True connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine can only come to understand the elegance, artistry, and immense luxury of Japanese gastronomy after they’ve experienced the sacred dinner ceremony of “kaiseki.”
Modern kaiseki began to take shape in the 16th Century in Kyoto, Japan, through the influence of Rikyū—the man who, coincidentally, is the founder of the modern “chanoyu” ceremony. “Chanoyu” means, literally, “the way of tea,” though it is most-often translated into English simply as “the tea ceremony.” It should be noted, however, that while the Japanese tea ceremony has retained its original “rustic and humble” character, kaiseki has evolved remarkably over the centuries from where it began as the modest meal offered to Zen monks as respite from a fast, into the feast it is today: Modern kaiseki is the ultimate experience of sensual pleasure, a feast of exuberance, a banquet of abundance. As many as sixteen courses are served to delight the night… a kaiseki feast lasts often four hours or more! But do not confuse kaiseki with hedonism, (as some wanton display of a host’s affections for the gluttonous appetites of hungry guests). This tradition, refined over the centuries, is the “art of eating beautifully,” as interpreted by each kaiseki host. It is the elaborate and perfectly-choreographed performance of a serious artist-chef, who offers to his intimate gathering of guests his own unique conception of perfection designed to touch the feasters’ taste and smell, sound and sight, until every bodily sense is awakened in them in an experience of overwhelming pleasure; it is an experience that will remain in one’s memory for one’s entire life. Kaiseki is not a mere meal or dinner; it is the true master-stroke of an artist-chef, and the masterpiece of our world’s cuisine.
In America, only a privileged few have had a “true” kaiseki dinner. In fact, there are only a few restaurants with a Michelin-rating in all of New York City who serve true kaiseki: One of them is the renowned “Rosanjin” of Tribeca.
Until 2015, America’s professional private chefs and amateur home chefs have been deprived of the resources necessary to perform the kaiseki experience (kaiseki is always an experience of luxury). Not only must a chef have the necessary culinary skills, a taste for performance art, and a talent for creating the perfect ambiance, but it is absolutely essential that the seafood used for kaiseki be “Grade 1+” in quality (the best grade there is). This summer’s launch of the new luxury home-delivery service offered by one the most reputable providers of Grade 1+ seafood for over 30 years: LuxeGourmets.com, has finally made it possible for home chefs, (both professionals and amateurs), to obtain the supreme-quality seafood required to create this Japanese haute-cuisine outside of a restaurant.
It is remarkable how many gourmet private chefs and luxury banquets hosts in America are suddenly (since this summer) making kaiseki the theme of their dinner parties. Manhattan-based personal chef, Antoine Lemaire remarks:
“I knew about kaiseki back when most Americans didn’t even know what sushi was! I just never dared to attempt a kaiseki dinner before this summer because the seafood in America wasn’t yet up to par… it would have been embarrassing to serve fish-market sushi at a kaiseki dinner. Sure, you could make sushi and sashimi with the best fish we had access to up until now; and you could serve it with great pride. But kaiseki is a whole other expression entirely. Kaiseki is the ‘King’ of the gourmet dinner. You can’t serve fish that is simply ‘great.’ It has to be ‘absolutely perfect’ …otherwise, you feel like you must apologize to your guests. Yet, Luxe Gourmets’ seafood is flawless […] I think kaiseki using Luxe Gourmets’ fish is going to be the next trend in American gourmet cuisine.”
Kaiseki, like the bonsai tree, is a perfect representation of the Japanese spirit: natural, wild, no two alike—yet also ordered, meticulously arranged, manicured. An important characteristic of kaiseki is the way the chef will vary the ingredients based on Nature’s fluctuations and the season of the year. This is not to be confused with chefs in the West who make seasonal dishes for reasons of cost-saving, product availability, and crop quality; the kaiseki master changes with the seasons for artistic reasons. One kaiseki chef, for example, looking out on a peaceful snowy night in early December—one of those early winter nights after the first great snow has fallen, when the whole sky is aglow with a fiery red rose coloring the firmament above to contrast with the bright white hillocks of snow below—and he compares the red-rose sky over the clean white snow to the rosy-white flesh of the delicious Hamachi fish. It is with this artistic contemplation of the season that the kaiseki chef will decide to make Hamachi the theme of his night’s kaiseki dinner.
Music plays a fascinating role in performance of kaiseki. Not only are the masters of this art required to invent—as well as to prepare—an exquisite menu for each kaiseki dinner, but they must also have the gift for creating the perfect ambiance in order to sustain their guests’ pleasure during a meal which can last for over four hours. Modern kaiseki chefs know that the kaiseki tradition is a hard sell in our era. In previous centuries, before we had the internet, cellular phones with hundreds of contacts, and televisions with thousands of channels, people had fewer choices on where to direct their attention for an entire evening; and so spending several hours at dinner was a common enough event. Modern kaiseki chefs are among the most artistic and intelligent people in modern society, and so they know that—like the tradition of kaiseki itself—the music that accompanies kaiseki must evolve with the times. Therefore, in modern talk about fashionable kaiseki restaurants and chefs, there is almost no mention of historical Japanese accompaniment. Most chefs serving kaiseki in fashionable restaurants today opt for modern, electronic sounds to accompany their dinner performances. Some modern kaiseki choreographers incorporate music with their dinners that blend the authentic instruments of classical Japan with the modern beats necessary to keep today’s luxury diner entertained–(as today’s diner is almost always technologically up-to-date, thus almost always “wirelessly connected” to several devices that stand as competition—not only for the attention of the chef and his or her dinner, but even for the attention demanded by his or her dinner guests!). Fortunately, however, kaiseki is such an outstanding experience that, like the ballet or the opera, those in attendance almost always turn off their telephones before they walk in the restaurant door.
In spite of our modern kaiseki chefs’ neglect of traditional Japanese music out of their desire to appeal to our times, the historical impact of traditional music on kaiseki is fascinating because of the region of Japan and the time period where and when this tradition began. In the 1500s, “kaiseki” (懐石) was given its name and popularized, (we believe), by Rikyū—the most influential person in the history of the Japanese tea ceremony. Rikyū lived in Kyoto—(because of this, both the tea ceremony and kaiseki are said to have originated in Kyoto. Yet Rikyū was born just south of Kyoto in the Osaka Prefecture, which is near the port city of Osaka. Kyoto and Osaka are so close to each other that today they are considered part of the same urban region, and one can travel between the two cities by train in around a quarter of an hour. Osaka was the supreme political and economic center of Japan in the 16th Century (Tokyo didn’t rise to importance until the 17th Century). As the most thriving port city of Japan, Osaka was an exciting place, bustling with foreign trade; thus its people were constantly learning about the mysterious things coming from far away lands. And it was in Osaka, during the lifetime of Rikyū, and in the place of his birth, that the famous Japanese three-stringed instrument called the “shamisen” was first introduced to Japan. The shamisen is known to have been played later by the geisha. A lot of mythology surrounds this instrument. But if we imagine how close to Osaka were both Kyoto, and its famous resident Rikyū, we can guess that the sudden introduction and popularization of shamisen music played a vital role in the ceremony of kaiseki. Thus, all of you interested in learning about the preparation of kaiseki should search for and listen to the oldest compositions written for the three-stringed shamisen, and consider this choice of music for accompaniment with your kaiseki dinners. Yet, do not forget the wise lesson that the most successful of modern kaiseki chefs seem to have learned: You must appeal to the modern tastes of the your guests if you are going to keep them entranced in the ambiance you must create and sustain for hours on end.
Learn to Become a Kaiseki Chef:
The best way to learn to prepare kaiseki is, of course, to first experience the ceremony for yourself. Unfortunately, it is very rare to find a chef in America who can create authentic kaiseki. Yet gourmet food writers predict that this will change by the end of the year. LuxeGourmets.com is taking the luxury seafood market by storm since this summer’s launch, offering the freshest fish in the country with overnight service à la domicile to all 50 States. The gossip among their most famous customers (including private chefs who host cooking shows on television), is that kaiseki is “the next big thing.” So if you can’t find kaiseki near your home today, it’s only a matter of time before this new fashion trend comes to your neighborhood. But before we go any further, let’s satisfy your curiosity about what exactly these kaiseki courses are, so you can begin to experiment with kaiseki preparation yourself…
The Laws and the Lawlessness of Japanese Haute Cuisine:
“Kaiseki seems crazy to a lot of chefs. Why, for example, can they serve as few as five courses or as many as sixteen?! But trust me, there is method in its madness!”
Most of the art-forms of Japan—from calligraphy and haiku, to the martial arts like judo and karate—don’t allow the freedom to go wild with passionate creativity like kaiseki does. Yet all art-forms have rules, and kaiseki requires that chefs adhere to the laws and sequence of each course. They are also required to include in each meal these four things: Rice, soup, culinary poetry, and praise for the season of the year at the time the meal is served.
Remember this balance of obedience and freedom, and experiment with some courses I’ve suggested below (listed in the order they must be served). Some of my ingredient suggestions were chosen for their uniqueness, others in observance of the rule of “reflecting the season.” The seasonal theme I chose was: “Celebrating the Grade 1# tuna delivered fresh from LuxeGourmets.com,” since this is the season that they began their nationwide delivery of the best tuna on earth (or rather, “in the sea”). As for the “culinary poetry” required to make kaiseki, that is for you as a culinary artist to come up with on your own.
Suggested Courses for Creating a Great Kaiseki Experience:
- First Course: “Sakizuke”: This course introduces the dinner in the fashion of the French “amuse bouche” (literally: “amusement for the mouth”). A small arrangement of tiny appetizers shows off the chef’s ornamental talents. It also whets the appetites of the dinner guests. Sakizuke is to be served with a ceremonial glass of sake.
- Second Course: “Hassun”: This sets the seasonal theme of the dinner, whereupon the chef introduces the ingredient(s) that will make this dinner different from all other kaiseki dinners of that year. Since our theme here is luxury-grade tuna, I would suggest pampering guests with thick slices of fatty Bluefin Otoro. Wrap the tuna with “kampyo” (dried Japanese gourd ribbons) more for visual effect than anything else. Kampyo, excellent when simmered in dashi, has a very subtle flavor, so it won’t interfere with the priceless taste of Luxe Gourmets’ Bluefin Otoro.
- Third Course: “Mukozuke”: This course is an assortment of sashimi. I suggest a circular arrangement of raw Bigeye and Yellowfin tuna sashimi—alternating tuna pieces with raw slices of Hamachi. Add to it a centerpiece of chopped avocado blended with “shichimi” peppers (spicy ingredients go great with Hamachi!) …and garnish the plate with white orchids or lotus flowers.
- Fourth Course: “Tome-wan”: This is the most simple course, and is reminiscent of the beginning of the kaiseki tradition centuries ago when the meal was humble: Guests are to be served a cup of miso soup and a small bowl of rice.
- Final Course: “Mizumono”: The dessert course, often served with liqueurs as well as green tea. (Note: Sake is usually offered with every course, and may be accepted or refused according to each guest’s preference.) I suggest beginning the dessert course with “dango” (a sweet Japanese dumpling similar to mocha). Follow it with “mochi” (Japanese ice cream surrounded with sticky rice), which will wet the tongue and bring pleasure, following the richness of the dango.
There is no “conclusion” to kaiseki! It is an art that, like any other art, has rules (just as painting must use paint, and music must produce sound, just as literature must use words in a way that can stir the soul, heat the heart, meander in the mind…). And like other arts, kaiseki has evolved not just over the centuries, but it continues to evolve in the present. In a thousand ways every day, talented and skillful chefs around the world are adding their own creative personalities to each menu and each performance. The kaiseki chef is an artist no less profound than the composer and player of music, as kaiseki requires the composition of the menu, as well as the performance of a perfectly timed and carefully orchestrated dinner.