Chefs need sensibility, applied learning, and memory to be creative
By the way, how many people work at the shop today? Is there a certain type of person you look to work with?
The shop is me, my wife, and three staff members.
You can’t be a dunce to be a chef. You have to have a good sensibility.
What kind of sensibility do you look for, exactly?
Kyoto cuisine prizes a sense of color and seasonality. If you just treat work like a routine to be completed everyday, your sensibilities will never open up. To that end, I propose a new theme of exploration each month in order to stimulate their creativity.
In terms of hiring, I’ll be blunt: you don’t know if someone has “it” until you work with them. People considered dunces at school oftentimes make great chefs, and vice versa. What a teacher prizes and what we prize in a real-world context are different.
That being said, you have to be responsive and have good intuition. If you learn that, the rest — the technical bits — is something that can be learned if you just practice every day.
By intuition, do you mean, for instance, learning one recipe and being able to apply that thinking to other ingredients?
Precisely — being able to say, “do this like we did that” and that being enough to get the idea across. It’s a question of applied learning and memory. If you have that, it breeds creativity.
When you start out, you don’t know what you’re capable of. It’s my job to spot those skills and help you develop them.
Continually showing one’s creativity as a form of education — “Create your own circuit of inspiration!”
Ryozanpaku has been around for forty-two years. How many people have worked at the shop during this time? Many of them surely went out on their own as chefs, right? Is there a certain trait common to those who trained here?
There have been about 250 people. Some of them have Michelin stars of their own. There’s a bit of everything. I guess one thing we have in common is the pursuit of originality, of things that have never been done before.
I sit on the judges’ panel for Japan Culinary Academy competitions. For workshops, I tell people the same thing: “If you always turn out the same stuff, people will get sick of you. You have to stay alert, on your guard.” In other words, a sense of surprise.
Staying original is in itself a challenge. What sort of things have you done to train your team in producing things for which there is no playbook, no set recipe, as it were?
The key is for me to personally continue being creative.
No one is motivated by theory and no action. You have to take action, work on-site, act as a role model, and be crazy about it from morning till night, showing them your enthusiasm. That’s true not just of the food, either.
The fact is, technical skill is simple — it’s just a question of whether the work is rough or fine. If the cook doesn’t even understand why the item they’ve made isn’t right, I almost want to tell them to quit.
What’s more important than technical skills is whether you can create the ecosystem where you are actually challenging and inspiring yourself. These repeated trials and experiences broaden your experience, and you develop a kind of creative circuit from the inside-out.
Not everyone is as skilled as you at being constantly curious and being able to fire themselves up even when the going gets tough. How do you create those opportunities for inspiration?
Well, for example, last September I was invited to participate for a week at the 4th Annual Ritz Carlton Asia Pacific Food & Wine Festival in Tokyo, where I served whisky kaiseki; my staff came with me, of course.
Just working at the shop, there’s no barometer of where your skills stand in the outside world. But working with the teams of a luxury hotel, you get a sense of how you stack up. And it’s a shot of confidence for us to see how we do.
The spirit and passion of Kyoto cuisine
Retaining the form of Kyoto cuisine and creativity at the same time must be difficult. What is your take on this subject?
Kyoto-style establishments today all serve the same thing. What I’ve learned over the years is that, in a sense, the basis of Kyoto cuisine is, in fact, “digestible foods.”
What do you mean by that?
Banquet meals and large plated meals were designed for government functionaries as a show of influence. Kyoto cuisine has a different underlying philosophy.
Nobles in the Heian era and high Zen priests in the Kamakura era lived long due to carefully controlled diets. Late in life, they had trouble digesting food. It was here that chefs devised the “kabura-mushi” turnip-and-broth dish for them.
Think about nobles and high priests. They are stubborn, right? (laughs) If you just offer them medicine, they will be too haughty to drink it.
Chefs would grate turnip, make it into a ball, and garnish it with kudzu starch. Kudzu is an Eastern root which is in and of itself a form of medicine. This wasn’t just a balanced diet being healthy, but a balanced diet that was in itself medicinal.
Then they incorporated ways to get the diner interested in the meal. Take lidded dishes. Even classical French cuisine employs silver lids on the main dish in order to excite the diner before unveiling its contents. Japanese cuisine has potted and lidded dishes and soups, but kabura-mushi involves opening the lid and then resealing the contents with a turnip. In other words, two surprises await you. This is quite a refined concept, is it not?
Then there is the question of aroma. As I mentioned in the context of easily digestible foods, aroma is a hugely important element. Stirring the kabura-mushi together creates a rich aroma. It’s also soft, so it’s easy to eat.
In other words, this single dish contains all the elements: it’s good for the body, easy to eat, surprising, and somewhat mysterious. Through these surprises and tastes, nobles and high priests were made healthy by Japanese cuisine. Maybe they didn’t have a concept like “easily digestible food” at the time, but the common people saw this and how it contributed to longevity and wanted to do the same. It is my thinking that this emulation brought about Kyoto cuisine. That is the underlying spirit in this food. However, we can’t have our cake and eat it too, so to speak, when it comes to hospital food.
You talked about “format” earlier — the fact of the matter is, Kyoto kaiseki does not have fixed rules or an “orthodox” way of doing things. The Japan Culinary Academy issues a survey of 140 chefs, and the names of dishes and the order in which various appetizers and plates appeared on the menu was completely different at each establishment. There is no playbook.
In other words, Kyoto kaiseki is not about form, but about a philosophy and spirit. So my cuisine is not “creative” as such. It’s that Kyoto-style kaiseki has a format which enables each chef to interpret it in a unique way that cannot be replicated by others. It’s like music or theater.
What is the logic behind this structure and presentation? What do we want to convey? Chefs have to consider this when creating a dish. In some cases, it may even fall on the patron to answer these questions.
After all, the real thrill of music and theater is not select elements, but having the literacy to understand them as a whole system in operation. Food is the same. Instead of enjoying each plate in isolation, thinking about how it works together as an interplay will create more stirring and surprising food experiences.
That’s why I want to create a “theory of kaiseki” that will help patrons deepen their literacy of the entire system.
（Interviewer:Osamu Saito, Writer:Yasuyo Miyazaki, Photographer:Takashi Oka）