Book Review: Kitcho- Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience

Recently, at the CIA’s  Japan: Flavors of Culture conference and festival, Kunio Tokuoka–third generation kaiseki chef and owner of the legendary Kitcho group of restaurants– was one of the star presenters. In addition to giving seminars and demonstrations, Tokuoka was also signing copies of Kitcho: Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience released November 1 by Kodansha International.

The book is a miracle. It’s one of the most beautiful books about a Japanese subject–be it cuisine, art or culture–that I’ve ever seen. It’s not just a lushly illustrated and evocative introduction to the restaurant (taking the place of dining there for most mortals), but explains Tokuoka’s cooking philosophy, something he calls “Rimpa-style cuisine”; as explosively creative, sumptuously gorgeous and poetic as the artwork made famous by Tawaraya Sotatsu, Hon’ami Koetsu, Ogata Korin and most of all, Ogata Kenzan, the potter who painted Rimpa motifs on dishes that were revolutionary in his day. In fact, the book is as much about art as food, and Tokuoka dives right in with the importance of tableware from the very beginning of the book, quoting famed 20th-century potter Rosanjin Kitaoji (who figures prominently in Kitcho’s history) famous line: “Dishes are clothing for food.”

As you might know, Savory Japan places special attention on the importance of tableware, so this is a book after our own hearts. But even for cooks and foodies who own not a single Japanese dish, the techniques and ideas in this book should provide inspiration for anyone.

Take–for example–the o-toro (fatty tuna) sushi. Kunio’s version (as many of the dishes in the book are named) has the neta (topping) sliced into three thin slices. These are stacked on top of pillowy sushi rice that is light and airy because it is not squeezed together, but is instead artfully arranged on the tines of a fork, so the diner can enjoy one perfect mouthful of bliss. The photo and description of this immediately made my mouth water, and at this moment I came to realize just how revolutionary Kitcho is.

In fact, the restaurant is known for innovation–and there is plenty of evidence of such in the book. As for recipes, well, they’re lacking, for the dishes are described much like a chef would describe them to a fellow chef: No measurements, but more than enough information for chefs and serious cooks to take to heart, make their own and take off to the kitchen. (That said, we asked Kodansha if Savory Japan can obtain the recipe for Eggs Kunio, and they are currently trying to secure it. More later.)

But there is plenty of the really important stuff here; information you won’t easily find in other books on cuisine, such as a clear explanation of mitate–the Japanese way of seeing one thing in another. The book also takes you through the seasons (starting in Spring), much like Yoshihiro Murata’s Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine from Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant does. Like Murata’s book, one learns as much about Japanese culture–with its festivals, deep-rooted traditions, Shinto and Buddhist origins and its reverence of nature–as kaiseki cuisine.

You’re probably wondering which book I like better, and it’s honestly impossible for me to say. I had the unique opportunity to dine at Kikunoi, but unless something miraculous happens to my pocketbook it’s unlikely I will ever get the chance to dine at Kitcho, for it is much more expensive. So while Kaiseki–with its spirituality and deep Kyoto roots–holds a special place in my heart, Kitcho represents a dream. Just like the book’s apt title, it leaves me wondering whether Kitcho is the ultimate dining experience–perhaps not just in Japan–but the world.

Compare both books on our Recommended Reading page in the Learn section.