Hideki Ishikawa’s Endless Quest for Kaiseki Deliciousness

by Nicholas Rummell and Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno Antoinette Bruno
July 2012

Biography

Restaurant

Located in the glutted Kagurazaka neighborhood, made famous for its endless supply of geisha-run ryotei restaurants, Ishikawa is a sanctuary of tranquility within the chaos of the Tokyo streets. And just as the restaurant has distinguished itself in a sea of similarity, so too has its chef separated himself from many of his peers.

Chef Hideki Ishikawa doesn't seek distinction, though. He dresses identically to his line cooks and appears in the background during photo ops. He is modest and soft-spoken. His smile is simple and disarming, but also a bit nervous, as if still unsure of himself. In the documentary "Three Stars," about top-rated Michelin restaurants, Ishikawa often prefers to let his cooks share (or even take over) the limelight.

Underneath that modesty and delicate sensibility is a burning obsession with details. Nothing goes overlooked at Ishikawa, and his passion for food shines despite the somber, quiet mood in the private dining rooms. It’s beauty, the kind of beauty that one would find only in a roadside flower, perfect in every petal. But Ishikawa would—and does—notice such beauty, cultivating it with every ingredient.

Growing up in the rural Niigata prefecture, Ishikawa moved to Tokyo at 20 to pursue a career in fashion. He couldn't find a job, though, and instead took a part-time job at a casual café. He didn't mind—living in Tokyo had been his childhood dream—but what started out merely as a way to pay the bills ended up leading to a renowned career in the kitchen. As he progressed in his culinary career, one mantra kept rattling through his mind over and over again: "What is real oishi? What is delicious?"

Today Ishikawa still seeks the answer, following his quest for deliciousness deeper down the rabbit hole. "[It's] to cook better, eat more, and understand good food," he says. "Before you grab a knife, you need to picture the best food, which comes only from the dining experience."

And from understanding the underlying product.

Seasonal Spring Vegetables: Sakura (cherry blossom) Prawn, Ivory Shell, and Bamboo Shoot

Seasonal Spring Vegetables: Sakura (cherry blossom) Prawn, Ivory Shell, and Bamboo Shoot

Beef Tongue and Turnip with Mountain Vegetable Tempura

Beef Tongue and Turnip with Mountain Vegetable Tempura

Chef Hideki Ishikawa and team of Ishikawa – Tokyo, Japan

Chef Hideki Ishikawa and team of Ishikawa – Tokyo, Japan

More than anything else, Ishikawa has a reputation for using only the highest quality ingredients; some say his raw fish rivals that of the top sushi restaurants in Japan, and his attention to vegetables draws upon the rich tapestry of mountain produce and herbs. But while his dishes have a modern sensibility—more in terms of presentation and plating, not in the use of molecular technique—Ishikawa's food is undeniably Japanese.

Even his take on the centuries-honored kaiseki tradition has a style all its own. By all means, expect to be greeted by his gracious kimono-clad geishas and escorted out by the entire staff when the meal is done, as per kaiseki tradition. As at most ryotei, Ishikawa adheres strictly to the concept of omotenashi—a Japanese term with no English equivalent, it means meeting a diner's expected needs and anticipating all unexpected ones. You’ll likely also see kaiseki staples on the menu, including a steamed rice dish, but Ishikawa makes simple rice its own star rather than an afterthought to the meal as it usually is.

It’s the same careful, quiet approach he takes to every dish. Whereas most Japanese restaurants focus on a single type of cuisine, Ishikawa takes it one step further. When creating a dish, he looks to "concentrate [the ingredient] to reveal its real value, the natural umami flavor," he says. He then takes those single notes and seeks harmony among them.

The Humble Star Chef

"He's a real fanatic about the entire experience of eating," says Chef David Kinch, who says Ishikawa is at the top of his "to eat" list anytime he's in Tokyo. "Here in the United States chefs say 'it's only about the food,' but in Japan they look at all aspects," says Kinch, who hosted Ishikawa at his own Manresa in San Francisco in May. "I idolize his food. I idolize the way it looks and the way it tastes."

But neither fandom nor success have diluted Ishikawa's passion for cooking, nor caused an obsession with his Michelin stars (after all, when he first won his three stars in 2009, he famously said "thank you" and hung up the phone). "I have never cooked for a star," he says. "It does not mean I do not respect the book. I buy one when I travel. I would cry or deeply regret [only] if I fall short of my guests' expectations." That includes all guests, not just locals. Ishikawa's sign outside is in Japanese, but it offers English menus, a nice touch in a neighborhood that doesn't necessarily lend itself to tourism (finding Ishikawa was a near impossible; even the taxi driver didn’t know exactly where it was).

StarChefs.com was lucky enough to eat at Ishikawa and walk through the Tsukiji fish market with the chef during a recent trip to Tokyo. "The sea parts for him when he's down there," says Kinch, who accompanied us on the excursion.

And while the Tsukiji market has received international criticism for its approach to tuna fishing, Ishikawa sidesteps questions about sustainability, preferring to let his food do the talking and avoid the more political discourse. "I think there is no perfect system, whatever humans create," he says. "The important thing is to keep maintaining, to discuss continuously and never walk off."

Ishikawa is not wholly immune to environmental concerns. When the Ise Shinto shrine in Mie, Japan, was repaired in 1993, a 400-year cypress was cut down. (As part of the Shinto belief in death and rebirth, every 20 years the shrine is destroyed and rebuilt on the plot of land next to it.) Part of the tree was used to fashion a single seven-seat counter at Ishikawa, even though the restaurant is not sushi-focused.

At the end of the day, Ishikawa's food is much like the man himself. Every ingredient becomes a singular star, but muted and working in harmony with the other elements of the dish. His beef tongue and tempura-fried mountain vegetables is an elegant riff (even if he didn't know it) on meat and potatoes, and his abalone and spring cabbage is served in a silky broth with just a hint of smoke. Nothing is overstated, nothing overpowers; it is simply delicious. Oishi, indeed.

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