Chef Motokazu Nakamura is the 6th generation head chef and owner of the Michelin 2-star kaiseki restaurant Nakamura. This article, translated from a series about the top Kyoto chefs, discusses the importance of the concept of “isshisōden” – the Japanese custom of the preservation of a secret art by transmitting the oral tradition from parent to just one child. This word prefixes the full title of the restaurant: Isshisōden Kyōnoaji Nakamura
The method of transmission that characterises Nakamura is known as “isshisōden.” Passing down a tradition to just one child, who is your own flesh and blood, is like creating something so precious that it can never be taken away, which is quite different to the way that a master craftsman or scholar might just choose some disciple to carry on their lineage. In the “isshisōden” way, the parent can take pride in the reassurance that the tradition will be passed on into the future without the slightest change. It is this pride that is reflected in the name of the Kyoto cuisine restaurant “Isshisoden Nakamura.”
The history of restaurant itself starts in 1804, when the founding Nakamura set up a fish shop which supplied tilefish, mackeral, flounder, and so on, that had been brought directly from Wakasa Bay, on the Sea of Japan, to Kyoto, along the famous “Mackeral Highway.” From the time of second generation Nakamura, they honed their cooking skills by preparing meals that were particularly liked by the court nobility. Then the third generation Nakamura expanded the catering business and fourth generation Nakamura opened an inn for visiting important government officials, until finally, they opened up their own Kyoto cuisine restaurant. And so now the sixth generation inheritor of these Nakamura specialties is Motokazu Nakamura, who carries on the tradition with dishes such as shiromiso-ozoni and guji-no-sakeyaki [tilefish grilled with sake].
Let’s take for example the shiromiso-ozoni, which is one of Nakamura’s signature dishes. A round cake of mochi is baked on coals until it releases a pleasing char-grilled aroma; then the mochi is immersed into a glossy white miso soup and garnished with a thinned karashi mustard. This dish is closely associated with the cuisine of the Imperial Court from the era when the palace was located in Kyoto. The chef’s skill is in drawing out the flavours of these four simple ingredients – water, miso, karashi mustard, and mochi – without the use of dashi stock or added seasoning.
Motokazu Nakamura says, “As the only son inheriting the culinary tradition of Nakamura, what was transmitted to me was just simple cooking. For this reason, there’s just no need for fancy bells and whistles! For example, you have to be aware of the slight changes in the taste of the miso, such as the miso at the bottom of the barrel is more pungent than the sweeter tasting miso from the middle of the barrel. And the mochi has to be grilled to just the right degree in order to bring out the sweetness of the miso. It is this perfect and complete balance of those four ingredients that is the foundation of culinary success.”
The essential sense for a chef to develop is not so much in the craft of cooking, but rather to what extent he is able to “hear the voice of the ingredients.” Precisely because this is such an intuitive sense, handing down this knowledge is extremely difficult. Cultivating this intuitive sense of taste by educating the palate and developing an understanding through the body can only be learned by being fully immersed in the tradition from early childhood. It would seem then that this means of transmission is indeed a unique method.
Motokazu Nakamura continues, “In talking about isshisōden, I don’t mean that we learn secret arts of cooking that we cannot share with the outside. But rather, what is learned is a kind of spirituality through which we can transmit this knowledge about the ingredients to the guests we serve. When I was learning how to grill the mochi for the ozoni from my father, who was the fifth generation Nakamura, he would say ‘Grill this mochi as if your life depended on it!’ He really thought it wasn’t an exaggeration to say you have to risk your life for this mochi! [laugh] But now when I think about it, I realise that it was this attitude of complete devotion towards cooking that was passed on down to me.”
In cultivating this deep harmony between parent and child, it is the spirit of offering the guest a unique and precious experience that is the true culinary inheritance.
You can read an interview in English with Motokazu Nakamura at Phaidon, where he has been included in the book COCO
This week I am introducing Master Haroji Ukai, seventh-generation head of the traditional kaiseki restaurant Kinmata, a cultural heritage listed building located very near to the Nishiki food market. In recognition of his commitment to styles of cuisine that feature locally grown produce, as well as his extensive knowledge, Master Ukai has been designated by the prefectural authorities as Master of Kyoyasai (traditional Kyoto vegetables). Here is Master Ukai’s introduction from Kinmata’s website:
From the outset, the staff in the kitchen at Kinmata are all very hard-working and committed. Even though this is a business, there is an awareness that it’s a family business, where everyone understands that each person’s individual contribution is what creates Kinmata. Among the employees there is a spirit of competition as well as cooperation, but in the end it’s offering the customer a satisfying experience that’s important and I think this awareness is what unites us.
My son, who will become the eighth-generation head of Kinmata, has just returned from an eight-year absence, having spent four years in New York and four years in Tokyo. Seeing Kyoto from the outside has given him a deeper sense of just how special Kyoto is and he is already working on how to provide even better service to our customers in overt as well as more subtle ways. So I’m not worried about the future of Kinmata, which looks set to continue to flourish.
About our cuisine:
We really are indebted to our customers, who say things like “Well, I really felt I could taste the season with this meal”, which is just what a chef wants to hear. We don’t just prepare the same menu day after day – we depend on the advice of the people in the grower’s market who tell us what ingredients are at their seasonal best on a particular day. Based on our past experiences and knowledge, we also consider the growing region and conditions. This is certainly the best way to prepare a meal.
But it’s not about the personal satisfaction of the chef, and anyway, you’re limited in just how much you can prepare on the day. It’s more than that. When I was young, I was taken out one cold winter’s night to a small kappo restaurant where we sat around the counter with the chef in front of us, and I was really moved by the experience, such that I’ve never forgotten it. The chef was in his 60s and, although he didn’t know me, he was really happy to chat with me and asked me what I’d like to eat. Straight away he went to the fridge and took out some beautiful pink tilefish, which he proceeded to steam and then grill. It was so good, and I wondered how come he had this kind of delicious food just on hand. Next, he brought out some fugu milt (fugu no shirako) and, without processing it in any way, he just slid it onto a skewer and charcoal grilled it to a lovely golden brown, then sliced off a bit and served it straight away. It was soo~ good!
To this day, I haven’t forgotten how good that tasted! Actually, it was fugu milt pickled in miso (fugu no shirako misozuke). I also had locally grown Kyoto turnips, known as shoinkabu, served with a miso sauce (dengaku) that had the faint fragrance of yuzu and was served piping hot. Then there was a simple red miso soup and white rice. I remember I felt so satisfied that desert wasn’t necessary. And that’s just the kind of cuisine I now offer here at Kinmata, so please come and try it for yourself.
Hiroshi Sasaki is the chef and owner of Gion Sasaki, an immensely popular Michelin 2-star kappō (counter style) restaurant down the slope from the Yasaka Pagoda, in the Higashiyama area of Kyoto. The restaurant is approached by a narrow laneway off the street, then up some stairs and around another bend to enter the restaurant itself. The decor is very minimalist and traditionally elegant, which makes the sight of a bricked pizza oven in the centre of the wall opposite the 16-seat mahogany counter seem to be jarringly incongruous at first sight. Sasaki-sensei says, “In 2006, this was the third time we’d moved, so I wanted the pizza oven to be something iconic in the new restaurant.” He wanted to create something unique that would stretch people’s perceptions about traditional Japanese cuisine in Kyoto and raise their expectations about the new restaurant. It is typical of Sasaki-sensei to keep pushing the boundaries.
But the chef’s main reason for installing the pizza oven was because of its heating potential. “The most I can get from a regular oven is about 300°, but with the pizza oven I can get close to 800°.” It seems that being able to utilise such extreme heat opens up new potential for creating innovative Japanese dishes. “I’ve tried cooking vegetables, meat, fish – all kinds of ingredients – to see what could be done with this oven,” he said. One advantage is that the heat comes from all sides and so there is no time wasted in turning things over like you would normally do with a grill. “The heat is applied very quickly so that the food stays fresher. For example, when I use the oven for cooking eel, the skin is really crispy and the flesh remains soft and moist. I even tried putting lettuce in there for 45 seconds and adding just a sprinkle of salt and olive oil and it was surprisingly delicious!”
“I generally keep the temperature at around 480°. It heats up to that temperature quickly and it’s easy to maintain that temperature, which is a characteristic of a gas oven, but I don’t think this would be possible with an electric pizza oven. And none of the heat is wasted: When I turn off the gas at the end of the day, and put in some potatoes, they are baked but still moist the next morning.” As we can see, mastering the pizza oven has created a great asset for Chef Sasaki!
Source: Interview with Chef Sasaki
Here is a humorous entry from a food forum about trying to get a reservation at Gion Sasaki:
It is unbelievably difficult to get a reservation at Gion Sasaki in Kyoto. This is the conversation when I called to make a reservation…
A: Hello. I’d like to make a reservation in July.
B: Of course. What day would you like to come in?
A: Do you have seating Thursday?
B: Sumimasen. No seats available that day.
A: How about Wednesday?
B: I’m sorry, all seats are taken that day as well.
A: Umm… when do you have seats that week?
B: There are no seats available the whole week.
A: So when is your next availability?
B: Next year.
A: … !!
Address: Yasaka-dori, Yamatooji Higashi iru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Open: Lunch 12:00 – 14:00; Dinner 18:30 – 22:00
Closed: Sundays and every 2nd Monday
Prices: Lunch set ¥5,500; Dinner set ¥18,900 – 23,000 (Service charge 10%)
Interview with Genbo Nishikawa, abbot of Torin-in temple and shojin-ryori chef
Q. When someone says “shojin cooking”, the image is of the simple food that Buddhist monks eat that doesn’t contain any meat or fish, but what does it really mean?
A. Originally, “shojin” was a Buddhist word that referred to a total commitment to the ascetic practices that would lead to enlightenment. Even though human beings have continued to survive, unless something gives us life, we cannot survive. And so, in the spirit of the Buddhist proscription against taking life, not only should we be aware of taking care of all living things but we must fully value those lives upon which we depend for life. That is the essence of shojin cooking.
Q. So you mean that everything related to food is also considered as “shojin” in the sense of being a spiritual practice?
A. In Zen training, preparing food or eating food is just the same spiritual practice as sitting on a cushion and meditating. In the 13th century, Dogen Zenji, who was the founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan, adopted this way of practice. In recent times, we see athletes in much the same way, as being completely committed to their sports practice. When you are focussed on sport, be completely absorbed in sport, and so it should be with everything you do.
Q. In order to fully value the living things that we eat, isn’t it also taught that we should utilise everything and not waste anything?
A. Well, even though it is really important to make the best use of all the ingredients, you still have to peel the skin off some vegetables. But even so, not only do we tend to quite unconsciously and carelessly throw away the leaves and roots, but we don’t stop to think about how we might be able to fully utilise those vegetables skins as well.
Q. Well, it seems that this is all connected with the Buddhist precept of respecting life and not killing, isn’t it. So, what’s the basis upon which you choose what ingredients to use?
A. In Japan, the four seasons of summer, autumn, winter and spring are really clearly defined and with each season comes a variety of ingredients that are full of nourishment and which will appear in the marketplace quite cheaply when they are in season. It is these seasonal ingredients that I use. Nowadays, everything seems to be available all year round, but I think this is very strange. That’s really not making the best use of Japan’s climate and natural local features. But recently, because of the rising popularity of “local production for local consumption” and terms such as eco-friendly are becoming more widely used, the preciousness and importance of life seems to be talked about more often. But actually, Dogen Zenji was saying the same thing 850 years ago!
Q. Being aware of “local production for local consumption” and being eco-friendly is really important for the environment too, isn’t it?
A. Yes. Paying attention to the seasons, buying locally grown produce, making less rubbish, saving petrol by not driving too far – being aware of these kinds of things is what “eco-friendly” really means. I think that if we simply keep on preserving this traditional Japanese food culture that we already have had for centuries, such as only eating food that is in season, then we will not be contributing to the bigger issues now facing us such as global warming and the destruction of the environment.
Part 2 continues next week…
Source: Sun Chlorella