of Her Campus McGill from 2013-2015.  With a love of writing, fashion, and fitness, she spent a lot of her time exploring Montréal to find great things around campus and in the city to share with the Her Campus readers. Twitter @KatrinaKairys.Awarded 1st place for "On Campus Publicity" for My Campus Chapter Awards 2014Awarded Her Campus "Gold Chapter Level" 2013Awarded Her Campus "Platinum Chapter Level" 2014
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