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Cheat Day: Makoto Harada, head chef at UMI

Where do the notable chefs and bartenders of Hong Kong’s F&B scene like to eat when they’re not cooking? What is their best home-cooked meal? Cheat Day goes behind the scenes with the city’s culinarians and tastemakers to find out exactly what their personal favourites are during their days off.

A chef’s journey into sleek professional kitchens of organised chaos is never a straightforward one. For some, it’s an innate belonging known since birth; others, a serendipitous chance that eventually evolved into a passion. For Makoto Harada though, the new head chef at Le Comptoir’s traditional edomae omakase UMI, it was simply the opposite direction away from nine-to-five office cubicles, which Harada confidently knew was not for him.

Instead, he wanted to create with his own bare hands. And so begins the Kumamoto-native’s journey as a Japanese chef.

“When I was 16, a few of my seniors who I looked up to became chefs and that started putting ideas in my head,” he shares. “I knew at the time I wasn’t made for “office work”. That summer I started apprenticing to becoming a chef at a traditional, family-run sushi bar in Fukuoka, and that lasted for five years.”

cheat day Makoto Harada
Makoto Harada, head chef at UMI

Now, Harada is an accomplished veteran with almost 30 years of Japanese culinary experience. From the apprenticeship that started it all in a humble neighbourhood sushi-ya, Harada was taught the meticulous process of creating a dish, a skill that he further perfected during his studies in Kyoto. Then, 17 years at various hotel kitchens in Kumamoto, often of acute detailing and exact techqniues, nurtured a nuance in refining flavours and ingredients, eventually encouraging him to open his own casual restaurant, Nagatomi, in the Amakusa Islands, which he successfully ran with his wife for almost a decade.

Harada has always preferred to stay close to home. Even now, stationed far, far away in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan, Harada manages to keep small reminders of his ocean-surrounding origins by spending days off at the seaside, and infusing classic hometown flavours upon a fully renewed omakase menu at the tranquil 10-seater eatery.

Naturally favour is granted to ingredients from Harada’s own Kyushu region, but also spans an extensive selection of rare, coveted seasonal cuts from across the country including Fukuoka spear squid, Nagasaki Goma Saba summer blue mackerel, Oita marble sole founder, Nagasaki sea eel, Kitsu whiting fish and Kumamoto jumbo prawn.

It stays true to UMI’s original seafood focus, with the freshest catch sourced from premium suppliers flown in from Japan and a dining experience that’s never twice the same.

“Each one of our courses showcase one main ingredient,” Harada explains. “Once we receive the ingredients, I try to figure out how to best enhance the flavour, whether it is pairing it with other ingredients or what type of sauces to create.”

“Currently, I am trying to create more fish-based dishes to accommodate and surprise people who are allergic to shellfish,” he finishes.

This impressive ability to switch between different flavour profiles and preparation methods is only a tiny facet of what makes omakase chefs so admirable; incredible knife skills, a consistent threshold for top-notch standard and drive to constantly invent and renew notwithstanding. Harada is kept constantly on his toes — he enjoys it that way — working and transforming an ever-changing list of ingredients into incredible, photogenic dishes. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult for Harada, who is better know for his endless creativity in crafting new, contemporary versions on stalwart favourites.

One dish that you’ll find is Harada’s own personal pick, Kurage, which serves marinated jellyfish is a nutty sesame sauce. Others small appetisers includes seasonal Fukuokan tilefish paired with a smoked liver sauce and spiced daikon; slow-cooked steamed Hokkaido abalone with a dip made from abalone liver; and in-season Trumpet shell conch prepared with jellyfish and myoga ginger.

“For my first menu at UMI, I want to introduce guests to new ingredients that the region of Kyushu in Japan is famous for,” he explains. “Kyushu is my home, so the new menu is completely seasonal for the summer, while trying to showcase Kyushu ingredients.”

Cheat Day with Makoto Harada

What was the last meal you had? 

Cart noodles in Causeway Bay. I love this dish, the rich broth is actually similar to some heavier nabe dishes we eat in winter in Kyushu.  I like to try all different kinds, but my favourite is Wing Kee Noodle.

Who inspires you/ your cooking?   

Horimoto-san (owner chef of Chiso Horimoto (馳走ほりもと)) was a former coworker of mine and he ended up opening up his own restaurant (Chiso Horimoto).

I was inspired by his passion to only create the most seasonal dishes using only the ingredients of Amakusa (where the restaurant was located and also my hometown!). His dishes were traditional recipes but always altering the recipes slightly to bring out the best flavours and combinations of each single ingredient. He was also constantly changing his menu based on the ingredients received.  

What does being a chef mean to you?

Creating delicious dishes that warm the guests heart and make them smile.

What was the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received? 

“Consistency is key.” 

cheat day makato harada
Fatty Tuna

Tell me some of your signature dishes/ creations. 

Kurage gomatsuge (jellyfish with sesame) and Miyazaki Wagyu Tataki (Grilled Miyazaki beef). 

Honestly, what is it like working with you in the kitchen? 

In general I really feel I am easy-going… as long as the staff follows my instructions.  

As a foreign chef with limited English, it is difficult to convey your exact intentions to staff at the beginning, so I may come off as demanding and harsh but I feel this is mostly unavoidable due to communication issues. Now after some time together, we begin to understand each other without even talking sometimes, and the day goes by much more smoothly and efficiently — we even joke around using three languages (Japanese, English and Cantonese).  

Your favourite local Hong Kong ingredients to use? 

Unfortunately, we don’t use local ingredients at UMI, but due to sustainability issues, we hope to look into changing this.  

Trumpet Shell Conch
Horse Mackerel

Do you cook at home? If so, what is your go-to home-cooked dish? 

Most chef’s home cooked meals are often simple. I love discovering the varieties of local fish so if I have to cook a meal for myself, my first instinct is to go to the local wet market for the best catch of the day to make whole steamed fish. It’s delicious and healthy!

You have 30 minutes. What will you make? 

I will make a seafood pasta. Still fish and carbs but a completely opposite style and cuisine.

Name the top three favourite ingredients/condiments you currently own in your pantry. 

Yari ika (Spear squid), Aji (Hourse macherel) and Akamutsu (Rock fish). Now is the best season for all of them.  

cheat day makato harada
Fukuokan Tilefish

The best meal you ever had? 

Long time ago in Rantei, a beautiful traditional Kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto. Kyoto is known for their Kaiseki cuisine and this particular restaurant was just stunning in every way, from the dishes to the environment located in this beautiful traditional city. 

What was your most memorable food moment? 

The first time I tried my mum’s cooking. Aradaki, grilled and poached fish head. It was so full of flavour that I became curious about how it was made. Every time I eat this it brings back all the warm and fuzzy memories that bring me back to childhood. 

What is one dish/snack/food you can’t live without? 

Nattō (Japanese fermented soybeans).

cheat day makato harada
Goma Saba

Savoury or sweet? 


The best dishes/drinks you’ve had in Hong Kong?

  • Octopus at Sushi Shikon
  • Grilled Amadai at Ryota
  • Aji Yam Sushi at Sushiyoshi  
  • Steam Sawara at Sushi Awaji 

Something you want to try while in Hong Kong? 

I want to try more local specialty dishes and private kitchens. 

UMI, 198 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, +852 2956 3177

Lorria Sahmet
After two years writing in luxury retail, Lorria now covers food and drink happenings in Hong Kong. When not taste-testing for the best fries in the city (shoestring, always!), find her at home obsessing over tableware and attempting a fruit garden on her tiny bay window. She is happiest by the ocean with a giant fishbowl-glass of Aperol Spritz.
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