Third-generation owner of his family’s century-old three-Michelin-star ryotei, Kikunoi in Gion, Kyoto, chef Yoshihiro Murata is undeniably a man of ambition. The famed king of kaiseki opened the kappo-style (counter seating) two-Michelin-star Roan Kikunoi (Kyoto) and two-Michelin-star Akasaka Kikunoi (Tokyo). Adding to this platter of accolades, Murata created the non-profit NGO Japan Culinary Academy in 2004 to foster awareness of Japanese cuisine abroad and develop new generations of Japanese chefs in Japan. His latest venture is Tokimeite in London, an innovative Japanese restaurant based on traditional kaiseki cuisine in collaboration with ZeN-Noh, a Japanese agriculture cooperative.
Having been part of Singapore Airlines’ International Culinary Panel for two decades, Murata has been able to spread awareness and appreciation for Japanese cuisine across the world through the Airline’s inflight Japanese cuisine. It was only as recent as 2013 that washouku – traditional Japanese cuisine – was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Murata, along with other Japanese chefs and academics, was part of the campaign in making this happen. “Before this listing, there were about 56,000 Japanese restaurants in the world but in a recent survey, there are now about 91,000. Export of Japanese ingredients has doubled as well. I think we can double that again by 2020,” says Murata.
While seasonality and quality of ingredients both play similarly important roles in his dishes on board and at his restaurant Kikunoi, Murata says he is also invested in the skills of the chefs cooking his food. “I bring the chefs cooking my food for SIA to Kikunoi to train them,” he says. “SIA also regularly reviews dishes and tableware. We have adjusted menus and improved efforts on presentation as per changing passenger behaviour.”
Although Murata acknowledges that travellers might have low expectations for inflight meals, he believes that the quality of food should match the standard of excellent service that Singapore Airlines is known for. When he started on the Airline’s International Culinary Panel, both he and chef Georges Blanc shared similar sentiments in which they thought it would be nice to imagine having a meal inflight as dining at a Georges Blanc or Kikunoi restaurant. “We still think so: to eat a meal on board like it’s at a restaurant, because service and tableware are all good too. Many passengers say that Singapore Airlines has delicious inflight meals. It is most important to maintain this quality.”
Murata may be protecting his family’s traditions in Kikunoi in order to maintain its reputation and quality, but he is also of the thinking that evolution of processes is necessary in order to progress. A famous example is his decision to tweak the restaurant’s centuries-old dashi stock recipe. “Dashi stock is the umami foundation of Japanese food,” he says. “The main characteristic of Japanese cuisine though, is about nutrition of the heart as well as of the body. This is a cultural activity as well.”
Culinary outreach is one part of the Japanese Culinary Academy, which Murata is chairman of. He’s had such chefs as Rene Redzepi (Noma), David Chang (Momofuku) and Ferran Adria (ex-el Bulli) learning about kaiseki from him. Another part is about training younger chefs. “My son and other top chefs are doing research at the graduate school of Ryukoku University and Kyoto University to analyse cooking. Because science is universal in the world, this will allow Japanese cuisine to spread to the rest of the world easily,” says Murata. “We now have four textbooks in English and Japanese but I would like to have eight of them in five languages.”
You would think that a kaiseki master would want to eat elaborate meals all the time, however, Murata would prefer one that is humble. “When I fly, I like to eat deliciously cooked food, such as yam, sweet potatoes, kidney beans and octopus. And good Japanese sake and tea.”
– TEXT BY ANNE LOH
PHOTOGRAPHY: TAN WEI TE, ART DIRECTION: NG SAY LEE, GROOMING: ADELENE SIOW, HAIR: ANNIE TAY
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.