Kyoto's Best Chefs Cook To Inspire New Traditions
It was a sunny day last october when Kyoto’s Nijo Castle, which was built in the 17th century, was filled with a cheerful and triumphant atmosphere. But this time, a different kind of celebration was happening, as the Michelin Guide Kyoto Osaka revealed its 10th edition in a momentous awards ceremony.
In the presence of 620 guests comprising a mix of food lovers and industry folk, the regions’ top chefs made their way on stage to acknowledge the starred honour bestowed upon their restaurants. Among them, three chefs were welcomed with thunderous applause, as their restaurants were declared to have earned and retained their three Michelin-star rating for the 10th year in a row—since the launch of the Michelin Guide Kyoto Osaka, which now also includes restaurants from the Tottori prefecture. The three chefs in question were Eiichi Takahashi from Hyotei, Yoshihiro Murata from Kikunoi, and Kunio Tokuoka from Kyoto Kitcho.
The celebrations later continued at the Michelin gala dinner held at the Kyoto Okura Hotel, where guests were entertained with a song and dance performance by geishas (or geikos, as they are referred to in Kyoto), who are female entertainers skilled in the art of traditional music, dance and conversation. For the celebratory dinner, a stunning team of eight chefs from Kyoto restaurants with three Michelin stars in the 2018 edition, including the aforementioned three, created a special kaiseki menu—a traditional multi-course meal that celebrates the best of culture and nature—which was well worth its ¥75,600 per person price tag.
ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL
The first course, or hassun, was an appetiser prepared by chef Tokuoka. It featured a lantern made with a single slice of radish that had been sliced almost paper-thin using the katsura muki cutting technique. The lantern was then used to adorn a dish of braised abalone and served with a sauce made with its liver and a dash of shichimi togarashi, a seven spice mixture that contains Kamizumo chilli from the Shimane prefecture. Accompanying the dish was a serving of seasonal crab with chrysanthemum flower that came with vinegar jelly enhanced with the richness of an egg-yolk sauce. There was also ikura paired with crunchy lotus root for a contrast of textures.
Tokuoka understands kaiseki as a “cuisine to bind together the people”. He explained, “It was based on the Japanese tea ceremony, and I think Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a 16th-century feudal lord, general and unifier of Japan, created this culture. At that time, feudal lords were constantly fighting each other, so there was a need to create a setting where they could build sincere relationships with each other.” Toyotomi, he continued, also created the rule stipulating that everyone was equal in a tea ceremony room, regardless of their title. In the same way, kaiseki dishes are designed to support and inspire pleasant conversation, setting and seasonality.
Chef Murata was tasked with presenting the nimono (braised dish) and prepared his restaurant’s signature shippo mushi, which when translated implies the braising of seven culinary treasures. The soup, in this case, is filled with treasures of the sea such as abalone and scallop, slow-braised in a turtle soup for five hours. A nourishing, collagen-rich
dish, it brings to mind the Cantonese classic, Buddha Jumps Over the Wall.
Murata affirmed the kaiseki’s healthful design—up to 65 ingredients could be used for one course, but its total calorie count is kept under 1,000. He also sees kaiseki cuisine as four-dimensional. “I try to design dishes that let diners travel to the past and to other parts of the world, which awakens their memories and imagination,” he said. “Kaiseki cuisine is like an amusement park and also a living museum.”
Together with his son, chef Yoshihiro Takahashi, the heir apparent of the family’s over 400-year-old restaurant, Hyotei, chef Eiichi Takahashi prepared the takiawase (mixed braised dish). The dish, which saw vegetables served with a slice of sea conger, looked simple but required a lot of work to make. For one, the vegetables were cooked separately with different types of dashi. Japanese yam, for instance, was cooked in a sweeter dashi, while white radish was cooked in one that featured less soya sauce to keep its colour. To finish, sea conger skin was lightly charcoal-grilled for a subtle smoky flavour.
“Tasty food makes people happy,” Eiichi posited, adding how he hoped his cuisine would give diners “a gentle and warm feeling”. But he reminded us that this was also achieved by drastically “changing the tradition” to attain the ideal flavour. “I’m a 14th-generation chef, but I don’t only stick to the tradition.” He went on to explain that kaiseki is also largely about the use of dashi, a tradition that his family had decided to tweak and modernise decades ago.
“Normally, most kaiseki restaurants would use dashi made with bonito flakes, but we’ve replaced these with tuna flakes because they give a gentler, more elegant umami,” said his son Yoshihiro. “Recently, kaiseki is also influenced by western cuisine ideas.” The importance of aroma, for example, is growing. Traditionally, only one aroma would lead a dish but these days, it is not uncommon to combine several aromas.
Suffice it to say that despite their constant winning ways, these progressive chefs prove that tradition is not only about the things of the past.