On July 26, 2019, Nishi Kenichiro (西健一郎) passed away in his early eighties. I want to send my condolences to his family, and he will be dearly missed by his friends, customers, and staff.
Usually, old monks will leave Zen words before they die. In Zen Buddhism, they say the following:
“There are three stages in one’s understanding of the dharma: the first stage, seeing mountain as mountain and water as water; the second stage, seeing mountain not as mountain and water not as water; and the third stage, seeing mountain still as mountain and water still as water.”
Maybe it is difficult to believe, but Kyoaji is just a restaurant. It is a restaurant where about 10 people work to make food for about 10 customers.
The food was extraordinary. Right from the first soup, made with sake lees, a sweet taste and daikon, konnyaku and aji. A baby-sized nabe pot resting on charcoal, followed by potato stems (the cheapest and tasteless ingredient, they said) with incredible texture. Then, crab on an oribe-yaki plate. Then, a chawanmushi with shirako hidden inside, the two textures being almost the same yet the taste being different, a wonderful dish. Tempura of bitter vegetables and shirauo. Incredible fugu and tai (not kojubime) sashimi. And then, oh god, the nimono with crab-cake and dashi. The dashi of my dreams. Although I understand now that each chef’s dashi is different, I have to say that this one is the one. This dish remains the best food memory of my life. I hope so, but I don't think my amazement of tasting something to simple and common but made so powerful and extraordinary can ever be surpassed.
Grilled moroko fish, simmered takenoko (what a smell and sophisticated taste) with wakame and seasonal octopus (with a head that looks like rice). Then, they asked me if I wanted an extra dish. Of course. Duck meat in potato cake and dashi. Finally, sake belly and soft rice. They said they have three desserts, I got two of them, my favorite being the warabi-mochi.
I would say the food has a lot of taste, it is not meditative like Matsukawa, the kitchen has a lot more energy (many chefs are constantly cooking). Mizai, Matsukawa and Kyoaji really have nothing to do with each other, comparing them makes no sense. Each one is unique, comes from someone totally different, offers something that is uniquely Japanese. But if you learn more about Japan, you may discover that there is no such thing as one Japan. Japan has many identities. They are all different but they all represent the best of Japan.
Makiko-san, his eldest daughter who has been working at the restaurant for about 7 years, but who has lived abroad and travelled a lot, was happy to explain to me the dishes and answer my questions. Nevertheless, because I could not speak Japanese with the chef unlike the other guests, I felt that he must be uncomfortable to make eye contact with me. I felt sad that he never looked at me the whole meal, which surprised me. I thought, perhaps he was disappointed that he invited me.
After the meal, Makiko asked me if I have any plans after, and invited me to have tea in their private dining room for half an hour to chat with her and the chef. The chef gave me his book from 2009, called “12 Months at Kyoaji” (「京味」の十二か月, ISBN 9784163718903). I could not believe that they would do this for me, a regular person that they do not know.
I asked the chef if it bothers him when people take pictures. He said that it bothers him when people take pictures from the wrong perspective or post them on their blog, because it distorts the experience he wants to create. He doesn’t mind if they people take pictures for them to remember.
I asked him if he thinks about new recipes. He said that he thinks about it every day, but that it is not because something is new that it is good. Japanese cuisine has to focus on the seasons and the ingredients of each season and how they change throughout the season.
I asked him if he ever gets bored making the same food and he said that he doesn’t, because the people (for whom he makes the food) change and because the ingredients change (even within a season).
He said that anyone can buy expensive ingredients, but that the role of a chef is to make something extraordinary out of ordinary ingredients, like potato stems, taro, salmon.
During the meal, Makiko told me: “you know a lot about Japanese food”, and I said: “No, no, I really don’t”. She said “I think you do.” Later, the chef said that sometimes, it bothers him when people think they understand everything about Japanese food.
I asked Makiko what her father was like at home, she said that he never complained about what her mom cooked, even if it wasn’t good. She said that he never bothers anyone and he never complained about anything.
Makiko told me that they don’t like the French restaurant style of explanation where they explain exactly everything, where each ingredient comes from, because clearly the customer will not be going out and buying it or cooking it at home.
I asked him if sometimes he feels tired and he doesn’t feel like going to the restaurant. He said that as long as customers are coming, he wants to be there and supervise everything. He said the reason why he is always at the restaurant is that he wants to make sure he provides the experience he wants to provide. He is 81. If I understood correctly, he said that when he dies, the restaurant will close. When I left, he asked when I would come back. I said, I think I can come back in one year. He said, I will die soon, please do not wait too long. I since had the chance to go a second time, without knowing it would be the last.
I reproduce a translation of the recipe from his book about meimo, one of his classic dish:
"Meimo is the white and long stem of taro potatoes which grows without exposing to direct sunlight. Peel the Meimo’s skin and cut them short, add vinegar and boil them to get rid of harshness. We use small dried sardines (which head and the intestines were taken away) to make Happo Dashi. Season the Meimo with the Dashi, sugar, salt, and light soy sauce. Lastly, add kudzu [arrowroot] powder to thicken the sauce and this part is what makes the Nimono Yoshino-style. To keep it crispy and fresh, it is important not to boil the Meimo too long."
When I tried his dashi, I just could not believe it. I was totally overcome by the depth and perfection. I immediately asked them what their secret is, because I just could not believe it could be like this. Of course, there is no secret they said. I really felt like there must be one. Now, I realize that Nishi-san had already told me his secret: The way to make outstanding food which has depth is to spend time and effort.
Inside his book, he wrote for me: 「食する幸せ 料理する幸せ 」 (“The happiness of eating, the happiness of cooking”)
Reservations: I had decided that I would not write about Kyoaji until the chef passed away because I know that he would not want me to write about what an amazing person he was. Maybe Nishi-san was the type of person who does good deeds in private. But I want to share how I got a reservation at Kyoaji, despite being one of the most exclusive invitation-only restaurant. I had reached out to the restaurant expressing my interest in his food and that I would be in Japan during a certain period. One day, I receive an email in perfect English inviting me to their restaurant and giving me a large choice of dates. I could not believe how welcoming they were. A genuine ambassador for Japan, he invited someone he did know anything about with no references to dine at his restaurant alongside his precious guests. Not only a master and philosopher of Japanese cooking, Nishi-san was an extraordinary person. I will forever be indebted and grateful to have seen first hand what a person of extraordinary character, thoughtfulness, commitment and generosity looks like. Thank you Nishi-san.
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Matsukawa (revisited), Learning Japanese, Advanced Japanese Manners, Hakone, home cooking.
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Park Hotel Tokyo
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Yau Yuen Siu Tsui
Art Museums in Tokyo