It is unsurprising that Chef Junishi Ikematsu, Head Chef and Co-owner of Jun-i Restaurant in Montreal, would cite teamwork as one of the key ingredients to his restaurant’s success. The interplay between ingredients is the core makeup of excellent, fresh food just as the chemistry between kitchen staff influences the product. Chef Ikematsu has been cooking since he was a teenager. “I liked to eat,” the Chef says with a laugh, explaining that his mother was an excellent cook and that that likely influenced his own love of food. Chef Ikematsu began working in kitchens in high school when he got a job prepping noodles at a Chinese restaurant. He then worked at Manyoken, a classic French restaurant in Kyoto that is more than 100 years old.
After years of preparing French food in Japan, where he also trained as a chef, Ikematsu moved to Montreal at the age of 24. His decision to come to Canada was based on the advice of a friend who already lived here. Chef Ikematsu’s first foray into the Montreal dining scene was working at a sushi restaurant. Now, he co-owns Jun-i on Laurier Avenue, a fantastic and creative restaurant that incorporates both French and Japanese flavours. The Chef calls it “mixing Japanese style with Quebec ingredients.” French and Japanese cuisine are always at the heart of his preparations. The Canadian often comes into play with the use of ingredients like venison which is not typically used in Japanese cooking. The venison tataki at Jun-i is just one example of Ikematsu’s merging of cultures. He aims to incorporate the traditional style of Japanese cooking, which is very different from what we typically find in North American Japanese restaurants.
Central to Jun-i are a myriad of concerns, the most important of which is respect. “You must respect the food, the customers – everything,” explains Ikematsu on his philosophy behind the sushi bar and as a restaurateur. “Hospitality and the care of ingredients” are of tantamount importance and the kitchen aims to “put their passion inside the food.” Without passion, the Chef says, you simply cannot make good food. Part of Chef’s passion involves sourcing ingredients and insuring his sushi rice is perfect. “Rice is very important,” he says, citing preparation mode and timing as the key elements. Chef mixes his rice with seasoning, vinegar, salt and sugar and says it’s as important as the fish. “If we don’t have good rice, we can’t make good sushi” and it can take years to learn to make it properly. As for fish, Chef uses four suppliers for his, two in Japan and two local. The fish from Japan comes from Fukuoka and Kyushu and travels from water to table in one day. It takes 24-30 hours to ship the fish to Montreal. But before that, it is auctioned at 3:00 AM in Japan and flown to Montreal via Hong Kong and Vancouver. Talk about frequent flier miles. Fresh fish arrives three times a week from Japan. Ikematsu also sources tuna from Mexico, bio salmon from British Columbia, sea bass from Greece and arctic char from Gaspé, Quebec.
Once it arrives at Jun-i, Chef and his team of 10 get to work. The team is made up of sushi, kitchen and dessert chefs. There are also two partners in the restaurant, Ped Phimphrakeo and Jonathan Daunais, both of whom met Ikematsu from working together in other restaurants; they opened together Jun-i in 2005. The need for teamwork again comes into play outside of the kitchen with the administrative staff, waiters, dishwashers and cooks all working as one to create a seamless guest experience. Their passion and inspiration is derived from talking about new ingredients and Chef’s own trips back to Japan to “keep the Japanese flavour and way.”
In a restaurant that blends so many food traditions so meticulously, it’s no surprise that Ikematsu recommends pairing Japanese food with wine, even over sake. Jun-i serves a lot of Ontario wine particularly from Ontario based Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyards and Stratus Vineyards which with the restaurant collaborates on an annual co-branded event. Japanese food has subtle flavours, advises Chef Ikematsu, and doesn’t require a wine that is too strong or powerful. Delicate and fruity wines that are sweet at the beginning and dry often pair well with the Japanese flavour profile. Opt for a reisling over a wine that is oaky.
On the topic of wine, Chef Ikematsu says the best kept secrets about Montreal are the large number of tapas places, the many different kinds of restaurants and the bevy of natural wine bars. If you’re looking for him off duty, you may find the Chef having a glass and a snack at Buvette Chez Simone. “The place is amazing,” he raves.
At home, Chef’s wife is the leader in the kitchen. With two fridges – one upstairs and one downstairs – the Ikematsu residence is always well stocked. Meat, pork, fish, beef, daishi, seaweed, kombu, oranges and apples are all on the menu. The Chef sometimes cooks noodles for lunch and in summer the barbecue is often in use. Ikematsu, who enjoys summertime half marathons and gym workouts in the winter, has two sons and one daughter. His 21-year-old son has been working at Jun-i for the past four years and also studies cooking at ITHQ (Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie).
Articles and social media posts about chefs and their food have been common but Ikematsu stresses that his best advice for aspiring cooks is that “it’s not only making food, it’s working for a living. Always respect other people – coworkers, customers.”