2020 saw eel restaurant Nodaiwa awarded one Michelin star. Owner Kanejiro Kanemoto is devoted to preserving the flavours and techniques that Nodaiwa’s chefs have been perfecting since the Edo period. He strives tirelessly to conjure up ever more delicious and beautiful incarnations of the restaurant’s signature kabayaki eel. His efforts have not gone unrewarded over the years—the incomparable flavour of Kanemoto’s eel even received the imperial seal of approval from the late Emperor Hirohito. We spoke to Kanemoto about the unique techniques and uncompromising spirit of Nodaiwa’s cooking, and what the future holds for this restaurant.
At Nodaiwa, we treasure the beauty of tradition. We would sooner burn our hands than burn a single piece of eel.
The Eel Must Never Burn—the Importance of Flawless Technique
"No-one becomes a master eel chef overnight.” I was constantly reminded of this when I was growing up. With eel, every step of the cooking process requires long and careful study, from filleting to skewering, to the first grilling, then steaming, and finally to brushing on the sauce. It looks simple, but it’s a real test of a chef’s instincts. I have employees in their twenties, thirties, and even forties whom I teach by having them carefully observe my every action when I cook.
Just as people are all different, so are eels. Same are fattier than others; they all have a different character. I teach people the skills they need to ‘read’ the eel in front of them. If they can do that, they can adjust the heat and fanning accordingly, and cook delicious eel without ever burning it.
I know some eel restaurants use electric fans these days, but the notion of an eel chef who cannot use an uchiwa fan is absurd. The know-how to properly fan a piece of eel, adjusting angle as needed, is one of the most important skills taught at Nodaiwa.
I’m a born and bred eel chef. I grew up surrounded by the aroma of grilling eel, watching my parents cook and learning the traditions. I never considered any other career; bringing customers the most delicious and beautiful eel possible has always been my dream. At Nodaiwa, we would sooner burn our own hands than burn the fish—that’s the kind of passion we cook with, and I believe anyone who tries our eel is sure to recognise that.
A Secret Sauce (Almost) as Precious as Life Itself
Our secret sauce is the pride and joy of this 200-year-old restaurant. While every generation of the family has fiercely protected the recipe, that isn’t to say it’s remained completely unchanged since we opened, back in the Edo period. It was the previous owner, my father, who taught me that customers who don’t do hard physical work don’t tend to favour salty food. This is why the sauce has in fact been altered to suit the times over the years. The proportions of mirin and soy sauce, for instance, have varied. I think it takes quite a bit of courage to make that change. Back in the war, during the Great Tokyo Air Raid, I remember being told that my life was the only thing more precious than that sauce. I kept it safe in our air raid shelter.
The neighbourhood where I grew up was filled with many long-established shops and restaurants. We were flourishing back then, but the war was a stark reminder that we were only one little eel restaurant. It was effective teamwork that allowed the old establishments in the neighbourhood, just like ours, to survive. That’s why we have such solid management even today. Sixty years ago, when I took over Nodaiwa at the age of thirty, I gathered the best workers I could find and set out to develop an unmatched team of artisans. That was how I secured this restaurant’s future.
Eel Fit for an Emperor
In the old days, we used only wild-caught eels, meaning we could only operate during the fishing season from May to December. Through February and March, the off season, we were closed. However, once we opened our first branch in the department store Takashimaya in 1965, it became impossible to keep up with demand with wild-caught eels alone. So, we began using farmed eels to make up the deficit.
The farmed eels we use are sourced mainly from Shizuoka Prefecture. A great deal of water flows down into this region from the southern Japanese Alps, creating the perfect environment in which to raise top-quality eels. The water temperature is low and the eels grow slowly, which results in excellent flavour.
For our Paris branch, we import eels farmed in the Netherlands. It was twenty years ago that I first travelled to England to search for an eel supplier, with the help of an interpreter. I am still working with that supplier to this day. Even in Paris, Nodaiwa’s flavour is unchanged. Our Parisian customers appreciate the kabayaki cooking style, in which the fat is carefully melted from the fish. They call it “eel after a diet”.
Long-established restaurants serving fine food generally make use of elegant Japanese tableware. At Nodaiwa, we serve our delicious eel in tiered Wajima lacquer boxes. This beautiful lacquerware is so integral to the restaurant, I couldn’t imagine using anything else.
With the exception of our department store branches, Nodaiwa closes on the Midsummer Day of the Ox. It’s such a busy day that we would need to prepare dishes in advance, and the staff would be stretched thin. The quality of our eel and our service would suffer, and I’d rather close than see that happen.
Investing in Apprentices, Passing on Skills—A Lifetime of Study for a Michelin Star
Some time ago, a group of friends and I toured several restaurants which had held Michelin stars for at least ten years. All of these restaurants had marvellous architecture, beautiful decor, and top-quality service. The difference in quality was very tangible. This experience had a significant influence on the way I run Nodaiwa.
I am always thinking about how we can produce even more exquisite kabayaki eel. I wouldn’t want a single customer to visit us and be anything less than delighted with the experience. That’s why my pursuit of the perfect sauce, the most delicious eel, and the most beautiful kabayaki never ends. If you want to be the best, there’s no point in serving the same thing as everyone else.
I treasure my apprentices dearly. I feel it’s my responsibility as the owner of this restaurant to nurture them so that their talents can shine. My eldest ones are nearing seventy, but I still tell them, “It’s no good just sitting around and getting old. Be someone who’s needed in society.” I invest in my employees in order to continuously better the restaurant. As an owner, you can’t expect your employees to grow and develop without investing in them first.
Times are ever changing, so I remind my apprentices to think beyond eel and broaden their horizons. In this great whirlpool we call time, eel itself, the charcoal we cook with, and so on—all of these things are changing. I want my apprentices to see the best the world has to offer and learn from it. I want them to travel far and wide, always learning, absorbing all the information they can. Work alone is not enough to make a person truly grow.
I’ve now begun teaching my grandson, who will one day be Nodaiwa’s seventh-generation owner. We started in November of 2020, and he’s now able to fillet an eel. The day he came to me and said “grandad, show me how to do it,” I was overjoyed. I initially had doubts as to how seriously he would take it, but he’s working very hard. Next, I’ll be teaching him how to skewer.
All of the apprentices I’ve trained over the years have pulled together as one and become the heart and soul of Nodaiwa. I have high hopes that my grandson will be a part of that family one day. It’s my dearest wish that, long after I’m gone, Nodaiwa will go on with my grandson at the helm.
A Michelin Star and the Olympic Torch
The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic brought hard times all over Japan. I was lucky enough to not only receive a Michelin star, but also to be selected as a bearer of the Olympic torch for 2021. I’m deeply grateful and honoured. The pandemic has caused a great deal of suffering and the Olympics remain controversial, but I’d like to do what I can to lift people’s spirits.