Behind The Apron: Santaro Li (Hinoki Japanese Dining)

Having recently taken the reigns at Hinoki Japanese Dining restaurant, located at Nankin Row in China Square, the 60-year old Santaro Li who specialises in Kappo Ryori is still pushing boundaries. And it is not hard to see why. The ethnic Chinese, whose real name is Li Kwok Wing, swam for eight-hours to Hong Kong at the age of 18 in a desperate bid to escape poverty and the Cultural Revolution and to find a better life. Li-san eventually landed a job at a Japanese restaurant- Kanetanaka, a branch of the famous ryotei (traditional restaurant) in Ginza, Tokyo. In the following years, he trained and worked under some of the best Japanese chefs including Japan’s first Iron Chef Rokusaburo Michiba.

Chef Li shares with us some highlights of his culinary career…


What is Kappo Ryori?

Kappo Ryori means the chef selects the best produce in season and prepares the dish in the best way for the customer. There is no menu so it means I can cook anything in any way. For example, the ingredients in today’s appetizer are very simple, but how you cook it – that is kappo ryori.

What type of skills do you need to succeed in Kappo Ryori?

To succeed, you have to be very experimental and you need to be steeped into the culture of Japan to understand the origins of the produce. By doing so, you would know the best time and the best way to prepare it. For example, during Spring after the snow melts, the bamboo has already grown from the ground to about 10 inches. That is the best time to harvest it as the bamboo is very sweet and crunchy. So you don’t have to add any seasoning. You can just pick up and eat. After living in Japan for a while, I learned about their culture, their stories. From there, I knew which place has the best produce.

What did you learn from working with Japan’s first Iron Chef Rokusaburo Michiba?

He taught me how to equip myself with knowledge and apply this to my cooking. When you understand the taste of different people, you can adjust accordingly. For example, there are thirty to forty types of sashimi. But I can only select three types to put on your plate. So I have to know which ones would suit the customers better. This is the type of knowledge that my master passed on to me. Also, you need to go with your heart.


What has been your greatest achievement in your 40 years as a chef?

I was one of the ten chefs featured on the programme “I Cook For You” on Channel U in 2007. And my greatest achievement was when Mr Lee Kuan Yew agreed to be my guest on the show. I personally flew to a market in Japan before the show to select the ingredients that I would be cooking for him.

What keeps you going in this trade?

When I first entered this trade, I didn’t think I would stay that long. At that time when I was in Hong Kong, my shi fu (master) was very willing to teach me as I was a fast and keen learner. I also picked up the Japanese language very quickly. Within six months, I was able to converse fluently in Japanese. Everyone was surprised. And the more I learned from my master, the more interested I became. Gradually, I developed my own style and I was determined to do well in this trade. This style is something I will protect with my life.

Find out more about our memorable experience with Li-san’s food HERE!


One Response to Behind The Apron: Santaro Li (Hinoki Japanese Dining)

  1. […] Find out more about Executive Chef Santaro Li- the man who revolutionized Japanese cuisine in the 80′s and who has even cooked for the former MM Lee Kuan Yew in our interview with him HERE! […]

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