Chef Mitsunori Kusakabe, a veteran of Sushi Ran and Nobu, recently opened his own restaurant, KUSAKABE, five doors down from Asia Society Northern California. On the eve of an Asia Society Off the Menu dinner at KUSAKABE on June 16 featuring his blend of sushi and kaiseki, we asked him five questions.
One of the notable features of kaiseki cuisine is the emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients. What are the origins of this, and how does it relate to contemporary American interests in seasonality and farm-to-table dining?
I think that emphasis on fresh and seasonal ingredients is a notable feature in not only kaiseki cuisine, but in washoku, or Japanese cuisine as a whole. To use locally grown or caught ingredients for cooking has been an essential practice in Japan for a long time, and because of it, many different regional styles of cooking emerged over time. One of the prominent examples is Edomae sushi, which used seafood caught in Tokyo Bay.
While using fresh, seasonal ingredients is certainly one of the notable features of washoku, the Japanese have developed deep knowledge and skills for preserved food and fermented food. Kaiseki cuisine uses many of these techniques as well as fresh ingredients. Kyoto, where kaiseki originated, was too far from the sea to obtain fresh seafood. Also, its winters are so long and severe that the people in the old days needed to store food for months. A variety of techniques emerged because of these challenges the people in Kyoto in old times faced.
The Japanese people have used these techniques for sushi over the years as well. In fact, the oldest type of sushi is fermented. Even for Edomae sushi, there is marinated tuna in soy-sauce (zuke) to use for sushi. It is in fact a skill of Japanese chefs to use fresh fish and keep it tasty for some time.
I would like to use as many local, organic ingredients, especially vegetables, as possible. However, it is also true that we need to rely on the global economy to obtain a variety of fresh fish from all over the world. I will be using different techniques to offer ingredients as fresh as possible or to extract more taste by using other techniques in order for our customers to feel my food is tasty.
Japanese food in the U.S. has changed a lot since the popularization of sushi and tempura in the 1970s and teriyaki before then. In big cities at least, Americans can now find good, sometimes great, versions of ramen, soba, izakaya food, even Japanese curry. Is kaiseki also an emerging Japanese food trend in the U.S., or is it too refined and high end to become a trend?
I believe that many Japanese restaurants in the U.S. in the old days served many different foods like sushi, tempura, soba, tonkatsu, etc. in the same restaurant. Recently, more have focused on one kind of Japanese food like many restaurants in Japan. Kaiseki restaurants have emerged as one of those options in a few big cities. I cannot predict if it is going to be popular like sushi. However, I think it is quite possible that many chefs specializing in different types of food will be inspired by the techniques and philosophy of kaiseki and apply them to what they do. In fact, the French have already adopted kaiseki concepts in the past years. In a similar way, what I'm trying to do is to apply kaiseki concepts to sushi.
What is the significance of五色五味五感五法 (five colors, five tastes, five feelings, five methods)? Is this an essential idea of kaiseki cuisine, or is it your interpretation of it?
To create a course based on 五色五味五感五法, I will use many different ingredients. By doing so, I can ensure good nutritional balance. Also, it is essential to create variety and harmony in the course. By creating differences in taste, temperature, or texture from one item to another, it helps to make each bite become more exciting. Some people like to eat what they like in the order they prefer, which is perfectly fine. What I am trying to do to serve the course menu based on these principles is to propose a flow of variety and harmony to make each bite fresh.
I would say that 五色五味五感五法 is an essential idea in washoku, or Japanese cooking as a whole. Kaiseki is the cuisine that made it most refined.
How is kaiseki, despite being known and celebrated as traditional cuisine, changing in Japan? Is this change something you try to capture at KUSAKABE? Do you use any new techniques or technologies that you did not learn during your training in Kyoto?
Yes, techniques and technologies in kaiseki are evolving over time like in any other cooking style. I think the restaurants that only use traditional techniques have been rather the minority. What I am trying to do is to use different kaiseki and other modern techniques to create sushi in kaiseki to present a fresh perspective on sushi. After all, sushi is much more than vinegar rice with fresh fish. I like to incorporate other types of traditional sushi like sasa-sushi, temari-sushi, nare-sushi, etc. as well as to create a new style of sushi in the future.
Beyond KUSAKABE, what are your favorite Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area and in the U.S.?
I'd like to mention a restaurant called Masa's Sushi in Novato, which is the restaurant I first worked at when I came to the U.S.. It is a family restaurant where you can go by yourself or with your family or friends on an ordinary day. What I learned in this restaurant is the importance of providing the best of what we can offer and making our customers feel happy. It is that feeling of hospitality that makes the difference, and I like the restaurants where I can feel that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication. For more information on the upcoming Off the Menu dinner at KUSAKABE, click here.