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Inside the kitchen of Ryusuke Nakagawa, the executive chef at Aburi Hana

Stocked with three kinds of miso paste, a hefty collection of Japanese cookbooks and Popeyes take out

By Caroline Aksich| Photography by Jelena Subotic
Inside the kitchen of Ryusuke Nakagawa, the executive chef at Aburi Hana

Toronto nearly missed out on chef Ryusuke Nakagawa. When Seigo Nakamura, the owner of the Aburi restaurant group, slid into his Instagram DMs offering him a job, Nakagawa thought it was a scam. After multiple messages from the restaurateur, Nakagawa threw caution to the wind and agreed to hop on a plane from Japan and come check out our food scene. He’d never visited Canada before—it had never even crossed his mind.

Now, four years after that whirlwind tour, the chef’s 14-seat Kyoto-style kaiseki spot, Aburi Hana, was just awarded a Michelin star for the second year in a row. He attributes a portion of his culinary success to his new hometown. “Toronto has changed me profoundly,” says Nakagawa. “Not just as a chef but culturally. From the beautiful local ingredients to the kindness of the people, I feel very lucky to live and grow my craft in such a place.”

Nakagawa's kitchen in Toronto

Apart from the freezing temperatures, Nakagawa had few preconceptions about Canada before asking his wife, Miina, and his now six-year-old daughter, Rio, to move over 10,000 kilometres away from everything they knew. Toronto’s diversity has been a boon for the Nakagawas—the fact that they can buy most Japanese staples at the city’s supermarkets helps keep homesickness at bay. Plus, anything they can’t find at the J-Town shops (or at PAT, H Mart or T&T, their go-to grocery stores) can be imported via the Aburi group.

Nakagawa has embraced the city’s restaurant culture, building up a robust list of favourites. He says Ikkousha’s rich Japanese ramen broth is the most authentic in the city. For a lighter option, there’s the Okinawa-style soba at Tondou—according to the chef, it’s best consumed after a night of drinking. Other frequent stops include Quetzal (for celebratory dinners), Piedmont (for morning scones and coffee with Miina after dropping Rio at school) and Yuzu No Ki (a café and patisserie that he says makes the best mont blancs in the city).

Nakagawa standing in front of his open fridge

The only thing that took some getting used to was Canadian produce. “The vegetables here taste different, even though they’re the same kinds of things we have back home. I think Japanese farmers are just more aggressive—their crops tend to have a stronger taste,” he says. “But I’ve come to appreciate Ontario vegetables for their uniqueness, especially the root vegetables and mushrooms.”

To divvy up the cooking at home, Nakagawa handles holidays, birthdays and anniversaries while Miina oversees fridge management and does most of the day-to-day cooking. Nakagawa’s schedule (which has him out of the house from noon until 10 or 11 p.m.) makes it hard for him to cook during his workweek. When he does, his family usually asks him to make steak (Rio recently developed a taste for Wagyu), chicken karaage or yuzu cream pasta.

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The Nakagawas’ fridge is stocked with Wagyu from Famu and fish (maguro and salmon for sashimi) from Taro’s. Although Nakagawa sometimes snacks on sashimi at home (with freshly grated wasabi, of course), he seldom breaks out the bamboo rolling mat: maki is reserved for special occasions because it’s just a bit too much hassle. They’ve also packed in some Japanese produce (fresh and pickled daikon, lotus root, yuzu, fresh wasabi), three types of miso paste (red, wheat-based and one blended with dashi for no-fuss soups), salted plums, silken tofu and salted kombu (a seaweed the chef adds to anything that needs some umami oomph).

Nakagawa's fridge at home, which includes fish, Japanese produce and miso paste

Also present is some of last night’s Popeyes. “For my health, I try not to eat after work,” says Nakagawa. “But Popeyes is so hard to resist, especially late at night.”

Popeyes takeout from the night before the shoot

The freezer is immaculately organized, with meat—like pre-cooked, heat-and-eat octopus simmered in dashi, soy and sugar—perfectly portioned into Ziploc bags for easy weeknight prep. There are even frozen portions of rice that the chef can just pop in the microwave for a truly undemanding dinner.

Everything else is Rio’s, including Eggos, mac and cheese, Korean pancakes, and ice cream. “She’s a picky eater,” says Nakagawa, who’s a bit surprised by his daughter’s North American proclivities. “She loves to snack on things like cheese. In Japan, no one just eats cheese!”

Nakagawa's freezer, which mostly holds snacks for his daughter

Pantry highlights include milk bread (for breakfast sandwiches), Japanese curries, togarashi (a Japanese chili that gets dusted on chicken karaage), Doraemon-endorsed furikake (a Japanese rice seasoning) and three different types of soy sauce. One is from Nakagawa’s hometown, Ehime, and it’s a bit sweeter and stickier than your standard shoyu.

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Nakagawa's pantry, which holds multiple varieties of soy sauce

This citrus grater is one of Nakagawa’s favourite kitchen gadgets. He brought it with him when he moved from Japan.

Nakagawa brought this citrus grater with him from Japan

The chef swears by Japanese rice cookers—he won’t use any other kind. He tried a different model and was unimpressed with the results. “It tasted weird,” he says. “Just not moist enough.”

Nakagawa is strict about only using Japanese rice cookers

This petty knife was a gift from chef Akihiro Kotani, one of Nakagawa’s culinary mentors. When Nakagawa told Kotani he was moving to Canada, the chef went radio silent. “That’s how I knew he didn’t agree with my decision,” says Nakagawa. But, after two weeks of no communication, Kotani came to Nakagawa and gave him this knife. “That was his Japanese way of telling me that he approved of my move.”

Nakagawa holding his petty knife, which was a gift from one of his culinary mentors

Nakagawa collects cookbooks from Japan’s most acclaimed Michelin-star restaurants. Two of his all-time favourites are RyuGin (chef Seiji Yamamoto’s contemporary plating and authentic Japanese cooking deeply influence what he’s doing at Aburi Hana) and Florilège, Tokyo’s premiere French tasting-menu destination. Nakagawa has a special connection to Florilège because he spent a month behind the pass there, honing his French cooking skills in preparation for moving to Canada.

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Nakagawa's extensive Japanese cookbook collection
A few of Nakagawa's cookbooks

When it comes to sake, Nakagawa likes to change up what he’s drinking based on the weather. When it’s hot and muggy out, he veers toward clear, dry sakes such as Yamatan Masamune Katana Junmai Daiginjo. In the winter, he prefers sake with a stronger taste, like Gangi Mizunowa Junmai Ginjo. No matter the season, he only drinks the stuff cold. The giant bottle is Dassai 39 Junmai Daiginjo, distilled in Yamaguchi, which he received as a gift after being awarded his 2023 Michelin star.

Nakagawa's sake collection

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