When I was living for a longer stint in Kyoto I had the great fortune to meet and interview Chef Murata of the famous Kikunoi Restaurants on a couple of occasions. We talked a lot about Umami and dashi, why carrots smell like lipstick and chuckled over chef friends we have in common! Knowing what I did for a crust he allowed me to sift through the manuscript and images of his new book-to-be (at the time) after we’d sipped our matcha and carved our way through the wagashi (traditional tea sweets) with our tiny bamboo swords.
Murata san can be a very serious bloke – particularly when he’s talking food but he has a wry sense of humour and if you earn his respect in some way, very possibly by being respectful and interested in the first place, he’s a most generous soul.
After one of the interviews he graciously allowed me to spend time in the restaurant kitchen observing… With all seriousness, one of his head chef’s asked me if I wanted to cook – at which I started choking… Me? Cooking in the Kikunoi kitchen…?? there is no way on earth I would dare insult them by accepting! But its a pretty cool thing to be able to simply “say” I was invited to cook at the prestigious Ryotei… Perhaps I’ll just leave the story at that point next time and allow my skills in Kyoto’s formal Kaiseki cuisine to sound far more advanced than they will ever be…. so that’s just between you and I ok?? Shhhh…
Murata san was not in the kitchen on the weeks when I was present (he was rather busy with his new restaurant in London) but left me in the hands of the lovely Hayashi san (above right).
In the initial stages many of the team were a little wary of me, first of all I was the only woman in the kitchen (and a big, buxom, foreign woman at that – so immediately scary), and secondly I appeared to be simply lurking with my camera, doing my best impression of a snake trying to avoid being underfoot.
During subsequent visits they seemed to start to warm to the idea of me being there. I began to ask them more culinary questions without feeling like I was annoying the crap out of them, and they started to share more with me, voluntarily, as they realised I was not completely clueless about Japanese cuisine.
A few eventually initiated conversations with me – sometimes even in English (which generally the Japanese are reluctant to use unless they absolutely have to!). I was really starting to feel like I was inching towards being accepted as part of the team, if only on a temporary basis, and could see that those who tried to communicate were actually a bit chuffed to be practicing their language skills on me.
To make things less comfortable on my first visit than they might have been – I was launched into the kitchen during service. While it was a fantastic experience to see it all come together, being that each of the many varied dishes are so very detailed it was like witnessing intricate surgery, I have spent too much time in busy kitchens during “rush hour ” to want to return to it on a regular basis without having a life or death reason to do so – and I have enough experience to know that even if the chef tells you it is OK – it really is not.
They advised me that they were used to TV crews, photographers and the like hanging around shooting during service so it was fine with them…. But they are (mostly) Japanese, and therefore would never be so forward as to tell me to piss off outta their way and also, as it was impressed upon me, Kikunoi staff are required to go above and beyond to make any experience at Kikunoi the best it can be – for any single being – so therefore it was in fact, according to one dutiful soul, their job to allow me this privilege. It was an incredible gesture of generosity but being a chef in a past life meant I would never feel comfortable being a roadblock.
The following visits I arrived rather early in the day when a skeleton staff of kitchen hands and junior chefs were carefully prepping all the basic garnish, peeling vegetables and scaling fish etc to be cooked later by the higher level chefs.
This was exactly what I’d wanted to observe – preparation for a Kaiseki meal from the ground up. The early-summer’s mornings, quietened by a humid mist and only interrupted by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings and the occasional rustling of bamboo, seemed to set the tone for the way in which each day would commence.
The crew gently filtered in through the kitchen doors, increasing in pace and numbers right up until lunch service when the brigade was in full flight.
Although on each day I was present the team insisted they weren’t overly busy with bookings the joint was certainly buzzing by lunchtime – perhaps in a more subdued way than you might expect in a kitchen of such repute in any other country but it was definitely jumping. No yelling, no swearing, no nervous sweating….only sword like precision and poise.
Kimono’d waitresses on the other hand sprinted at a speed that I’d have imagined impossible in such firmly bound get-ups had I not seen it with my own two eyes. They were really running …. and the days were heating up. They were busting a gut, yet they didn’t break a sweat (the Japanese generally seem to perspire a lot less than foreigners) of course by the time they would have arrived within earshot of a patron’s table each would have transformed into a textbook example of serenity and calm, slipping into a dainty kitten- like pitter patter as they tiptoed onto the tatami to serve each guest.
When a meal is bought to you in a Ryotei (high end restaurant serving Kaiseki cuisine) every movement is considered. Measured facial expressions allow just enough of a hint of a smile to make you feel at ease and their gently relaxed but focused expressions, as they gracefully set down every bowl, cup or dining utensil in front of you as though serving royalty, instill a sense of awe. Its almost as though their life’s purpose was to feed you at that precise moment in time.
Next time I have the opportunity to dine in this kind of establishment I will try to remember how very hard working these women are behind the scenes – they, dare I say it, seemed busier than the chefs and, possibly on some days they are – if you consider the ratio of chefs to food verses servers to food… 20 odd chefs in the kitchen and around 5 or 6 servers taking out dish after exquisite dish of loveliness, plus pouring and serving drinks and clearing away, meeting and greeting and sayonara-ing, re-setting up trays, communicating with the kitchen crew etc… well.. I’ll simply say -hats off ladies -you certainly work it! That’s not to take away from the kitchen crew AT ALL – they were all very dedicated and focused and their demeanour has a lot to do with the way they are taught by their masters.
The calm and charming Sakura san (above left) giving one of the junior chefs a few tips
Staying even tempered during the busiest and most stressful of services is something I repeatedly witness in Japan – chefs so often being in full view and within very close proximity to the diner. Although this is not the case at Kikunoi, as the kitchen is large and unseen, the cooks within it act as if they are all under the scrutiny of a room full of customers. Clockwork calm. Respect. Inspiring.
PS – a big thank you to the lovely Derek Wilcox for his patience, careful explanations and playing translator when we needed it!
(Alas not far past that very point I had to make the decision to return to Australia …… I’m sad to have had to leave them to their own devices – just as they were getting used to my flitting around them… I really think we could all have learnt a lot from each other…. Hopefully they’ll be happy to have me back some day in the future and I thank them all for their patience and help!)