The late-morning sunlight slants horizontally through the gently swaying bamboo, as the chatter of cicadas fills the air, and a waft of sandalwood incense smoke drifts over from the neighboring temple.
A pair of scarlet dragonflies weave their early summer dance of love, in front of the genkan entrance to Kikunoi, Kyoto’s most highly-acclaimed ryotei restaurant and the heartland for so much that is important in contemporary Japanese food thought.
A graying, bowing major domo, pardon the phrase, ushers me into the building, and not one but three women in exquisitely turned out pale green kimono escort me to an antechamber on the second floor, where I am seated at a Louis Quinze table and offered a bowl of thick, bitter Uji matcha tea.
“The President will be with you in a few moments,” I am assured. “Has he recently returned from the Expo in Milan?” I ask, to the most senior of the three, by way of small talk. She blushes in embarrassment, and bows several degrees more deeply than is normal, to indicate that she didn’t even know he’d gone. I wince inwardly, peer into the depths held within the bright green liquid clutched in palms. I take a sip. That’s good. Twenty-eight years in Japan and I’m still clomping clueless through etiquette minefields.
“Domou!!!” The door is flung open, and in stridess Yoshihiro Murata, third generation master chef and owner of Japan’s most famous high class restaurant. Clad in his chef’s whites, Murata has just rushed up the stairs from his state-of-the art ‘dry kitchen’, where his dedicated army of incredibly skilled workers is right now working full tilt, in regimented near-silence, as the clock ticks towards opening. He plonks himself down at the table, ready to talk.
“Sensei, genki?” he asks.
For the second time in a few minutes, my social equilibrium is completely knocked out of whack. Japan’s most famous, most celebrated chef, its cuisine’s elder statesman, a genuinely important personage in the preservation and promotion of Japanese cuisine, my elder and a person I respect, to boot, has decided to call me sensei? Last time it was just Ashburne-san. Head spinning, at least I know the requisite answer, “Genki desu!”, “I’m well, thanks”.
To quickly explain, many years ago I once taught English to Murata’s daughter, Kikunoi’s future okami proprietress, Shiho. Between our last interview, and this, news must have filtered through. Thus, in the time-honored Japanese social tradition, despite being a humble hack I am also simultaneously, very uncomfortably, sensei.
It might be because I am slightly unsettled, but I clumsily dive in with “What does food mean?” Murata pauses for thought. That too, takes me by surprise, as he is usually voluble on the topic. “Esa”, he replies. Esa?
It’s the least polite, least sophisticated Japanese word for something comestible, English translations usually rendering it as ‘scarf’, ‘grub’ ‘bait’, or, probably most accurate of all, ‘fodder’. I scan Murata’s amiably craggy features for any sense of irony, but find none.
Have I committed a horrible faux pas? Or is he, a la Shakespeare in ‘The Tempest’ subtly refuting the meaning of the beautiful art that has given his life meaning and provided him with wealth, fame and a place in the pantheon of the greats that lesser talents could only dream of? Either way, I can’t help but feel the interview isn’t exactly off to a flying start. The cicadas turn up their chatter to an ear-splitting screech.
Murata doesn’t look angry. Far from it. He just seems totally disinterested in waxing philosophical about abstractions. There goes my interview plan, then. I am saved by, of all things, the Japanese Government.
“Do you remember, Murata-san, that the last time I interviewed you, in Spring 2013, you described Japanese cuisine as an ‘endangered species’, and you were less than complimentary about the government’s understanding of the value of cuisine?” I venture.
“Nnn... government. You must understand, that generations of the Japanese ruling classes are descendants of samurai, the bushi, men who knew how to fight and kill but who had very little sense of what food means, other than it being a necessary commodity to propel you from one battlefield to the other. They were not cultured men, and their descendants too would happily praise paintings and statues in museums as ‘art’, but regard the contents of their plates as something ephemeral, almost meaningless in the large scheme of things. That, I realized, was a very dangerous mindset”
During that interview, in the same room in Kikunoi two years ago, Yoshihiro Murata was on the warpath, his and his allies’ strategic goal to persuade what he considered as an uncaring and ignorant Japanese Central Government to push to have Japanese cuisine inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
“It was a fight born out of necessity, not emotion”, he had explained. “If you look at young Japanese people who wish to pursue a career in the food industry, their preferred arenas are to study French, then Italian, then Patissier, then Chinese, with Japanese a very distant fifth. The discipline, the hours, the technical demands and the rigor of a traditional Japanese kitchen are simply too demanding for youth, unless they are given support and education and develop a sense of the value imbued in such dedication. If we are successful in attaining UNESCO recognition then the government has to take steps to not only preserve, but also nurture our cuisine, and educate future generations in its value”.
Murata and his allies won. Following in the footpaths of Mexican and French cuisine, Japan got its ‘official’ global recognition later that year. “Are you happy?” I ask. Murata boasts and ear-to-ear grin, but then turns thoughtful. “Of course, but there are still so many hurdles from the top down. Don’t forget that the samurai-descended administrators have traditionally perceived the transmission of food knowledge as something otokorashikunai (‘unmanly’), and thus, of little worth. What an error. We also have to go into schools and their kitchens, and teach the value of traditional fare, and the old school way of eating. I don’t mean that we can’t replace some ingredients, put in some hamburgers from time to time alongside the fish, vegetables, soup and rice, but the core values of health, respect and gratitude have to be retaught”
The clock is ticking, and I am about to thank the real sensei, and take my leave, when Murata quietly says. “We are lucky to be living in such special times for food in the world”. I turn the recorder back on. From the downstairs kitchen I hear the distant crashing of plates and a raised voice.
“Its one of those magical global phenomena, where creativity erupts at the same time in different countries and cultures. Escoffier died 150 years ago, and these new great creators are ripping up the rulebooks, producing cuisines, dishes and ways of cooking that never existed before. Look at Pascal, Alex, Heston, Renin and the Japanese chefs like Narisawa and Yoneda who have gone on to emulate them. Those chefs have understood the importance of dashi and umami, and they are learning how to control these concepts to create a wholly new global cuisine. Ii desu. It’s a great thing”.
The room has gone silent as we both think. I’m spellbound, moved by the depth of Murata’s feeling for cuisine, something that crosses nations, generations, and may occasionally leap forward as an expression of humanity’s growth much as might great Philosophy or Art. I feel I am in the presence of someone deeply connected to his artform, and it feels humbling, important, rare.
We need to think about what people will eat, can eat fifty years from now.
After a while, never one too comfortable with silence, alas, I blurt “That’s Heston Blumenthal, is it?” Murata breaks out in a big grin. “Oh yes. He has to break the record for the nerdiest person ever to enter my kitchen. He was a complete nerd, clumsy as all hell and his dress sense was particularly diabolical. Thank goodness his new wife sharpened him up. Now look at him”.
Post-interview, it slowly dawns that Alex is Alex Atala, owner-chef of D.O.M Gastronomia Brasileira in Sao Paolo, Brazil, Pascal is Pascal Barbot of L’Astance in Paris, and ‘Renin’ is in fact my mishearing of one certain Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen, and they all studied under Murata here at Kikunoi.
Time is up, but Murata and I can’t stop talking as we walk down the stairs towards the genkan. About butter shortages and global commodity control, Okinawa, China and food security, that fabulous book, the differences between Japanese barracuda and those fished off the Antilles, champagne production in Britain, desertification in Sicily and how a single degree in temperature raise may catastrophically change our future relationship with food. I am about to bid farewell, but Murata has one last thing to say before he heads back to his kitchen.
“We need to think about what people will eat, can eat fifty years from now. Back in the Sakoku era when Japan was closed we were self-sufficient in food. Today we have forgotten how to farm. Now 30% of Japan’s population is contributing to wealth. In 50 years that’ll be 19. It won’t only be butter that we are short of”.
I feel Murata’s discussions with Japanese Central Goverment are not yet ended. I walk out into the bright sunlight, turn back, and bow to the master-chef and the old doorman standing beside him. They bow, in perfect unison, in return. Long after the chef has returned to the kitchen, I remain there, head bowed.
The doorman sweeps up some fallen leaves, and the cicadas, after a short silence, begin their song of joy.
A version of this article first appeared in ‘Beyond the Chopping Board: Master Chefs ponder the Meaning and Value of Food’ by John F. Ashburne in Kyoto Journal #83, 'FOOD!'. It is reproduced with kind permission of the publishers. Kyoto Journal is an award-winning non-profit volunteer-based quarterly magazine established in 1986 offering insights from Kyoto, Japan and all of Asia.Photograph Courtesy of John F. Ashburne.