Any Japanese food fanatic would be no stranger to the famous TEPPEI brand, and the humble chef Teppei Yamashita behind it. Best known for his omakase restaurant at Tanjong Pagar, the various Teppei Syokudo outlets serving Kaisen Don and the decadent Una Don at Man-Man Unagi Restaurant, some of his restaurants require bookings months in advance, and long queues can always be spotted outside his concept stores.
It could almost be said that the donburi boom or craze in Singapore started with the introduction of the D.I.Y concept Kaisen Don from Teppei Syokudo. In conjunction with our upcoming event Donburi Revolution 2018, we managed to speak with the man himself and gain a little more insight on his donburi journey as well as the Japanese donburi scene in Singapore!
Q. How long have you been in Singapore?
I first arrived in 2006, and have been here ever since so it’s been a good 12 years! I come from Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan (Kyushu region, the south part of Japan’s main island), but studied my culinary skills and worked in the Kansai region for a while. When I was working there, I met a vendor/supplier who had links to Singapore and that’s when I decided to come over as well.
I was 25 years old when I first reached in Singapore. At that time, I already had a dream to open my own store by 30.
Q. What made you come up with Teppei Syokudo came about and why the D.I.Y donburi concept eventually?
After my omakase restaurants, I branched out to Teppei Syokudo focusing on Ten Don in the day and an izakaya concept at night. We always had extra seafood ingredients and was and I figured I could put them to good use. My customers always gave me feedback that they wanted to eat more salmon and hotate (ホタテ, scallops) sashimi, and it got me thinkingーwouldn’t it be nice if everyone could pick for themselves what goes on their rice bowl? I also wanted to create an original concept with my next expansion, and thus the idea of D.I.Y Kaisen Don was birthed at the ION Orchard outlet.
Q. What do you think is the heart behind Man-Man Unagi Restaurant that made it so successful?
I strongly believe in making a taste so good that will draw repeated customers back to the establishment. When I was in Bangkok, I came across an authentic Japanese diner that served grilled unagi through traditional preparation methods of killing live eel and grilling it with charcoal. By preserving this traditional way of cooking unagi, this produces the best texture and quality of the entire dish. I therefore had a desire to introduce this same concept to Singapore, seeing that this traditional Japanese method could be carried out overseas as well. It had to be something newsworthy for people to come! Up till today, long queues are still forming outside Man-Man despite its obscure location. I am always grateful to customers who come all the way out just to enjoy delicious Una Don.
Q. Donburi is considered the soul food of the Japanese. Recently, Singaporeans have also caught on this trend but what does donburi mean to you personally?
As a Japanese myself, donburi is a staple, daily food. The dish itself is simple, wholesome, and complete on its own. You can keep eating it since there are so many combinations to this dish. In fact, if you think about it, Singapore also has its local version in the form of mixed economy rice. So what I really sought to do was spread this Japanese eating culture to the locals here, just at an affordable price while maintaining quality.
Q. Is there anything in particular that you want Singaporeans (or the whole world, for that matter) to understand about donburi?
It is the little things that matter, like minor adjustments in flavour and so on. Different types of Japanese rice go with different toppings, so all elements must sync well. Besides rice type, the sauces must also match the flavour of the ingredient, and then further tweaked to suit the locals’ different palates.
What some people may not be aware of is that even the different regions of Japan prefer certain tastes. For example, Tokyoites love the taste of shoyu. From where I come from, the people of Fukuoka like things sweet. So in a way, I also wanted to convey some of my hometown’s tastes to Singapore as well.
I observed that Singaporeans love spicy foods and foods with robust flavours. To make sure they will like what we offer, all our sauces are made by hand so that we can adjust the flavours for it to be just right, and to ensure that they complement the rice, ingredients, and suit the locals’ tastebuds.
TEPPEI will be selling Unatama (ウナ玉, eel and egg) Stamina Don toppings at their two booths at Donburi Revolution 2018. Make sure you drop by their counter to purchase these tasty toppings for your warm fluffy rice!
*Ingredients for Stamina Don include beef slices, gyusuji and minced chicken meat topped with a gooey egg.