Kyo-kaiseki: Yoshihiro Murata
You have to be quick (and lucky or well-connected) to catch up with famed kaiseki chef Yoshihiro Murata. Recently awarded three Michelin stars for Kikunoi Honten and two stars each for Kikunoi Akasaka and Kikunoi Roan, he is very much in demand. Of course, the Kikunoi name has been legendary long before the Japanese Michelin guides were published, but the seven stars have brought a new degree of fame and pressure to his already hectic life.
“The other day, at the counter in Akasaka, two perfectly normal-looking foreign guests started talking about which airports were better for landing their private jets, says Murata. “I thought to myself, what a conversation— and what a different world this is!”
Indeed. The world has come knocking at Murata’s shoji door, but not before decades of hard work, and perhaps because of— not in spite of— his initial rejection of his career path.
As a third generation ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurant) owner, Murata could have easily been successful by simply sticking with the status quo. But in his early twenties, following a desire to strike out on his own, he flew to Paris to study French cooking at the Sorbonne. And while that notion is quite common today, it was rather unusual in the ‘70s, especially for someone with such a highly regarded traditional pedigree. But after six months, he “changed his heart,” as he says, because he quickly realized that the world had no idea about Japanese food and, by extension, its culture. He decided to devote his life to spreading knowledge about Japanese cuisine and culture to the world, and has regarded this as his life’s work ever since.
In addition to tending to his three restaurants, Murata also heads an international organization he created for this very mission, the Japan Culinary Academy. Among its many activities, which include educational outreach and cross-cultural programs between young chefs from Japan and the West, the academy invites world-class chefs to Japan for an in-depth education of its deep culinary tradition. Past participants have included such luminaries as David Chang, Claude Bosi and Michael Anthony. Chef Murata states that he has learned as much from these exchanges as he’s taught, for chefs speak a common language of food, and freely share everything — recipes, techniques, and even secrets — because of their passion and love of creativity. And this is also part of Kikunois success: The menus stay fresh with ingenious twists and surprising elements that build upon kaiseki, one of the culinary world’s oldest and deepest traditions.
Kaiseki originated from the tea ceremony, which held close connections with Buddhism. The word— kai (bosom) and seki (rock) is named after the hot rocks carried by monks to stave off cold and hunger. From its humble yet elegant and deeply spiritual beginning, kaiseki has evolved into a multi-course cuisine that reaches the pinnacle of artistry and taste, appealing to all five senses. And who better to write a book on this subject than Murata? Published in 2006, “Kaiseki: the Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant” (with photos by leading food photographer Masashi Kuma and foreword by celebrity chefs Ferran Adrià and Nobu Matsuhisa) is one of my favorite books. Full of chef Murata’s personal accounts, insights and recipes, and illustrated by gorgeous full-color photographs of Kikunoi’s seasonal creations, it’s a book for daydreaming and gaining inspiration.
The book can even be used a guide to the restaurant, where the menu changes by month, as in the classical kyo-kaiseki (Kyoto kaiseki) tradition. However, guests who return within the month are treated to a change of pace, and their meal is custom-designed with substitutions just for them. This happens quite often, and regulars from near and far like to return even a third time, which the kitchen takes in stride. But by the fourth or fifth visit, Murata admits it can be taxing “I tell them not to come until next month!” he says, laughing.
Fresh and Local
The ingredients for Kikunoi’s classic kyo-kaiseki are, naturally, seasonal, as well as local. But the depth and purity of this concept is manifest in a way that is both poetic and impressive in its efficient simplicity. And to illustrate this, he begins with a story of a fisherman.
At 2:00am, this fisherman rises in the cold darkness. By 4:00am he’s on the pristine waters of Japan’s Inland Sea. By 6:00am, the day’s catch is sorted, and 40 of the best (in May, it’s tilefish) are loaded onto a truck and delivered to Kyoto’s Kikunoi Honten and Kikunoi Roan by 8:00am. From there, boxes of kyo-yasai (Kyoto vegetables, delivered from select farms) are loaded onto the same truck, which arrives at Kikunoi Akasaka by 3:00pm. Farmer, fisherman and chef are all part of this story, which is repeated three times a week, and they comprise a network of long-standing, multi-generational ties.
The Role of Tableware
Chef Murata is also involved in preserving Kyoto’s traditional crafts and is a champion of struggling shokunin (craftspeople), both young and old. This naturally grew out of a need for distinctive tableware. With large kitchens and many clients, he explained that it’s difficult to use antique tableware or the work of famous artists due to the limited quantities and expense. Yet, ordinary tableware simply won’t do. So, while ordering tableware for his restaurants, he works directly with artisans, which in turn helps shape their vision and exposes their work to a wider audience.
During our visit to Kikunoi in late spring, we noticed the delicate Murano glass tokkuri which held chilled sake. The shape of the container and the gold and white beads that radiated outward from the center reminded me of a sea urchin. Chef Murata explained that the artist was in her early twenties, and was in the habit of using multiple colors (in the Murano tradition). By his instruction, she limited the color pallet and created these whimsically modern, yet uniquely Japanese, vessels. He helped her regain her Japanese roots, and she has become more successful because of this.
This role of benefactor and patron has made Murata into somewhat of a modern Medici, and he does what he can to advise artists (such as those making incredibly detailed but anachronistic items like sword guards, for instance) to shift their skills toward creating products the modern, as well as outside, world can embrace. I noticed his beautiful briefcase, which I clearly recognized as the work of Inden-ya, a company established in 1582 that specializes in deerskin goods intricately decorated with lacquer patterns. But this design I had never seen, as the construction looked like it was from 19th century Paris: solidly reinforced with sturdy black leather around all edges to protect the deerskin, which glistened ever so subtly— black on black, in a lavish Japanese pattern. It was divine. And rare.
Much like Murata himself, I thought. To have so much talent and so many facets in a single person is quite astounding: Here is a traditional Kyoto-ite who feels joy at the sight of autumn leaves and prays at the local shrine, yet teaches in stainless-steel state-of-the-art kitchens at global conferences. A chef who works in an old-world setting of Taisho-era dining rooms filled with antiques, just steps from Kodai-ji (where his ancestors cooked for Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s kin) yet swaps recipes with Ferran Adrià on the other side of the world. While I bemoan the loss of artisanal food and craft traditions, he’s busy re-inventing them. Watching someone like him makes me happy to born in this time.
I’m in awe of chef Murata. I’m inclined to call him “sensei,” though I don’t know which art I’m studying.
I suppose it’s the art of life.
Related articles: Dining at Kikunoi Honten