Akiyama, located in a quiet, residential neighborhood in northern Kyoto, is a contemporary itamae restaurant that serves innovative Kyoto cuisine, prepared at a counter, in front of guests. A few years ago, Ibata Shotei-sensei introduced me to the just-opened restaurant and its chef, Akiyama, his calligraphy student. Chef Akiyama had come from the legendary Kitcho restaurant, probably the most famous kaiseki restaurant in Japan.
Everyday, for lunch and dinner seatings, Akiyama and his two assistants, in white chef pants, jackets, shirts and hats, and black neckties, stand behind the thick, gleaming, reddish-brown wooden counter.
SB: You opened a few years ago, and there is now quite a waiting list to get a reservation. You have been featured in magazines around Japan. Things are looking very promising for Akiyama!
AK: Although I am really relieved and happy, because I must continue to maintain this level of creativity and quality, I worry a lot. (laughing)
SB: Japanese food looks deceivingly simple to prepare.
AK: As a boy, I always liked making things, including preparing food. I went to culinary school after high school and then went to work at Kitcho. Some people think that we simply slice fish, and it’s ready. In a sense that may be true, but to make it all taste and look really good takes a lot of very detailed work.
SB: I’ve become spoiled eating here. It is like eating art.
AK: Like most people who apprentice at famous restaurants, I had a dream of some day having my own place. When I turned 30, after about 10 years at Kitcho, I began to think that I was ready. My wife and I were told that this house was going to be available. We all pitched in—painting, covering the walls with washi paper, creating the dining bar, building the garden.
SB: The place is really stunning–simple, natural materials, very little ornamentation and no clutter.
AK: Maybe, we err on the side of being too simple, too minimal. I think that a restaurant is like an ikebana arrangement. The food is the “flowers.” The room is the “container.”
Japanlivingarts.com: In Kaiseki, the presentation is as important as the food being served. First, to showcase each seasonally-changing creation, the right dish must be chosen for shape, color, texture and size, as well as how it balances with each of the other dishes used. Though it is ok to mix stoneware and porcelain, pieces must be sufficiently different from one another to provide contrast, while staying within the overall flow of the meal. Utensils made from wood, bamboo, lacquer, iron and glass may also be included. Next, the way the food is placed on/in each dish is an art, in itself. Finally, since all food preparation is done in front of the customers, the efficient, graceful, finely honed movements of the experienced “artist/ chef” are an important part of the dining experience. Unlike the entertainer chefs of Japanese teppan steak houses in the U.S., the itamae chef is a master of efficient, beautiful, yet minimal movements.
AK: A typical meal contains many courses. We change our lunch menu about once a month. Sometimes we change the dinner menu from one day to the next, but at other times we don’t change for a week. It really depends on what is available and delicious that day. The vegetables are very good in this area of Northern Kyoto, so I often buy directly from the farmers.
Because Kyo-cuisine is based on so many different ingredients, and those ingredients change with the seasons, creating different menus that appeal to both the eye and the palette is always interesting—but I’m a worrier.
Although a frequently changing menu affords opportunities for experimentation and creativity, it is very hard work. I begin at 7 or 8 in the morning and finish at about 10 or 11 at night. I do have a little bit of time off between lunch and dinner, but I’m usually so concerned about getting things ready for dinner that I don’t rest very much.
My training with the second generation proprietor of Kitcho was very valuable. I’m really indebted to him for his guidance. He didn’t always tell me that everything I made was delicious. I can remember each of the times he gave me a good course correction.
Of course, even though I want to present my own distinctive flavor, since I did train at Kitcho for many years, I have brought the Kitcho sensibility with me to a certain extent. My food might be known as having a Kitcho influence. This makes me very happy and flattered to have people recognize me in that way. It is also a tribute to Kitcho.
Some people may think they, themselves, can do anything they want in life, but after working to put this business together, it became very clear to me that I couldn’t have done anything without the work and support of my staff and my family. All together, we make this possible.
Since this interview, Akiyama has been awarded one star by Michelin.
In Collaboration with Photographer, Helen Hasenfeld
© Photos by Helen Hasenfeld
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