Ume Burger co-founder Kerby Craig on being the white guy making Japanese food
“It was always written into the business plan – way back, so five years ago,” said Kerby Craig, head chef and co-owner of Ume Burger (fellow owner is Bar Ume chef, Regina Jos).
Sydney’s newest burger joint, located at Barangaroo, is just over a week old, but the idea has been in the back of Craig’s mind for much longer and is the culmination of years of experience in the Japanese cuisine.
Craig, who began his career as an apprentice at Tetsuya’s, takes his commitment to Japanese cuisine and culture seriously.
“If it would fit in Japan then that’s good. We want it to be legitimate and genuine. That’s how we were thinking when we built the business model,” he said.
Awarded six consecutive chefs hats as head chef at Koi, before earning acclaim at his Surry Hills venue Ume Restaurant [now Bar Ume], Craig has had a lot of discussions about being the ‘white guy’ making Japanese food.
“People assume that because I’m white the food mustn’t be close to what’s in Japan. It’s natural to think that,” Craig told Hospitality.
“But it’s not hamburgers with a Japanese twist. Japanese burgers have their own style. The only really Western thing about them is the bread and maybe the cheese. But Hokkaido is actually known for producing some amazing cheese. And the bread is Hokkaido milk bread; they just call it milk toast there.”
Even the soft serve ice cream, which customers dispense from a machine on their own, is a huge trend across Japan.
“People might not think of ice cream when they think of Japan, but anyone who’s been knows how much ice cream is there. And if you can eat it, you’ll find it in Japan in terms of flavour.”
The soft-serve machine at Ume Burger will rotate through flavours from strawberry and shiso flavour, pumpkin, sweet potato, to lavender and white chocolate. As with much of the concept, Craig had always wanted to do Hokkaido-style soft-serve.
“I’d done them for a Hokkaido-inspired degustation pop-up at Ume Restaurant once and we wished we had the machine, but they’re thousands of dollars so you can’t justify that for one dish on a degustation,” he said.
“It’s been really fun watching people do it themselves, it’s harder than it looks.”
Craig had the whole picture in his head long before the plans came to fruition, but there were compromises and additions along the way.
“The vending machine, the vintage one we have, came about because the shop was so small we were thinking about how to fit drinks in. I searched long and hard for the right one, and paid a lot, but it’s another fun thing for people to do in-line,” he said.
“These things just pop into your head. The good thing with Barangaroo is that we were able to design it from the ground up as a burger shop, which was nice.”
Along with the menu, the design is very much a result of osmosis from Craig’s travels in Japan.
“This happened organically and collaboratively. You see things and they stick in your head. The more you expose yourself to something the more it stays in your subconscious and that comes out creatively, but you need to work with people who know what you’re talking about and respect the culture,” said Craig.
“My whole philosophy has been: ‘if I had this restaurant in Japan would I be embarrassed or ashamed?’
“If it wouldn’t look out of place in Japan then I’m happy.”
The menu, which features four burgers, as well as a small number of bar snacks, Japanese whiskies, beer and sodas, is purposefully tight.
“We’re doing numbers of 300–400 right now, and when the ferries start up we’re looking at 800–1,000. So we had to think about how much we can make in an hour.”
Simplicity is key for Craig, not just because it’s practical, but also because it fits with the Japanese approach to cooking that he’s been exposed to throughout his career.
“I want to focus on three or four things. We get negative feedback from some groups because they think the burgers are boring, but there’s a saying from a Japanese chef that goes: ‘if you put a blindfold on and taste something and you can’t tell me what it is, then I’ve failed as chef.’ So why would I make a beef burger if you’re not able to taste the beef? That’s just my philosophy.”