Brilliant People: Chef Masato Nishihara / Kajitsu
About the Chef: Nishihara spent ten years at the three Michelin-starred Kitcho in Kyoto, one of the country’s most acclaimed kaiseki restaurants. There, he was mentored by Yoshinori Ishii, who later left to work at Morimoto in New York and who’s currently heading the kitchens at Umu in London. Nishihara became well versed in traditional kaiseki cuisine, and also gained knowledge in Japanese tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and antique Japanese dishware, all key parts of a kaiseki meal.
Following his tenure at Kitcho, the Chef took over the kitchens at Tohma, a soba-based kaiseki restaurant in Nagano (a city known for its high quality buckwheat noodles). Here, Nishihara mastered the art of soba under the tutelage of master noodle maker Masakatsu Hizume. When Shuichiro Kobori of noted Japanese fu (wheat gluten–a major part of Buddhist cuisine) producer FuKa decided to debut Kajitsu, he called upon Nishihara, and the Chef moved to New York to open the restaurant in March 2009. Nishihara himself is not vegetarian nor Buddhist, but what he aims to do here at Kajitsu is to expand the horizons of shojin cuisine using his background in kaiseki and the incorporation of non-traditional, Western ingredients. Recently, he was recognized for his efforts by Michelin, which awarded Kajitsu two stars in its latest guide.
Q & A
Q) What motivated you to become a chef and how did you get started?
When I was 9 years old, I made a sunny side up for the first time. My mother praised me, so I became interested in cooking. Then when I was 11, I looked in a cookbook to make stew, hamburger, and gratin for my mother’s birthday.
To become employed at Kitcho in Kyoto, I learned that I must first be considered for an interview. I wrote a long letter to the owner in a rather desperate attempt. “I have been dreaming about working in your kitchen. I will dedicate my life to Kitcho.” (LOL)
Q) What’s your earliest or strongest childhood memory in regards to cooking?
There is a photograph of me as a 3 year old, chopping ingredients to make curry, although I don’t have any memory of this. I lived in Fukuoka until I was 3 and then we moved to Tokyo. When I was 13, I had tonkotsu ramen from Kyushu at “Isshintei” for the first time. Suddenly, I was flooded with memories from my childhood in Fukuoka. Without a doubt, I must have eaten this ramen as a small toddler.
Q) What drew you to shojin cuisine?
During my training in kaiseki cuisine in Kyoto, I learned about cha kaiseki from which kaiseki cuisine evolved. Cha kaiseki is the meal that precedes the serving of tea at a formal tea ceremony, and the content and order of the dishes along with the way in which the seasons are incorporated into the experience have been perfected a few hundred years ago. At the root of cha kaiseki was shojin cuisine. This historical and spiritual deepness was what drew me to shojin.
Q) What other cultures, styles of cooking, foods inspire you?
I feel that Italian cuisine also shows care and respect toward the ingredients being used. That aspect is important to me when cooking.
Q) Besides nature, where do you get ideas for your monthly menus?
My dishes simply reflect what I thought, what I felt, and what came together serendipitously. In the March menu, there is a dish that was inspired by a Haiku poem.
Q) Where do you source your ingredients?
I often go out and find them myself. I consciously use mostly local ingredients.
Q) What is your favorite food?
I go back to eating Japanese rice after all. I like anything that goes with rice.
Q) Do you have a favorite restaurant?
I appreciated the craftsmanship behind Bar Boulud’s paté.
Q) What do you like to do in your free time? If you had more free time, what would you like to do?
I don’t really know how to use my free time. I sometimes go in even on my day off. I’m constantly thinking about cooking. What I would like to do though is travel all over Japan and around the world. (In order to expand my culinary horizons.)
Q) Which country would you like to visit next?
I would like to go to England because my mentor whom I respect works there as the executive chef. I would like to work along side him in England.
Q) What are your plans after returning to Japan?
I will work towards getting a visa to go to England.
Dish 1) Winter Scenery
Dish 2) Fried buckwheat cubes with truffles
With the soba dofu, I wanted to incorporate truffles into shojin. I combined the scent of the prairie through buckwheat, with the flavor of the soil from truffles, and bound the two together with a soy sauce base.
Dish 3) Sangria sorbet, finger lime, and yuzu liquor
The sangria sorbet is also called shojin sorbet in my mind because it is a dish that promotes using everything. You can use leftover red or white wine as a base, and make the sorbet once you have enough scraps in the freezer from different fruit. Depending on the ingredients, I might add what’s missing, such as acidity, flavor, or texture. Since the left over ingredients will be seasonal and different every time, the sorbet will never be the same. The image doesn’t look anything like shojin, but the sorbet reflects its spirit and essence.
Q&A + translation by Takako Kuniyuki
Introduction by kevinEats.com
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