Ukai and JW Marriott Seoul bring ultimate Japanese dining experience to Korea

Chef and Executive Officer Yuichiro Sasano cooks hanwoo (Korean beef) tepanyaki at Tamayura, a Japanese restaurant in JW Marriott Hotel Seoul in Seocho Diistrict, southern Seoul, on Tuesday. [PARK SANG-MOON]

The ultimate Japanese gastronomic experience is set to unfurl in southern Seoul's JW Marriott Hotel Seoul starting Thursday evening.

Ukai Group, a high-end restaurant group in Japan, is bringing its skills to Korea for the first time for a whole “Ukai experience,” Executive Officer of Ukai Restaurants Yuichiro Sasano said on Tuesday.

Ukai Group operates eight high-end restaurant brands across Japan as well as two in Taiwan, each with a specialty such as teppanyaki, grilled foods and desserts. The group is also the parent company of the teppanyaki restaurant brand Ukai-tei, where Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe dined together in 2017. Ukai Group also operates a museum.

Fumizuki no hassun-tanabata decorations, part of the gala dinner's Kaiseiki Course [PARK SANG-MOON]

Its menu for Seoul, made in collaboration with chef Lee Kyung-jin and others at JW Marriott’s Japanese restaurant Tamayura, incorporates signature dishes from Ukai’s brands.

The Journey Course (650,000 won or $502) comprises 10 dishes, including sushi and hanwoo (Korean beef) teppanyaki with wine pairings and Montblanc for dessert; the Kaiseki Course (450,000 won) comprises eight dishes, including tofu dishes, hanwoo and seafood with sake pairings as well as warbi mochi and soy milk ice cream for dessert.

It is a dinner-only event that runs through Saturday, with reservations a must.

“For the menu in Korea, we strove to bring all the representative Ukai dishes together,” Yuichiro told the Korea JoongAng Daily in an interview at JW Marriott Hotel Seoul’s Tamayura. “Three executive chefs of Ukai brands - Kappou [Japanese seasonal cuisine brand], Toriyama [charcoal-grilled chicken cuisine brand] and Ukai-tel [teppanyaki brand] - came together for this menu which I oversaw, and they will also be leading their own kitchen stations in person in Korea during the upcoming gala dinner at JW Marriott Hotel Seoul’s Tamayura.”

Chef and Executive Officer Yuichiro Sasano [PARK SANG-MOON]

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the central theme or focus of the three-day gala dinner menus at Tamayura?

The menu we created is vivacious, focusing on the ingredients' freshness and seasonality. We particularly. wanted to emphasize our signature dishes, like teppanyaki, where customers can see their meals being cooked, and the tofu dishes for which Ukai Group is famous.

Tamayura’s chef Lee Kyung-jin worked under you a few years back. Could you tell me more about your relationship with Lee?

I first met Chef Lee Kyung-jin at Ginza Ukai-tei. I was an executive chef of Ukai-tei restaurants and he was working as a teppanyaki chef there. In 2017, we got to work much closer after he was chosen as one of five founding members of the Ukai Group’s first international outpost in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. For about four years, before Lee left for Korea, we worked shoulder-to-shoulder in Taiwan. I shared my knowledge on everything, including interior design, how to run a restaurant and cooking.

How did your relationship with Lee lead to this gala dinner in Korea?

Tamayura closed for about a month in March for renovations, and during that time I had a phone call with Lee who asked if he and his team could make a field trip to Japan to learn from Ukai Group's chefs. That was my first introduction to Tamayura. I saw that Tamayura’s restaurant was divided into sections, including a sushi bar and a teppanyaki station. So I thought that it would be fun and interesting to bring in Ukai Group’s chefs from different brands and station them throughout the restaurant sections.

Chef and Executive Officer Yuichiro Sasano cooks Hanwoo++ chateaubriand poele with Tasmania truffle that is part of the gala dinner's Journey Course. [PARK SANG-MOON]

This is both the Ukai Group and your first visit to Korea. What has your experience been like working here?

Japan is very long so it is true that we have a large variety of foods. But I was surprised that Korea also had a very rich variety of ingredients. I didn’t feel the need to bring any ingredients from Japan. Rather, I wanted to focus on the local ingredients and the freshness level. I learned a lot along the way. For instance, hanwoo (Korean beef) has a different texture and flavor than Wagyu so we had to learn different ways to cook it and garnish it.

The process of recreating Ukai’s tofu was especially difficult, but I feel confident about the end result, which turned out very similar to the original dish in Japan.

Does Ukai Group have any plans to open a store in Korea?

Currently, we do not have definite plans. However, I see this collaboration with Tamayura as a starting point for perhaps opening a store in Korea in the future. I wouldn’t say the probability is zero percent. After successfully concluding the upcoming gala dinner, I certainly would love for our restaurant to open a venue here.

Hanwoo++ chateaubriand poele with Tasmania truffle [PARK SANG-MOON]

What is the Ukai Group's company ideology and philosophy?

Our goal is to create restaurants with over a century's worth of history. Ukai Toriyama, the oldest restaurant in the group, will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year. In order for Ukai Group to achieve this goal, we strive to create an authentic experience and select only the best for our restaurants. We have 40 more years to go, during which I believe it is my job to foster new talent who will be able to carry the group into the future.

As for our company philosophy, we strive to run businesses that give joy to people. I genuinely care about this and it is our foremost concern, ahead of turning a profit.

What is your personal goal, aside from the company?

These days, I am traveling a lot and have been able to meet former students and co-workers, as well as friends, around the world. It brings me joy to hear people’s stories about their time in Ukai Group’s restaurants. Also, I feel very proud and content when I see young chefs who I used to mentor and work with, out on their own, spreading the knowledge and skills that I taught them. We always need to work together to move forward so I believe teaching the younger generation is crucial.