A patriotic chef: Expressing the richness of Japan through cuisine.

Ryugin
Seiji Yamamoto

Ryugin Seiji Yamamoto

It is unacceptable to see, “Style: Japanese Cuisine.” There is no meaning it unless it is written as, “Spirit: Japanese Cuisine.”

At times standing in the kitchen at RyuGin, while other times sharing countless cooking techniques to chefs around the world thanks to his invitations from all types of gastronomy conferences across the globe. In 2012 he opened the Tenku RyuGin in Hong Kong, and in 2014 he opened the Shoun Ryugin in Taiwan. In January of 2016, he ranked third in a list of the World’s 100 Best Chefs based on the polling of chefs with two or three Michelin stars, which was published by the French culinary magazine Le Chef.

There is a physical distance between each of your international restaurants, and the ingredients you can procure at each location are also different from what is available in Japan. What do you believe is important to ensure you provide high standards of quality at all your RyuGin restaurants under these difficult conditions?

Mr. Yamamoto
The cuisine offered at RyuGin, no matter which country it is in, must show off the richness of that country. If you go to Taiwan, you will find the goodness of Taiwanese ingredients. If you go to Hong Kong, you’ll discover the excellence of Hong Kong ingredients. I teach my staff at each location that they must express this concept in their cooking, and that they should absolutely never copy any item from the Japanese RyuGin.

Ryugin bowl cuisine

The ingredients are different, so naturally the cuisine is different.

Mr. Yamamoto
Right. I will not accept it if it is in the style of Japanese cooking alone. There is no point unless it is in the spirit of Japanese cuisine. Simply copying what we’re doing in Japan is like printing off fake bills and trying to pass them off in other countries. I feel keenly suspicious when I see advertising that says, “100% of our ingredients flown in from Japan.” Japan has festivals throughout the year, and each one has festival food using the harvest of the season. This connection to nature, land, and culture is vitally important to Japanese cuisine, and the same thing is true for every country and their own cuisine. I think it’s only natural to take into account the natural environment and culture of each country when preparing food.

Does your proactive participation in culinary arts conferences and lectures around the world also come from a desire to express the spirit of Japanese cuisine to the world?

Mr. Yamamoto
Originally, I suppose it would be up to the country itself to express the richness of Japan, not the chefs. However, as people preparing Japanese cuisine we become representatives of Japan. This is a wonderful thing that we should never take lightly. Because we are spokespeople for the country of Japan, we should be able to accurately express what Japanese cuisine is to the people who experience it.

Little by little the effort to get people to experience Japanese cuisine is paying off, and the attention it is getting continues to grow around the world. Yet at the same time, I hear people lamenting the fact that fewer and fewer young people air aiming to get a degree in Japanese cuisine at culinary arts schools.

Mr. Yamamoto
We have to act, not complain. In the end, it’s a matter of whether or not parents can say to a child they love, “Become a chef.” If that is a sticking point, then a lot of things have to be improved.

The biggest issue is making sure young people know the true value of working in an industry that provides Japanese cuisine. The people active in the industry need to go farther and use their own words to broadcast the allure of Japanese cuisine. Without that, young adults will not feel that the work of chefs has any value beyond simply “making food to make money.”

I fully agree with you. Clearly you are practicing what you preach.

Mr. Yamamoto
In my case, I just didn’t have any interests in anything other than Japanese cuisine. [laughs] But truly, nothing else gives me this kind of joy. Every day I get to come in contact with ingredients that were nurtured by the natural environment of Japan, I sense the quality. I have pride in Japan, and it is my honor as a chef to show the world the richness of Japan. I bear the weight of the whole country on my back by preparing food from my country. A chef is so much more than a machine churning out food.

That’s why in interviews I ask questions like, “Do you love Japan?” I add, “Please tell me exactly what it is you love about Japan.” If you truly love Japan and stop in to RyuGin to prepare food or provide customer service, you will aquire the skill and service of Japanese cuisine at a level where you have confidence as a professional. You will be able to express excellence of what you are proud without pandering. Anyone not prepared for that has no future in the food and beverage industry. I feel it is my responsibility to avoid that by leading young people in a direction where they will be successful as professionals.

(interviewer: Osamu Saito, writer: Ayako Izumi, Photographer: Tomoyasu Osakabe)

Ryugin interior

Ryugin

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