September 9, 2011

How the Worlds of Flavor: Japan Changed My World

By Brigid Ransom

Mashahiro Kurisu
Mashahiro Kurisu

The most riveting part of the Worlds of Flavor International Conference & Festival:  Japan Flavors of Culture at the Greystone campus was prefaced with a daring disclaimer—“It’s not something that can be taught.” As a student, I’ve heard those words before, or at least some variant of them, from people who insist that they are singular in their craft. Usually that phrase is posed as either a challenge or a rebuke. But when a chef whose Michelin-starred restaurant has a lineage fit for a crest speaks those words, they are heavy and hammer into the very core of my culinary passion.

Mashahiro Kurisu is the chef and director of Tankuma Kitamise,whose one-star Michelin restaurant in Kyoto specializes in kaiseki. He also has a location in Tokyo. At this year’s conference, Chef Kurisu gave an impassioned demonstration of kaiseki; a highly formalized meal that is anchored in its artistic tribute to nature and the “24 seasons” of Japan. Since the 1700s, kaiseki has evolved from an exquisite tea ceremony to an unrivaled culinary adventure.

The use of flawlessly fresh and local ingredients woos diners into an almost spiritual experience, where both food and art share the plate perfectly.During the demo, every part of me was fully engaged. I was surprised that this was the first time I was being introduced to the practice of kaiseki, but as the demo continued I realized why. Unlike the “sushification” that has fully circled the globe, kaiseki remains strategically aloof from Westernized culinary culture. Inspired by the indomitable spirit of the Japanese, kaiseki is a culinary heirloom and the practice of it remains exclusive to them. It is a mysterious art that they will proudly showcase, but never share—and rightfully so.

Chef Kurisu did something truly mystical. By contrasting the trendy, cutting edge mores of the conference’s host state of California against the richly traditional and conventional philosophy of kaiseki, Kurisu tempered both culinary and cultural extremes in a way no one expected. And presenting that to a group that is not easily wowed—the gatekeepers of all things food—his demo was a wild success. The Ventura Center at Greystone was pin-drop quiet as he methodically plated the lobster, the quintessential symbol for long life and celebration in Japan. In this case, it also served as a representation of the Golden Gate Bridge. In a lighthearted move, a skillfully cut piece of vegetable, which seemed like an outlier on the plate, was used to symbolize Alcatraz Island. The chef continued to employ different ingredients to depict key components of life on the West Coast. It was humbling to watch him do two things at once without compromise.

The manner in which he fused two cultures, which are worlds apart, into the idiom of kaiseki emboldened and humbled me. Seeing food come alive in a way that told a story of human experience, and hearing his remarks on the significance of plating, redefined my perception of what it really means to serve food. According to Chef Kurisu, that’s exactly the goal.

“In kaiseki you need to tell a big story,” he explained. I always knew plating was important and an invaluable aspect of what we are taught here as rising culinary professionals at the CIA, but what I saw wasn’t simply plating. It was technical ingenuity with the palate as client. I’m certain that the next time I serve food I will remember the lessons of Chef Kurisu and the valued traditions of kaiseki, even if that plate is “only” a popular lamb burger from K-16.

Brigid Ransom is a CIA student.