Unlocking the secrets of Kaiseki with Chef Yuuki Tanaka

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Ise Sueyoshi is a very exclusive, traditional Kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo that seats on 11 people at a time. The dedicated chef/owner is Yuuki Tanaka, a 29-yr-old culinary prodigy. Before opening his restaurant, he backpacked through 16 countries, armed with soy sauce and Kombu (edible seaweed), and worked at several eateries, just to master his craft. Upon returning to Japan, he opened his Kaiseki style (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) restaurant in Nishi-Azabu, using only the highest quality ingredients from his hometown, Mie Prefecture.

It’s been two years since he opened the doors to his acclaimed establishment, and it’s now one of the most popular spots for Tokyo foodies and foreign tourists alike. Ise Sueyoshi even garnered the top prize for the best Tokyo restaurant on Trip Adviser.

Read on to learn the story of a chef who is completely fueled by passion, exploration, and curiosity.

What made you to decide to become a chef?

My father runs a Japanese restaurant in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture. I started helping him when I was 4-yrs-old, and for a while, I was actually thinking of taking over the restaurant. After I graduated from high school, I went to Hattori Nutrition College. After that, I apprenticed at Kikunoi in Akasaka for 4 years.

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Was it after your apprenticeship that you went on your backpacking adventure?

Yes. I started with Canada and visited the U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Spain, Morocco, France, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey and Italy. In total, it was 16 countries. I visited local restaurants with my soy sauce and Kombu, and asked them to let me work for free. I left my knife in Japan, because it would have been a problem if I brought that along with me (laughs).

“When I mingled with the locals, many of them said, “I like Japanese food,” but they really only knew of sushi and ramen.”

When I mingled with the locals, many of them said, “I like Japanese food,” but they really only knew of sushi and ramen. Some people knew Shabu-shabu, Konomiyaki, Teppan Yaki and Wagyu, but nobody knew Kaiseki. I believe Kaiseki is one of the most important Japanese cuisines, because it reflects the different seasons and expresses our culture through fresh ingredients. I felt very sad that Kaiseki had been so overlooked. I decided to let everyone know about the culture of Kaiseki. 

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“Kaiseki is one of the most important Japanese cuisines, because it reflects the different seasons and expresses our culture through fresh ingredients.”

Your wife currently assists you with Ise Sueyoshi. Did you travel with her too?

No, I traveled by myself and met her in the middle of my journey. I met her at Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. We used the same rental car. She was traveling the world by herself as well, but she was going the opposite direction, so we didn’t travel together. After we came back to Japan, we met again and got married. That was quick actually. I have told this story many times, so now I can tell it without being shy.

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Did you open your restaurant immediately after returning from your travels?

No, I went back to Mie first and helped my family business and also visited local food suppliers. I prepared for two years, and opened Ise Sueyoshi using ingredients from Mie. I still continuously seek out new suppliers for my restaurant.

What are the unique characteristics of foods from Mie?

In Mie, there is a lot of precipitation, and there are many mountains near the sea. So minerals from the mountains enter the ocean and fertilize the plankton. Because of that, we get Ise ebi (Japanese spiny lobster) at the deeply indented coastline. You can find abalone, horned turban, and white fish. When you go to Mie’s Northern region, there is a place called Kuwana. It’s famous for its beaches, and you can catch a lot of basket clam and Hamaguri (common orient clam). You can also find bonitos and Sanma (Cololabis saira) in the Kumano area. Mie Prefecture spreads from North to South, so it has a a wide range of spectacular foods. I feel blessed because my hometown is so rich in amazing ingredients.

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You make it a point to welcome foreigners into your restaurant. How do you accomplish this?

I made the “Kaiseki Cuisine Experience” which is an English guide for Kaiseki culture. Kaiseki has several menus including, “Sakizuke” (appetizer), “Hassun” (small foods on a wooden tray), and “Wan” (soup dishes), so the guide explains this in English. I also added some Japanese folklore like: “If you leave even a grain of rice, something bad will happen.” Guests from other countries who read this tried to eat every single grain, even though they weren’t really skilled with chopsticks.
I also invented Kaiseki menus for vegetarian, vegan and halal. For vegetarian and vegan people, we serve Asao Nori (a kind of seaweed), konjac and tofu skin instead of fish. I use Kombu and mushrooms for broth, instead of using bonito and small dried sardines for vegetarian and vegan people.

My wife and I both speak English, and I don’t think there are many Japanese chefs who offer a similar dining experience.

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Who has been the most impressed customer so far?

An American guy visiting Japan for the first time came to our restaurant the evening he arrived. After his meal, he said, “I’ve never had such wonderful food in my entire life. After only being in Japan for a few hours, I’ve already experienced such a great thing…what am I going to do after this?” I was so happy to hear that.

When vegetarian and vegan people tell me, “I can’t believe that I could eat such incredible Japanese dishes,” I feel that all my effort in inventing the different menus has been rewarded.

I also feel elated when young people of my generation come here for their anniversary, or to celebrate their father’s retirement, or even to have a family gathering before a wedding. Japanese people don’t eat Kaiseki on a daily basis, so it’s one of the greatest honors to be a chef for a customer’s special night. I feel tense (in a good way) on these occasions. Actually, I am always tense for work. (laughs)

Just the other day, a foreign couple came for dinner, and after the dessert, the gentleman got on his knees and proposed. The female cried and said “yes!!.”


Visit the Ise Sueyoshi website here: http://isesueyoshi.blog.fc2.com/

Photography by Yosuke Suzuki(Erz)

Text by Akihiro Tajima

 

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