Masato Nishihara is New York’s premier practitioner of shojin, a specialty Zen Buddhist culinary approach that is wholly seasonal and vegetarian. But like his deceptively modest restaurant Kajitsu in Manhattan’s East Village, Nishihara is too humble to make any such claims. “I believe that shojin cuisine embodies the spirit and the origin of all Japanese culinary categories,” he says, and he simply honors it with his own unwavering discipline and meticulous attention.
Although it’s his first exclusively shojin menu, Kajitsu isn’t Nishihara’s first foray into kaiseki—a prominent element of shojin cuisine. The chef worked for 10 years at Kitcho, one of the most well-regarded kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto. That the young chef devoted an entire decade to training in the seasonal ingredients and aesthetic beauty of traditional kaiseki is a reflection of both his own earnestness and exacting standards, as well as the complexity of kaiseki itself. While at Kitcho, Nishihara also learned the art of the tea ceremony and flower arrangement, both of which are integral elements of kaiseki, in which tranquility, beauty, and hospitality merge to enhance the food.
When Nishihara did eventually leave Kitcho, he worked for two years at Tohma, a soba kaiseki restaurant in Nagano that specializes in multi-course cuisine distinguished by handmade buckwheat soba noodles. With over a decade of diverse kaiseki training in Japan, Nishihara made the intrepid move to New York, eventually opening Kajitsu, where he devotes an entire menu to the principles of kaiseki and shojin cuisine specifically. One taste of his delicate but definitively executed dishes—compositional masterpieces of vegetarian seasonality—proves that Nishihara, a self-styled student of shojin, has achieved a level of mastery.
Interview with Chef Masato Nishihara of Kajitsu – New York, NY
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Masato Nishihara: When I was nine years old, I made a sunny-side up egg. It was the first time for me to cook. My mother praised me and I realized that cooking was fun.
EB: Did you go to culinary school?
MN: No, I didn’t. I cannot actually comment on it because I didn’t go to any culinary school. But in my opinion, going to a culinary school could be a good option to becoming a chef.
EB: Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary school background?
MN: When I hire a cook, I try to look for his/her passion toward cooking more than their technique. So I do not pay much attention to whether they went to a culinary school or not.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
MN: I would tell them not to forget their feeling when they decided to become a chef and always remember the moment when they felt inspiration toward cooking.
EB: Where do you draw inspiration?
MN: When I relax, I sometimes get a new idea for a new recipe. But also when I am very busy, some idea pops up in my head. I think that I need to be in lots of different situations in order to get inspiration. New York is definitely a place where I can get new ideas.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as a chef? Facing your restaurant?
MN: The opening of Kajitsu, the first Shojin restaurant in New York, has been the biggest challenge for me.
EB: What is the hardest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
MN: At Kajitsu I have to create a new menu every month, which is the hardest thing for me. But it is also enjoyable.
EB: What does success mean for you?
MN: Success for me would be a situation where I can cook and serve dishes on the plates I myself made in the place I designed and make my guests happy.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
MN: Dining is an ultimate action; I live to eat and I eat to live.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
MN: It is all my past experience.
EB: Ingredient that you feel is underappreciated?
EB: If you had one thing you could do over, what would it be?
MN: If I could go back to the age around 15, I would study English so hard that I would be able to speak the language better now.
EB: What’s next? Where will we find you in five years?
MN: Five years from now you will find me in a restaurant kitchen somewhere.