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Interview: Seiji Yamamoto

Cuisine as language? We’re listening… Time Out Tokyo talks exclusively to the triple Michelin-starred chef

Seiji Yamamoto, Japanese chef

Seiji Yamamoto, leading innovator in Japanese cuisine

 

Experimental chef Seiji Yamamoto has put modern Japanese cuisine on the map with his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo, Nihonryori RyuGin. And he’s recently been extending its vision even further with sister restaurants in Hong Kong (which opened in 2012) and now Taipei. Time Out Tokyo included him as one of their 50 reasons Tokyo is the greatest city in the world, and in return he let them in on the secret to cross-cultural cuisine.

On the influence of nature
‘What I’m hoping to communicate through Japanese cuisine is the richness of the country itself. I don’t just mean our four seasons, but also the concept of things being in season. And the natural surroundings we have that allow these ideas to be a matter of fact.’

On cuisine as communication
‘If you look at Chinese cuisine, no matter who you are or where in the world you say it, the same flavours come through. That’s because they are both already established types, a sort of lingua franca throughout the world.

‘The sad part of me is that Japanese cuisine hasn’t reached that point yet. Why? My opinion is that it’s dominated by elements that are not visible, and these elements are difficult to come to grips with if you are not Japanese. For example, making sashimi involves more than just slicing up a raw fish. The fish has to be fasted for several days first, so the flesh can be matured without putting any stress upon it. There are a number of processes at work in order to bring out the best flavor for raw consumption. What Japanese cuisine is looking for now is how to communicate these elements.’

On exporting his creations…
‘I take on trainees from Asia, Scandinavia, and other European countries in the hope that they are able to communicate the things they learn at Ryugin to people abroad. Through this, I hope Japanese cuisine can evolve.

‘I do not know if our cooking can globalise – it’s an easy thing to say, but it’s exceptionally difficult to do [laughs]. What I’m trying to do in Tenku Ryugin in Hong Kong is to take the ingredients that people there come into contact with through Cantonese food, and tailor them using the spirit of Japanese cooking’

On adapting local flavours…
‘There is really excellent chicken in Hong Kong, and if you use it in place, for example, traditional suppon, you can introduce people to flavours in chicken they didn’t even know existed before.

‘If your food gains a reputation in Hong Kong then you’ve managed to get across the spirit of Japanese cuisine. If you’re just copying the same things that you can get in Japan, it’s like printing counterfeit money and spending it abroad [laughs].’


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