F&W’s editor, Dana Cowin, sets out to understand Japanese food traditions—but is soon impressed by how modern and trendsetting the cuisine really is.
For my final assignment, I chose a kaiseki restaurant, perhaps the highest order of Japanese cuisine. Developed to accompany the tea ceremony, the meal features a series of exquisitely conceived and crafted small plates. I’d been introduced to kaiseki at Soto, where F&W Best New Chef 1997 Sotohiro Kosugi prepares exciting, magnificent meals, and I was ready to learn more.
At Kyoya, my tutors were Rick Smith and his Japanese-born wife, Hiroko Furukawa, who own a sake shop called Sakaya. (Rick and I worked together years ago, when he was F&W’s associate publisher.) Hiroko diplomatically took charge. “If there’s one word you should learn,” she told me, “it’s oishii—delicious.” The food was beautiful; chef Chikara Sono had clearly considered every color, texture and shape—decorating sea bream sashimi, for instance, with a white shiso flower, a green chrysanthemum leaf, a red plum flower and a curl of daikon. The meal reminded me of tasting menus I’d had at Le Bernardin and Jean Georges: small portions, visually arresting, oishii. As I ate, I felt as if I was absorbing Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. In Japanese cuisine, it was clear, nothing is left to chance, and it was all a part of history.
This purity is the strength and the challenge of Japanese cuisine. As Eric Ripert told me, it is the light and the dark. The light is the refinement after years of pursuing perfection. The dark, he said, is the adherence to the old ways at all costs, the lack of innovation.
I’d set out to learn why the Japanese ingredients I’d fallen for were so alluring. I got my answer along the way: Ingredients are everything. But I learned much more. I discovered that the Japanese got to all the so-called trends before cooks in the U.S. ever did: seasonality, ingredient worship, counter dining, tasting menus. Japanese food isn’t a new trend, it’s the ur-trend.
But this process revealed something about myself as an eater, too. Deeply American, I crave variety. As much as I now appreciate the depth, subtlety and beauty of Japanese food—and realize that I have so much more to study—I’m glad that I have the option of eating a different, astonishing cuisine every day.