From fed-up and hard-up to Nobu protégé and celebrating his first year going solo with Dinings
Eight years ago, Tomanari Chiba, Chef/Proprietor of Japanese restaurant Dinings, asked his Taiwanese designer friend I Yu if he'd design his restaurant for free. It didn't matter that it didn't exist yet, he knew it would one day.
In October 2006, Chiba finally got his restaurant and I Yu fulfilled his promise, giving Dinings its distinctive minimalist concrete interior – a bit of a bargain as I Yu is now a leading designer for the London 2012 Olympic Park.
From the age of 16, Chiba worked as a French pastry chef in his hometown of Kanagawa, south of Tokyo, before moving to the Japanese capital. During his early twenties he cooked in lavish French restaurant The Georgian Club in the upscale Nishi-Azabu area. By the age of 26, having dedicated more than 10 years of his life to the restaurant industry, he was dispirited. "I was fed up of learning French cuisine and wanted to take a break in my career so I moved to London."
As a hard-up English language student in London, he would peruse job bulletin boards at the Japan Centre in Piccadilly, where he got talking to a Japanese woman, who told him about a place by the name of Nobu. Chiba applied and landed a job in the kitchen where his talent was immediately recognised by Head Chef Mark Edwards. Consequently, Chiba became a protégé of the most famous name in Japanese fusion cuisine – Nobuyuki Matsuhisa aka Nobu.
Over the next few years, Nobu sent him to every country with a Nobu kitchen – Milan, Paris, Mykonos, St Moritz at the Badrutt's Palace Hotel and his native Tokyo, where he trained intensively as a sushi chef. Pretty soon, he was promoted to the position of Head Sushi Chef at Ubon, in Canary Wharf, for two-and-a-half years.
Dinings is Chiba's first solo venture. His grounding in French cuisine, sushi and nine years of Peruvian-Japanese fusion at Nobu has stood him in good stead to create an inventive and edgy fusion menu, but at a reasonable £30 to £40 a head – around a third of the price of Nobu, even though he shares the same meat and fish suppliers as his former employer. "Nobu is expensive," he modestly explains, "but it has a name and a brand. In a small restaurant like this we have no brand and no name."
This tapas restaurant is tucked discreetly down a Marylebone back street, with a sign you could almost miss.
But why tapas and why Marylebone? "When I was 14, I used to work part-time in an izakaya ( a Japanese gastropub) a couple of nights a week, and always liked the concept. I wanted to open an izakaya western people could understand, and relating it to Spanish tapas seemed the closest thing as people share lots of little small dishes like in an izakaya."
The space at Dinings is cosy – or by western standards, a tight squeeze – but Chiba claims this is intentional, to mirror the Japanese izakaya experience. However Dinings'
location is coincidental. It was pure luck that the Japanese restaurant previously on the site, specialising in the food of Okinawa (a cluster of islands at the southernmost tip of Japan), had just "closed down and was up for sale about the time I began thinking about starting my own project".
Backed by a silent investor as well as some of Chiba's own money, he states that they are on a very tight budget at Dinings. But Chiba's ambitions are not grandiose.
"I don't really want to become a millionaire, and if the customers are happy, the staff earn enough money to live and I carry on learning, I feel like I have gained something."
Has Chiba any other plans up his sleeve? "Hmm, my plans, I wonder what they are? I guess I will know eventually, but for the time being I hope people who come along to my restaurant are happy with it."
On the Menu?
Tofu with Spicy Seafood Salsa; Small Bomb Coriander with White Fish; Chilli Lemon Fish Sauce; Pork Leg Terrine with Mustard Miso; Rib-Eye Beef with Korean Chilli Miso Sauce; Chilli Garlic Black Cod; Saké Steamed Mussels with Shallots and Jalapeno; Squid with Horseradish Soy; Scallop with Yuzu Garlic; Grilled Spicy Beef Roll; Smoked Salmon Skin Roll; Fresh Water Eel and Cucumber; Matcha Brûlée, White Sesame Pannacotta Where? Dinings, 22 Harcourt Street, London W1 020 7723 0666