Do Michelin stars matter to Kyoto’s kaiseki chefs?

Food & Drink - May 27th, 2013
Sébastien Cevey Kaiseki

Michelin stars don’t matter. This seems to be the view of many of Kyoto’s kaiseki-ryori restaurants and local chefs who have, rather than flirting with the French culinary institution, focused on their own traditions and ignored the inspectors from food’s little red book.

by Matthew Hernon

In Europe, Michelin’s guide is revered and in some cases even feared. Stars can make or break a restaurant, causing stress and anxiety to a number of obsessed chefs and proprietors – in 2003, Bernard Loiseau took his own life, reportedly after reading rumours his restaurant was to be downgraded.

For Eiichi Takahashi, 14th generation owner and chef at the three-star Hyotei, in Kyoto, this attitude is difficult to understand:

“Far too much importance is placed on these stars,” says Takahashi. “We’ve had three for a few years and I suppose it has been good for business, but it doesn’t bother me whether we keep them or not. I think they (Michelin) were shocked when we and other restaurants in Kyoto originally turned them down, but our culture and heritage is very different to (that of) France.”

Takahashi doesn’t believe he is above the stars, he simply has other priorities. Known to TV viewers as the ‘Godfather of Japanese cooking’, he is meticulous in everything he does. Despite it being located in a culinary capital of a city that is known for its multitude of top quality kaiseki-ryōri restaurants, Hyotei manages to stand out from the crowd.

Going back almost 400 years, Hyotei began as a teahouse serving pilgrims and travellers who were on their way to Nanzenji Temple, before it was converted to a restaurant in 1837.

Arriving at the restaurant this history is immediately clear. The kuzuya thatched roof entrance and the garden walkway are said to look as they did when it first opened. There are five private tatami rooms, each overlooking a traditional Japanese garden; the rooms are such a tranquil place to dine, hushed voices seem necessary so as not to disturb the peace.

Monkfish liver, yam, turnips and snow crabs stood out on a seasonal and fresh sounding menu recently and the dishes they make up are presented in a classically understated way. Such is the restaurant’s reputation some diners may be surprised by the lack of grandeur, but Takahashi is determined to uphold Hyotei’s rich cultural heritage:

“It is about preserving traditions while at the same time adapting to new cuisine,” he says. “We have a very strong philosophy here and we don’t want to veer too far away from that. It’s vital that we don’t regress, but even a slight change in our menu can lead to complaints from our regulars.”

If Takahashi feels the pressure of satisfying such a demanding clientele, he certainly doesn’t show it. A softly spoken man, he exudes calmness. While he has appeared on a number of TV programmes and written books, he has no desire to be a celebrity chef or shout from the rooftops about how great his restaurant is.

The fact is he doesn’t need to; Hyotei’s reputation sells itself. It is an establishment that has attracted the rich and famous since its foundation. Emperor Akihito usually has his breakfast there when he visits, while wealthy Tokyoites have been known to take the bullet train to Kyoto just for lunch. This was the case well before the French came with their stars and makes it hardly surprising to hear of Takahashi’s priorities.

What is kaiseki-ryōri?

A traditional Japanese multi-course menu, it was originally served as a light meal before tea ceremonies to soothe the hunger of Zen monks. With the ritual becoming more popular amongst Japanese royalty, chefs started to add more expensive and exotic ingredients to the menu. It subsequently evolved into the extravagant form of dining we see today.

Using carefully selected seasonal ingredients, a kaiseki dinner could include anything from five to fifteen courses. Menus change with the seasons and vary from city to city, though most of today’s kaiseki restaurants focus on raw, pickled, steamed and fried dishes with vegetables at their heart.

For more information on Hyotei please visit the official website (in English.)

Image: A typical kaiseki dish (photo by Sébastien Cevey/Flickr)