Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Kaiseki Cuisine: An Haute Smorgasbord of High-class Healthiness

Kaiseki: A mega-sampler platter. Via

The dishes keep coming one after another. Smoked duck breast with chrysanthemum sauce, sashimi, crab, pumpkin and butternut squash soup–and the meal still isn’t even halfway through. The waiter presents several choices for the next course, and by the time you’ve decided, you are already thinking about the next six.

If you were at any other restaurant, this would likely be the point at which you would start contemplating how to burn all this off the next day. However, you are at Michelin-Star chef David Bouley’s Brushstroke, patting yourself on the back for sticking to your diet.

Brushstroke, the result of a collaboration between Bouley and the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, Japan, specializes in a type of seasonal Japanese cuisine known as kaiseki, and Bouley claims it’s one of the healthiest ways to eat.

"About 10 years ago I started to think about how I wanted to do food with a healthier twist," he says. "Why? Because I want to see people more often," Bouley told Town & Country.

But  kaiseki is not just healthy. It is very much a high-class cuisine with centuries of tradition. The food is expensive, meticulously arranged, and served in small portions, much like French haute cuisine. It is believed that the term kaiseki (written with the Japanese characters for “stone” and “chest”) originated from the Zen Monk practice of placing warm stones into the front folds of their robes to ward off hunger.

No two kaiseki menus look the same, and meals can consist of more than 14 courses, decided upon by the head chef. The menu is ever-changing (over 5,000 seasonal dishes at Brushstroke alone), and the food is made to be as aesthetically appealing as possible, often presented on creatively-styled dishes and bowls to enhance the visual effect.

Some common courses include a bite-sized appetizer called sakizuke, a seasonal sashimi called mukozuke, and several soup courses, among others. If you’re somehow still really hungry before dessert, there is one final course known as tomewan, which is simply miso soup and rice. However, people often choose not to eat it, as kaiseki can be very filling.

When Bouley first introduced his tasting menu in the 1980s, he faced a lot of challenges, as he told GrandLife:
People sometimes thought they were going to eat too much, that there was too much food. They thought it was going to take too long. Those folks with the metabolism of being packed in like Thanksgiving dinner? That’s not what this is. This is like being a birdie, you know. I’m seducing you, I’m seducing you, I’m seducing you. And you’re playing. I’m teasing you.
It’s this seduction that gives Bouley a sense of purpose–being able to convert even the most reluctant diners. That trend continues October 23 at Japan Society, where he’ll be holding a lecture all about kaiseki’s past, present and future, followed by a tasting reception where guests will have the opportunity to taste Bouley’s brand of the distinctive cuisine for themselves.

“I’m a chef of ingredients," said Bouley. "That’s my type. That’s what it’s all going to come back to. Ingredients. Your body remembers them your whole life. A beautiful presentation is fun, but you will forget that. You won’t wake up one day with a craving for that. However you will wake up with a craving for a perfect white peach. I’ve always been sensitive to that. That has got me hooked.”

--Mark Gallucci

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