The press photographers in the dining room at the Ibuki Japanese restaurant of Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel were having whatever it is that press photographers have when superlatively photogenic material is plonked down in front of them. Thousands of photos were being snapped, as the self-effacing staff brought plate after plate of jewel-like dishes to the table. These were the creations of two-star Michelin chef Kazuo Takagi, a recognized master of the super-refined Kyoto style of Japanese cuisine known as Kyo-ryori. This is his first overseas venture in what will now be known as “Ibuki by Takagi Kazuo.”
The suffix added to the name of what was already a well-respected Japanese restaurant is an indication of Takagi’s stake and commitment to the new venture. As the press photographers captured terabytes of images of Takagi’s food, the man himself sat down with the Taipei Times to speak briefly about his motivation and inspiration.
Tagaki comes from a culinary family and his ambition was clear to him from an early age. “I knew I would be a chef from when I was three years old. When I graduated from kindergarten I was already writing I would be a Japanese chef in the future. My grandfather was a chef, and I respected him very much. I wanted to be like him.” His mother was an instructor in culinary school, and her mentor became his, leading him in the direction of Kyo cuisine. His restaurant in Kyoto has since garnered two Michelin stars.
The complexity of the menu that includes many styles of preparation is designed to appeal to all the senses, as well as extending the dining experience to an awareness of seasonal change, poetic beauty and the bounty and versatility of nature.
“It is difficult to say what is Kyo style, but … to feel the seasons, to feel Japan. Kyo is the style of the old capital Kyoto, and all [Japanese] culture comes from Kyoto. So all the fundamentals [of Japanese cuisine] are there,” Takagi said.
Takagi has deep respect and love for these traditions, and hopes to bring a greater understanding of them to a wider audience.
The opening dish of his 10-course Kyoto dinner kaiseki set is sesame tofu with oscietra caviar, sea urchin and prawn in dashi jelly with edible flowers. It is a dish that might sit in a jeweler’s display case. For all the unusual and expensive ingredients, it is the dashi jelly that is the most striking element. This simple, even humble component of this sophisticated dish makes it glitter, and infuses everything with a startling depth of flavor. With such a range of flavors on the plate, it is a complex balancing act to get them all working together.
For Takagi, everything comes down to one of the most fundamental aspects of his kitchen preparation, his No. 1 broth. The preparation of this foundational element of his cuisine is entrusted only to the most skilled of his staff. “When you change the soup stock, every taste changes completely,” Takagi said. Such is its importance that he has closed his restaurant for the short time he will be in Taipei to oversee the establishment of “Ibuki by Takagi Kazuo,” the operation of which will be managed by his sous chef Masakazu Kudo.
Midway through the meal, Takagi served the autumn hassun, a kind of intermediary taster plate that precedes the main course. It was made up of a sushi bonbon with tuna and squid, fried crabmeat roll, marinated radish kiku flower, beef in egg yolk mustard and grilled eggplant with miso. The motif for the dish is the kiku or chrysanthemum flower, with its autumnal associations, painstakingly cut from radish, and a tuna sushi ball shaped like a miniature persimmon, also a seasonal fruit. This art of imitation is called mitame, and is an integral part of Takagi’s cuisine.