Last week, Kyoto Kichisen Master Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa opened his doors to Michael of Kyoto Foodie, Marc of No Recipes and I. I don’t usually fly across the globe to do internships at fine restaurants but this opportunity was just too good to pass and i’m infinitely grateful to both Michael and Marc for inviting me to join them on this incredible adventure.
Yoshimi Tanigawa is a true artist and the incontested master of Kyoto Kaiseki cuisine, he’s also quite famous for his sweeping victory over Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef. Michael wrote a great article on Tanigawa on his blog which i highly recommend. You’ll find the episode of Iron Chef there as well.
We met the Master at Kichisen at 5:30 am. 5:20 am to be exact. We were warned that Tanigawa is never late and doesn’t like to wait. It was agreed he would take us to Kyoto Central Wholesale Market first to shop for ingredients for his restaurants and for a master class in Kyoto-style sushi and other specialties in the afternoon. We made a stop at one of Kyoto oldest Temple on the way, for his daily ritual..
We spent two hours following Tanigawa around the market as he was buying, joking and chatting with old acquaintances. He bought packages of somen, dried shrimp and fish along the way and gave it to us to take home. We sampled octopus and dried mullet roe while he picked the freshest fish and produce imaginable. By the time we came back to the car after a crazy cart ride across the market the car had already been loaded by invisible helpers. Not a minute was wasted. We stopped at his favorite Ramen shop on the way back to the restaurant, an old school neighborhood joint, and i was instructed how to eat ramen properly – slurping and all. It was about 7:30 am.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Kichisen’s kitchen is the quiet but hard-working cooks who look like Zen monks with their shaved heads – and the deep respect they have for their Master. Tanigawa’s training is rooted in Zen Buddhist methods, an ‘encouragement stick’ is on display at the entrance of the restaurant to set the tone for his students. It is traditionally used by Zen masters to hit drowsy meditators on the back during meditation practices.
Marc and i were quickly dispatched to learned how to properly wash, rinse and cook the sushi rice. We kept an eye over our shoulders at all times to make sure the encouragement stick wasn’t coming our way.
Next we started working with Ikehara, Tanigawa trusted sous-chef who’s been working with him for over 20 years. We watched him as he filleted all different kinds of fish with speed and precision while explaining various techniques. Ikehara has incredible knife skills. At a table nearby, two apprentices were thinly shaving large quantities of dried bonito over wooden boxes. The bonito flakes were later used along with kombu from Hokkaido to make the best dashi i ever tasted, also the most expensive one at $4.50 food cost for half a cup.
Kyoto is located in inland Japan, and it was difficult to obtain fresh fish in the old days. They only had the option of using cured fish, or fish that did not spoil too quickly. Kyoto-style sushi has evolved from those old preserving methods and features lots of cured or lightly pickled fish but presented with the aesthetic of Kaiseki cuisine.
After the preparation of the fish was done, we went upstairs to the main kitchen to watch Tanigawa prepare for service, we watched him make dashi and an incredible turtle soup while the cooks were busy preparing all the small garnishes. Kichisen is a well-oiled machine, by the time the guests arrived everything was in place.
Kaiseki is the equivalent of Western fine-dining, but more deeply-rooted in tradition. Kaiseki cuisine tells a story. It’s an art form that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food with an emphasis on fresh local and seasonal ingredients. Dishes are beautifully arranged and garnished, often with real leaves and flowers, as well as edible garnishes designed to resemble natural plants and animals. It was quite amazing to watch Tanigawa plate everything himself during service. ” I don’t want to let the young cooks plate. They don’t have the Art yet!” he said at one point.
Kaiseki follows a particular order of dishes that you could compare to a tasting menu you would get at a fancy restaurant. There’s the equivalent of an amuse-bouche, followed by sushi and several small side dishes. Then there’s sashimi, a ‘lidded dish’ typically a soup which in this case was a delicious looking Dobin Mushi served in a teapot with fresh Matsutake mushrooms we had picked up that morning at the market.
The epic meal continues with a grilled seasonal fish, it was served at Kichisen on a stunning display with smoking leaves which i wasn’t quick enough to photograph. There are palate cleansers such as pickled vegetables, a hot-pot, a tofu dish, a miso based soup and intermezzos in between.
Seasonal fruit is served as dessert. Those perfect persimmons were brulee on top which i found interesting. They were so sweet that the natural sugars caramelized immediately on the surface. Kichisen also has a huge stock of plates, bowls, cups..etc which changes every month with the menu. The colors match the seasons.
After the lunch service we got a class on Kyoto-style sushi from master Tanigawa. He demonstrated his skills but also put us on the spot to make sure we were paying attention. We learned how to prepare Hamo properly (pike eel) by chopping it thinly to crush the bones in between the flesh and the skin. We learned how to make Tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelet) from Ikehara and Sabazushi (pickled mackerel sushi – Kyoto’s specialty) from Tanigawa.
And yes, there was lots of no,no,no,no,no.. as he watched us nervously handle the fish with our left hand while hesitantly forming rice balls with our right hands. He would correct us and make us try again and go.. no,no,no,no,no,no again. He never used the encouragement stick on us, though.
We finally sat down at the sushi bar after a long day and enjoyed the fruit of our labor. Tanigawa showed us pictures of him with fancy French chefs like Pierre Gagnaire and chatted about the Michelin guide (he recently received 2 stars), fancy cars, Ed Hardy clothes and fashion in general. “People who can’t dress, can’t cook.” he said. We also all went to drink at Sake bar on an another night. Yes, it’s a different Tanigawa outside the restaurant. And a quite surprising one.
Yoshimi Tanigawa is definitely one of the most fascinating person i ever met.
Don’t forget to buy a copy of Bon Appetit magazine in February to learn more about this fantastic chef…
Kyoto-style kaiseki restaurant
5 Tadasu-no-mori (Morimoto-cho), Shimogamo, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto