KUNIO TOKUOKA is the executive chef of Kitcho and the grandson of Teiichi Yuki, the creator of the contemporary Japanese haute cuisine known the world over as kaiseki. Kunio has worked in the kitchen at Kitcho for over thirty-five years, starting at the tender age of fifteen. With other top chefs, he has attended several symposiums overseas, including events sponsored by the James Beard foundation and the Umami Information Center. In 2008, he catered the G8 Summit in Hokkaido, Japan. In 2009, under his stewardship, Kitcho earned the coveted three-star rating in the first Mich-elin Guide to the area. In 2010, he opened "kunio tokuoka," a new restaurant in Singapore's island complex, the Resort World at Sentosa.
Kitcho – Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experienceis simply one of those books that you just can’t put down. It delves into the artistic cuisine of Japanese kaiseki through exquisite photography and specific commentary. Chef Kunio Tokuoka of this established restaurant – and the birthplace of modern kaiseki cuisine – is well known as one who takes tradition seriously and at the same time adopts a unique approach to cooking. In this interview, we’ll take a look at his background that supports his ideas.
When did you decide to become a professional chef like your grandfather and father?
It was when I was 20. Since I’d started high school again at 18, I was hooked on music and I’d been playing the drums in a couple of bands, dreaming of a career as a drummer. One of the bands I played with won a contest run by an Osaka radio station, so I was quite sure I’d be able to become a professional player. So, just before graduation, I told my parents I planned to become a musician. They were extremely surprised and, of course, were against it. I didn’t want to give in so I went to seek advice from the late Master Morinaga Soukou, a very close family friend. Master Morinaga was a Buddhist monk at a branch of Ryoanji temple, a place I’d visited many times since I was a child. I was sure that Master Morinaga would understand my feelings.
After listening quietly to my tale, Master Morinaga told me to stay at the temple for a while. He took me to the bath, and there and then gave me a buzz cut. Suddenly my life as an apprentice monk had started, and I was to be in charge of the bath. Mornings started at 3 a.m. with zazen practice, and during the daytime I would clean up the temple, get water to fill the bathtub, and chop firewood. As I continued this for about two months, one day I saw the sun rise in my mind while I was practicing zazen. It was still dark outside. And I thought to myself, why should I be trying to do something that everyone is against? It wasn’t just everyone involved but it was also myself that I was hurting. I realized at this moment that for everyone to be happy, I must accept my fate to inherit Kitcho and become a chef.
If I were to become a chef, I wanted to be the best in the world and to be appreciated all over the world. The only person I knew who was appreciated around the world was my grandfather, Teiichi Yuki, so I joined Kitcho on the condition that I be his apprentice and work close by him. That was when I was 20 years old.
What was your most memorable moment as a chef?
It was in Tokyo, when I was apprenticing at Tokyo Kitcho. I was in my early twenties, and before I could even cook. It was the day off for everyone and no one was at the restaurant. My grandfather asked me to cook up a special kind of noodle called nyumen for him, which I’d never done before. Using what was there, I tried to imitate what people do when they prepare noodles, but I was all alone with no one to ask questions of, with my grandfather sitting at the counter watching me.
I was really nervous. He was in his eighties at that time, and to me, he was more the embodiment of Kitcho itself rather than my grandfather. He was the master chef, the person of my dreams. And he was watching me closely all the time I boiled the noodles. As I wondered about the flavoring and other things, I put all my efforts into making that one cup of noodles.
He had his head down and looked at me over the top of his spectacles with a frightening face when I eventually put the bowl of noodles in front of him. He tried them and the only word that came out of his mouth was “delicious.” “Way to go!” I thought to myself. It was the moment that my cooking was first praised by my grandfather. It was a happy moment too, as I felt that he, the master chef, had accepted me as his apprentice.
You’re known to choose the ingredients very strictly.
If the ingredients aren’t good enough, the dish doesn’t get any better even if you apply the best techniques. On the other hand, if the ingredients are good, the dish tastes good too, even if you’re not so skilled at cooking. It’s the basics that are important. So I go all around Japan to look for the very best quality ingredients, which include rice, vegetables, water, and salt. These are the building blocks that everything else relies on.
This process has no ending. The ingredients’ quality and flavor change constantly, so you have to pay very close attention to what you are working with. To always ensure quality, I do a blind test and keep looking for the best, and if I find better quality elsewhere then I switch my supplier. This applies with Western ingredients such as olive oil and butter. I’m always looking out for the best.
Regarding salt, I use different ones for grilled dishes, boiled dishes, soups, and pickles. When you choose the best Japanese native sea salt for each of these, sometimes you’re using as many as six different salts.
You often say that there is a scientific side to cooking. Can you expand on that?
As I pursue the idea of deliciousness, I try to do it from a scientific standpoint. For example, why is dashi stock made from kombu kelp and bonito flakes delicious? When you put these two together in the right amounts – Glutamate, from kelp, and inosinic acid, in bonito flakes – the receptors on our tongues connect with the brain, and that releases dopamine and endorphins seven-fold. Glutamate and inosinic acid combined make people feel deliciousness much stronger. I realized that even in traditional cooking methods, scientific reasons are hidden.
So if chefs learn to increase deliciousness by combining ingredients of deliciousness together, then they will be able to find items that contain these and combine them in the right amounts, making a new deliciousness that no one has created before. Scientific information may not have been easily available in the past, but now it is, and it should be used more widely as a chefs’ tool.
How do you strive for deliciousness?
Deliciousness is very complex. People find things delicious not only through taste but also through scent and texture. Of the many taste receptors on the tongue, there is one each for sweet tastes and deliciousness (umami), but 50 for bitterness, and countless others that give the mouth an idea of texture. There are 380 receptors for scent in your nose, too. This all adds up to the fact that in order to make something tasty, you have to work on bitterness, scent, and texture.
In the Japanese language, there are lots of onomatopoeia for stickiness and smoothness. I think this shows how texture has been highly valued in Japan. For instance, I basically don’t steam the rice after it’s cooked. Steaming it may make it a bit tastier, but the scent and texture are impaired. I choose scent and texture over a subtle difference in taste.
As a matter of fact, it isn’t just the five senses you’re using when tasting something – you’re using your head, too. Whether something tastes good depends on who you are eating with, the surroundings, and all the things you take in through your senses.
For a meal to be really good, a chef cannot just focus on flavor because that misses the point. Hence the importance of hospitality. In the end, the whole point about deliciousness may be about paying carefully attention to the people your are serving. To cook a meal wholeheartedly with the best quality ingredients, and to serve it at the exact timing is essential, and we’re putting in much effort into developing a system that will enforce our staff’s skills.
Thank you for taking the time to sit for this interview.
Traditional Japanese cuisine and knowledge of cutting-edge technology may seem an unlikely match, but Kitcho utilizes many unusual and groundbreaking techniques for food preparation and for serving a meal that will be a unique and memorable repast each time a customer visits. Traditional cooking techniques, as well as the beauty of the calligraphic works, paintings, and serving dishes – these all contribute to a wonderful dining experience. This is the first book in English to lay bare the inner workings of what many consider Japan’s most famous restaurant. Luxuriate in the book as you would in a meal at Kitcho.