Seiji Yamamoto | Samurai spirit

04 May 2015
3 min read
Japan prides itself on an impressive culinary history, which has been sophisticated by the rich natural ingredients of the four seasons and cultural heritage. The words that can best describe this concept are the ‘samurai spirit’. Seiji Yamamoto is indeed a modern samurai who uses a kitchen knife instead of a sword in order to convey the true beauty and spirit of ‘nihonryori’, writes Takanori Nakamura exclusively for our last edition of FOUR Asia.

Nihonryori RyuGin is a must for those who want to taste and feel the essence of Japanese cuisine. Although there are countless restaurants that serve Japanese food all over the world, few chefs are capable of expressing what Japan is today. Yamamoto is well known as one such pioneering chef, playing a fundamental role in enlightening the world with the essential charm of Japanese cuisine. The renowned chef believes it is his mission not only to pursue his career as a chef, but to also educate the world about Japanese cuisine. In the last 10 years he has been energetically attending various culinary conventions, including Madrid Fusion in Spain, to do just that.

Thanks to these efforts, his restaurant Nihonryori RyuGin was on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the first time in 2010. It ranked at No. 28 in 2012 and also received the Highest Climber award. Having been awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide Tokyo for three consecutive years, it has become known as one of the best restaurants in the country and increasingly difficult to get a reservation at. Yamamoto’s career as a chef is based on his elementary school experiences. Born in Takamatsu, Kagawa, Japan in 1970, he grew up helping his mother prepare everyday meals. When he was 11, he cooked a dish especially for his mother, which pleased her very much. It was this experience that had encouraged him to become a professional chef in later life. After graduating from culinary school in Shikoku as a top student, he started his apprenticeship at a well known Japanese restaurant in Tokushima, where he soon revealed his ingenuity and culinary excellence. Having worked there for 11 years, he became independent and in December 2003 he opened Nihonryori RyuGin in Roppongi, Tokyo. Yamamoto wasabsolutely confident in his style and skills as far as Japanese cuisine was concerned. The restaurant was applauded by the media, soon gaining popularity. However, earlier this year, the chef experienced a major turning point in his career, when he gave a presentation at Gastronomika, a world-famous culinary conference held in San Sebastian in Spain.

Yamamoto was shocked to hear the unique presentations given by other chefs, all of whom were in pursuit of dishes that no one had ever tasted before. Their ideas were innovative, original and unique. He believed that Japanese cuisine was almost perfect, but at the same time he asked himself if there was anything else that could be further innovated and improved upon. Inspired by his fellow chefs at Gastronomika, it was at this moment that his battle for the evolution of Japanese cuisine took on a new life. In the world of Japanese cuisine, chefs have been attempting to recreate and sophisticate the richness of indigenous ingredients of the four seasons. Yamamoto, in his quest for perfection, reviewed the recipes of 出し 汁 (dashi jiru) or broth, which is the most essential dish in Japanese cuisine.

Yamamoto asked himself if it would be possible to improve his recipes by adopting new skills and technologies. Moreover, by questioning everything he did, he succeeded in figuring out the answer to please the palates of the majority. “What I consider to be an ideal cuisine is the one that will still remain as a masterpiece in 100 years.”

He believes the essence of Nihonryori RyuGin is to make the best use of ingredients. For example, when preparing a bowl of clear soup (wan-mono), it is essential to use freshly shaved bonito in order to serve the soup at its best. Most Japanese restaurants prepare shaved bonito in advance, but Yamamoto decided to shave bonito at the time the dish was being prepared.

By doing so, his guests were able to enjoy the real flavour of the ingredient. This was a minor innovation, but no other Japanese restaurants had ever done this before. Yamamoto is indeed an innovator, not a creator. It is not cooking when ingredients are treated against their nature. Yamamoto is skeptical about the word ‘creation’ because he believes it impossible to convey the true beauty of 日本料 理(nihonryori) when only uniqueness is emphasised. He says: “What I consider to be an ideal cuisine is the one that will still remain as a masterpiece in 100 years. That is why I am looking into the Japanese cuisine in the past. I believe an ideal cuisine will not make history unless it transcends time and tradition, so I am not interested in trends or fashion. For example, using insects as cooking ingredients seems to be popular these days. I have nothing against this trend, but there must be a dish that will satisfy not only the gourmets, but everyone who has tasted it. I am trying to find a recipe for such a dish, which is my goal in life.”

Yamamoto’s greatest wish is to express the spirit of Japanese cuisine, in all of its purity, through his career. Cooking is not only about ingredients. It is neither art nor commercialism. “I see myself as a samurai who is not only a professional warrior but also a person who is capable of inspiring and making a difference in other people’s life,” Yamamoto finishes. After Yamamoto’s success with his Tokyo-based restaurant and first restaurant abroad in Hong Kong (Tenku RyuGin), he recently opened Sho-un RyuGin, his second restaurant abroad, in Taiwan.