As he prepares to launch two more Gojima burger outlets, Chase Kojima admits the first was a painful birth.
Being a perfectionist isn't easy, he says. Sometimes, it's borderline torment. "I find that I can't relax when I eat. I'm always looking for the flaws," says the Sokyo head chef. "I can never just switch off and enjoy."
His obsession with detail is evident at The Star's signature Japanese restaurant. In the centrepiece sushi bar's nightly theatre of delicacy, precision and flair, Kojima's team works with intense diligence; each sliver of tuna, kingfish, salmon, every morsel of vegetable and droplet of miso, shiso or soy sauce tended like a newborn and presented with equivalent pride. You'd expect nothing less from Nobu alum Kojima, his pedigreed chefs and this hatted, high profile haunt of movie stars and high rollers.
For seven years now he's been tasting, watching, experimenting and hovering over every facet of the Sokyo operation like a helicopter parent, keeping the accolades coming. "I am very, very serious. I won't cut corners. I crave guests leaving here happy. That's all I want," he says.
Then, just over a year ago, Kojima turned his fine dining sensibilities to burgers, and things got a little out of hand. With the launch of Gojima, Sydney's first dedicated rice burger bun joint, also in The Star, the San Francisco-born chef admits his perfectionism crossed the line into a sort of fanaticism. By the time the menu of sushi burgers and beef burgers in rice and nori buns, Japanese fried chicken, fries, ice-creams and shakes finally pleased Kojima, he'd added 15 kilos to his frame and was on medication for his lactose intolerance symptoms.
"It was not fun," he says. "I would eat 100 chicken nuggets a day to try to get the taste right. I'd make it and it would taste good, but all you are looking for is the flaws; maybe it has a touch too much soy flavour or maybe it's too spicy for kids… I couldn't stop – I just kept eating and eating and tweaking and tweaking."
I would eat 100 chicken nuggets a day.
His journey to the final three creamy frozen custards (including the crowd pleaser, strawberries and cream) on the menu was gruelling. "There are these lactose intolerance pills that help you digest, they add bacteria into your stomach so you don't get a stomach ache, but it doesn't work if you are eating that much ice-cream every day."
Just over a year later, he says, running and gym workouts have melted his weight gain – just in time for his next project: two new Gojima outlets before the end of 2018 (he can't say where yet).
"We will be testing new product, but no way will I do that level of eating again," he says. "'Once is enough and I don't think a lot of people – even chefs - would go that far in search of quality."
But he will never turn his back on the fine dining scene, and appreciates the support for Sokyo from the dining industry, with initiatives like the Citibank Dining Program giving Citi customers the opportunity to enjoy a complimentary bottle of wine when they dine at Sokyo (and pay with their Citi card) offering additional incentive for customers.
And he's learned that perfection often happens when you bend the rules. The restaurant's exquisite takes on clean and classic sushi are often a happy accident.
"I have chefs from Korea, China, Europe and they do things wrong from the point of view of a sushi chef, and you know what? I like it," he says. "It's not 'correct', but it pleases my palate."
He recalls how his head chef Brian Logan (formerly Tetsuya's) made an 'almost' sushi dish using marron poached so lightly it was barely touched, with dehydrated rice and a kiss of ginger gel.
"Everything about this sushi was not even sushi, but so delicious, Japanese and clean with the texture of the crispy rice," says Kojima.
His Korean chef has introduced kimchi to the menu. "Normally it's too strong for Japanese food but this is a white kimchi made from the fermentation of the vegetables, no chilli, and when you ferment in that way the true flavour just keeps coming out with such depth you wouldn't think there was no meat."
Kojima appreciates the current movement towards vegetarian and vegan fine dining; he's hosted vegan degustations and has a popular vegetarian menu. Vegetables appeal to his meticulous nature. "They are really, really hard to prep. With meat, you just trim it, season and grill, whereas vegetables you have to peel, blanch, apply various techniques. You know that there has been so much care involved in those dishes."
It was Kojima's vegetable improvisations that most pleased Leonardo DiCaprio's posse when the cast of The Great Gatsby took up nightly residence in Sokyo during Sydney filming. "Tobey Maguire, he's vegan," Kojima says. "So I made him broccoli tempura – I just dashed down to Coles and bought the veg and made it for him."
The stars were happy, and so Kojima was happy – just for a moment. Next day he was back to tasting, watching, tweaking and scratching that itch for perfection.
Does he ever, even for a moment, relax? "It takes a lot of wine," he says.
The Citibank Dining Program offers Citi customers the opportunity to enjoy a complimentary bottle of wine when they dine at participating restaurants and pay with their Citi card. There are over 400 restaurants in the program nationally.