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An Artist in the Kitchen

Hisachika Takahashi, Robert Rauschenberg's right-hand man and an ingenious home cook, stretches his imagination (and his ingredients) at a downtown dinner party

"HELLO, BOB?" Hisachika Takahashi is speaking into the phone."Chico has one kilo of truffle paste he wants to trade for two signed posters. You want it?...Okeydoke." Takahashi smiles, hangs up and returns to the task of chopping onions into minuscule cubes. "Bob's crazy about truffles," he says.

Bob is the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who lives on Captiva, a small island off Florida's Gulf Coast. When he is in New York City, he stays in the five-story orphanage-turned-office where many of his pieces are stored. For the past 29 years, Takahashi has overseen this Manhattan domain (caring for the building, managing the staff, restoring and curating the artwork), and for just as long, he has prepared ingenious meals for the many scene makers who pass through.

Takahashi was born in Tokyo in 1940--a difficult time. When his father died in World War II, his mother and his older brother began working to support the family. By the age of seven, Hisachika (pronounced sash-ka) was preparing meals for them all: inexpensive-but-elegant dishes like whitebait cooked in sake, soy sauce and sugar until it caramelizes, then served with copious bowls of sticky rice, and bonito-flake broth with thick rice noodles and safflower greens. Since money was scarce, he had to learn the art of stretching ingredients. It's a skill he still uses.

"People come to see Bob, or to view the artwork, and they stay, and stay, and stay," he says, pretending to be wearied by all the partyers, who have included such luminaries as John Cage, Diane Keaton, Merce Cunningham and Issey Miyake. "So a dinner for four turns into a dinner for eight or 10 or 14."

The truth is, Takahashi loves to entertain. Even before his years as a Rauschenberg confidant, he hobnobbed with an illustrious crowd. He is an accomplished painter himself; during the Sixties he lived in Italy, exhibiting his pieces in Milan, Venice and Antwerp and socializing with the art stars of the day. Takahashi wasn't cooking back then. "But I was eating," he says, "and learning about Italian flavors. Japanese food is beautiful to look at, but it doesn't always taste very good."

In 1969, Takahashi delivered one of his paintings to the Houston-based collectors John and Dominique de Menil, who invited him to a dinner at their New York apartment. The guests included Jasper Johns, Norman Mailer ("He kept wanting to thumb wrestle me," Takahashi recalls) and Rauschenberg. "I was falling in love with New York," Takahashi says, and when Rauschenberg asked him to help with a silk-screening project, he agreed to stay on.

Takahashi continues to show his art: sculptures, paintings and drawings that explore abstract fantasies. But certainly one of his greatest projects is the Rauschenberg building in Manhattan. When the church next door was demolished and all but a part of the chapel razed, he meticulously restored the sacristy. He has also snipped into shape a beautiful roof garden.

And then there's his artistry in the kitchen. Takahashi often draws pictures of the dishes he's planning. "Cooking and painting are both visual," he says. "With painting, I see the picture complete in my head, so sometimes there's no point in painting it. But with cooking, while I can imagine the dish, there is a very good reason to prepare it." Once he has envisioned the menu, he goes shopping. He is a well-known if occasionally unnerving sight in his neighborhood, weaving precariously through lower Manhattan traffic on a creaky old bicycle laden with groceries from Chinatown.

Nothing goes to waste in Takahashi's kitchen--not lemon ends, not parsley stems, nada. He can stretch three chicken breast halves to feed eight ("Semifrozen chicken breasts can be sliced thinner than fresh meat," he says) and make an appetizer with one large shrimp per person. At a recent dinner party, he served hot oysters steamed on a floating mat of vegetables, shrimp and asparagus poached in the oyster broth and the tangy broth itself. To complete the meal he prepared chicken pounded as thin as shiso leaves, eggplant cut into thick steaks (Rauschenberg's favorite) and a frozen dessert with mangoes from Captiva.

Whether he is pruning his rooftop wisteria or planning the menu for a dinner party, Takahashi always uses his imagination. But then, that's what the Rauschenberg scene is all about: the creative pursuit of delight in things both grand and modest.

Text by Eugenia Bone, a food and design writer who lives in New York City.

All of the Japanese ingredients called for in the following recipes can be ordered by mail from Katagiri (212-755-3566) or The Oriental Pantry (800-828-0368).

Published April 1999
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