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.
“This is something that always happens in the tea ceremony. It is a kind of entertainment. In the old times, there was no TV, no magazines, no newspapers, so people try to have fun in such kinds of ceremony. Mitame is not real things, it is pretend. Of course it is a kind of game, because people pay the money to come to a restaurant. It is not normal life. They come here to have fun, good conversation, good food. We should not be so strict; we have to have the same feeling with the guests and make the dishes with enjoyment,” Takagi said.
Speaking excellent English, Takagi talked volubly about the importance of the spirit of Japanese cuisine. His ability to communicate in a language other than Japanese is a powerful advantage in his mission to bring traditional Japanese food to the world.
“I think Japanese food is very special … but I cannot find real Japanese restaurants (outside Japan). It is very difficult. I am sure there are, but I have not found them … The biggest reason for this is that chefs who can do a really good job do not go there [overseas]. Things are changing now, but only gradually. Many Japanese chefs would never think to go abroad,” he said, adding that it was only with the greatest reluctance that he was relinquishing sous chef Masakazu. “It is a very difficult thing for him to go abroad. The human problem is the biggest problem in taking Japanese cuisine abroad.”
For Takagi, it is Japanese culture and spirit that make a good Japanese restaurant. Speaking of a defining moment in his development, he said: “When I was a student I went to study in London [where he studied English]. I saw Japan from the outside. I was very impressed and moved by Japanese culture. I knew many foreign friends who were patriots [of their own country], but Japanese not so much.”
In addition to his sous chef, Takagi also brought his restaurant manager over to Taipei to give a veneer of Japanese spirit to the wait staff at Ibuki. “I saw the service here is very good, but of course it is not authentic,” he said, brushing aside the embarrassed giggles of hotel PR staff. “Japanese service is very, very polite and that gives the customers a very good feeling.”
The Japanese spirit is also of supreme importance in the kitchen. Apart from some key ingredients, Takagi is happy to use local ingredients, particularly seafood, prizing freshness over faithfulness to Japanese convention. “The point is technique and heart, spirit, to make Japanese food. It is not just ingredients … If I have the spirit to make Japanese food, it will be Japanese food,” he said.