Kaiseki is a Japanese style of cooking, with food served in small portions. Its roots lie in the elaborate 16th century rituals of a Japanese tea ceremony. Kaiseki, traditionally a very formal cuisine, uses only fresh, natural and local Japanese ingredients. Naoki Okumura, whose team runs the 16-seater Naoki counter at The Aman, New Delhi, serves kaiseki with a French twist. Trained in the French style of food preparation, Okumura likes to describe himself as a chef who fuses two diverse styles of cooking and presentation to create a unique third. It is a concept that he says has worked well at Gion Okumura, his restaurant in the heart of Kyoto’s historical Gion district. Edited excerpts from an interview:
You trained in French cuisine, but are now a kaiseki chef. Why the switch?
My father had experimented with mixing French and Japanese styles of food preparation and I too wanted to train in French techniques. That’s why I studied in Paris. But if you run a restaurant in Kyoto, like I do, it is tough to ignore the traditional aspects of serving and preparing Japanese food. I could not disassociate myself from it completely. Besides I found French cuisine limiting as far as presentation was concerned. Japan has four seasons and our food has unique seasonality. In French cooking there is no such concept. What is different about my cooking is that I use the kaiseki concepts for presentation but while cooking I fuse French techniques and Japanese methods.
Mix ‘n’ match: Naoki Okumura at the Naoki counter, The Aman, New Delhi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
What is unique to kaiseki?
The guest must not only enjoy eating the food but also looking at it. Everything used in the preparation and presentation of food in kaiseki is part of “equipment”. Even a plate is equipment and hence it must be beautiful. In French cuisine, the emphasis is on simplicity in presentation vis-á-vis beauty.
What sets a kaiseki restaurant apart?
The interaction between the chef and the clients is important. Most kaiseki chefs work on one side of the counter while the guests are seated on the other. The chef must not just feed but also entertain the client—and that is done through the kind of equipment used, the dishes created and constant interaction. A kaiseki chef must also surprise his clients constantly. I usually ensure that the first dish is spectacular. This is to create a good first impression. I also alternate styles of cooking. So if the first recipe uses a Japanese style, the second will use a French one.
How are Japanese clients different from European ones?
Japanese clients want to sample varieties—small bites of many things rather than a large main course dish. They want many courses. To know the French style of cooking helps me to create many different dishes they have not tasted before. For example, sashimi is usually served with wasabi and soy sauce but I prepare a dish at my restaurant in Kyoto where I serve sashimi with salad leaves and a dressing that is influenced by French cuisine.
Tomato soup served in a bell pepper. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
20ml rice vinegar
Salt to taste
400ml soya milk
10ml fresh cream
¼ yellow zucchini
A yellow bell pepper (to be used as serving bowl)
Peel tomatoes using hot water and remove seeds. Sprinkle a small portion of salt over the tomatoes and bake in an oven at 180 degrees Celsius for 8 minutes. Purée in a blender and chill in a refrigerator after adding some salt and rice vinegar.
To make Yuba crème, bring soya milk to boil once, and then cool. Keep the temperature at 40 degrees Celsius, and remove the film on the surface (which is Yuba). Wait 13 minutes for the new film to set. Repeat the process twice more. Blend the Yuba with milk and fresh cream.
Boil water in a pot and add some salt. Put okra in for a second and then take it out. Remove seeds and mince to get a sticky mass. Slice the zucchini and deep fry. Cut the bell pepper in half and remove seeds. Chill the bell pepper and then pour the tomato soup in it. Garnish with a drizzle of Yuba crème, minced okra, and fried zucchini.