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Kunio Tokuoka
Kitcho's Kaiseki Visionary

If you ask a Japanese foodie about the best restaurant in Japan, you'll most likely come across the same answer time and time again: Kitcho: Specifically, Kitcho Arashiyama. If you then ask if they've dined at the three Michelin-starred ryotei (traditional restaurant), the answer may often be no. You see, Kitcho is very exclusive, and thus, very expensive. But some will argue that you can't put a price on perfection.

Kitcho is a legendary ryotei in a class all its own, a place where one is transported to another time and a plane of existence where perfection is possible. A place where the tableware is as marvelous as the food, where the view outside your shoji door may be a centuries-old garden and where precious dishes by Rosanjin Kitaoji, Ogata Kenzan and even Mino ware from the time of Furuta Oribe reguarly appear.

Tokuoka took over the reins from his father and grandfather, the legendary chef and Kitcho founder Teiichi Yuki, who is credited with shaping modern Kaiseki as it is known today. But instead of resting on his inherited fame, he is a constant innovator; departing from tradition when necessary, such as finding a new way to roast nori (two sheets at a time, with the smooth sides out instead of in, so the tiny rough bits that protrude from the surface don't char), as he describes in his recent book Kitcho: Japan's Ultimate Dining Experience.

Tokuoka the Teacher
I always imagined Kitcho to be an intimidating place, where I would hesitate to step inside. I'd fear that somehow my manners and Japanese ettiquette might not be up to such high standards. Yet, unlike Kitcho's rarified image, Tokuoka the man is refreshingly approachable: Humble, quick to laugh, and eager to communicate, as evidenced by his appearances at the Japan: Flavors of Culture Conference and Festival. There, he shared his ideas and techniques openly with fellow chefs and restauranteers, and clsoing each session he was always careful to give credit to the primary producers; the fishermen, farmers and producers of traditional Japanese foodstuffs, without which he and all chefs could not do their work. In addition to attending his presentations, I was extremely fortunate to take part in a break-out kitchen session on tofu and vegetable cooking, where I also found him to be a patient and skilled teacher.

There, we learned how to make an inproved version of hirousu, a traditional fried vegetable and tofu fritter: the ultimate comfort food. While hirousu is always fried, Tokuoka's version included white fish and was pan- instead of deep-fried, resulting in a lighter and just as healthy, (if not vegetarian) version. We also learned how to make age-dashi dofu (deep-fried tofu) in a creamy and rich tofu sauce. Both recipes were simple and used ingredients that could easily be found in the West. One participant kept asking if these were dishes that might appear at Kitcho. Unfortunately, they were not. This recipe seems easy and versatile enough to try at home. The recipe below, courtesy of Tokuoka-san and the Culinary Institute of America, can be readily adapted to suit local ingredents.

The Art of the Hassun
During the conference, Tokuoka also shared what goes into creating a hassun, an appetizer platter that commemorates and celebrates the season. In addition to choosing the right combination of morsels for the platter, which is often shared between two or more diners, the hassun must be created with the vantage point in mind so that each diner has an optimal view. When the platter is for four or more people and viewed from many angles. "This", he explained, "can be quite a challenge."

The True Heroes
Tokuoka is also a tireless champion of Japan's primary producers, the farmers, fishermen and food producers, whose hard work and skill makes it possible for chefs like him to do their work. With deep humility, he insists that they are the true heroes of Japanese cuisine.

Related articles: Book review of Kitcho: Japan's Ultimate Dining Experience


Deep-Fried Tofu Ball with Vegetables Hirousu

Recipe credit: Kunio Tokuoka, as presented at the 2010 Worlds of Flavor conference.
Published with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Kunio Tokuoka
An Autumn hassun platter by Kunio Tokuoka
Top: Chef Tokuoka during a kitchen demonstration. Above: An Autumn hassun he created for Napa valley uses local flowers.
Demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America, 2010 (c)Kirk Vuillemot
Above: Tokuoka shares his own technique for making hirousu that is easy as well as healthful and delicious. Try the recipe at left.

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