Paul Greening proudly wears a white coat to work every day. But, considering that he studied microbiology at university, his dad was a marine biologist and he grew up with electro-microscopes and other scientific instruments scattered all around him, it’s surprisingly not a laboratory uniform. Paul’s white coat is a chef jacket; he heads up the kitchen at aqua kyoto, a premium Japanese restaurant on one of Regent Street’s rooftops.
Microbiology is still a big part of Paul’s life, though not in the way he’d have guessed as a child. Today he’s at the forefront of London’s thriving Japanese cuisine scene: not content with standard sushi and bento boxes, Paul has dedicated his chef life to developing experimental new flavours and textures using lab technologies – and his passion has made aqua kyoto one of the best Asian restaurants in the capital.
How he ended up working in a kitchen is not an unusual story amongst chefs. While at Wellington University for his academic degree, he started working as a cook on the side to make a bit of extra money: “It was a means to an end really. When you’re a student you just need to”, Paul says now, looking relaxed in one of the restaurant’s private dining rooms. Having finished his degree he went to work for the department of science and industrial research in New Zealand, but after a year he decided it wasn't for him: “The culinary industry is so sociable, interesting and creative, I realised that’s what I wanted to do. I finished my cooking qualifications and I have now been working in this industry for 25 years!”
Paul has since worked in Australia, France and the UK, as well as his native New Zealand. But Japanese cuisine has been a constant companion. “My dishes have always been European, but with a Japanese twist to them,” Paul explains. He’s been working exclusively with Asian food for the last eight to nine years. “Japan has the most Michelin-starred restaurants anywhere in the world and the degree of quality is unprecedented. It’s all very seasonal and very simple, in the way that it’s always about the ingredients,” he explains.
Working as a head chef like Paul is a bit like being the creative director of a fashion brand – but instead of suits he makes sushi. Paul looks after the aqua brand from a 360-view point. His working day is about everything from the big picture down to the finest detail; as well as helping to expand the brand globally, he’s also equally interested in the finer details of each restaurant. “Yes”, he says excitedly, “these chopsticks I sourced from Kyoto in Japan, and at the moment I’m talking to a pottery person in Birmingham about creating some crockery with different glazes and a miso soup cup.”
Going back to Paul’s microbiology roots, it’s quite clear that his scientific background still plays a major role in his cooking today. He’s made a name for himself and for aqua, as a forward-thinking advocator of avant-garde food. There are several different and unusual ways of preparing food that occupy the staff here. “I often use a thermal circulator in the kitchen, it’s a temperature-controlled water bath. I came across it in my science laboratory days. I also use a lot of fermentation; everything from the soba noodles to the tofu we make is fermented. We don’t just make it, we research it – and there’s a lot of scientific method to it.”
A great deal of time is spent perfecting the food; how long is dependent on how well the research goes: “For the soba noodle it took four months,” Paul says. “I brought some scientific journals with me from Yamamoto in Japan and that’s how we started to understand the buckwheat, its structure and how it reacts to the alkaline factor of the water.” But there’s more to it than fermentation; one of Paul’s latest projects fuses food with art. “I decided we would create a printed seaweed roll, and so we actually print artwork onto the seaweed paper, which is edible!”
But the three words that really get Paul excited are ‘lactic acid bacteria’. “Ah yes,” he practically hums. “It survives at a PH level of 4.5. Whereas a lot of bacteria will die off in such acidic levels, the advantage of lactic acid fermentation is that it's a live organism. It's good for your gut. Over the years we have managed to destroy a lot of the natural bacteria in our diet through the use of antibiotics. Lactic acids help with digestion, and keep all the nutritional value in a lot of our food. If you think about all the waste in supermarkets, what they could do is turn all that into fermentation, and they could save a lot of money,” he explains. “All the carrots, with nobbly tops, which they don’t use and leave to rot, they could ferment and sell as a product in store.”
The last frontier for Paul and many other chefs, is where to get ingredients from – especially if you’re cooking Asian food in London. “Obviously we’re buying a lot of stuff from Japan directly,” Paul says. But he’s a got another solution lined up: “I have created a Japanese farm in Ascot with a friend of mine who has a lovely garden, where we grow the vegetables we need.” That’s the wonderfully unique journey your Japanese food takes to end up on your Regent Street plate: From Tokyo to London, via Ascot.
If you want to sample Paul’s incredible Japanese cuisine whilst enjoying a spectacular roof terrace with views over Regent Street, you can find aqua kyoto at 240 Regent Street, W1B 3BR.