Japanese chef Yamamoto takes tradition to new limits

TOKYO Mon Feb 16, 2009 10:18pm EST

Japanese chef Seiji Yamamoto explains his cooking techniques during ''The best of Gastronomy'', a four day cooking conference in San Sebastian November 23, 2006. REUTERS/Vincent West

Japanese chef Seiji Yamamoto explains his cooking techniques during ''The best of Gastronomy'', a four day cooking conference in San Sebastian November 23, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Vincent West

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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Internationally acclaimed Japanese chef Seiji Yamamoto, who has had CT scans performed on sea eels to study their bone structure, is determined to take traditional cuisine to new limits.

Yamamoto has wowed international cooking forums with techniques such as silk-screening a barcode for mobile phones onto a plate using squid ink. A signature dessert dish includes powdery ice cream made with liquid nitrogen.

But his restaurant "Ryugin" in Tokyo also boasts classic Japanese "kaiseki" dishes -- charcoal-grilled sweetfish in the summer and soups with fragrant matsutake mushrooms in the autumn.

The soups include pieces of sea eel, whose small bones must be chopped finely. Thanks to the CT scan, Yamamoto now chops the bones at precise angles to give the eel a smoother texture.

Yamamoto, 38, spoke to Reuters in Tokyo on the sidelines of a recent gastronomy summit where he showed off his creations along with top chefs Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire:

Q: What were you able to learn from the CT scan?

A: I wanted to see what a cross-section of a sea eel's bones looked like. We learned that the bones in the eel grow at an angle, meaning that if you put the knife in straight, you create an edge with the cut. You need to slant the knife, then you can cut the bones at a 90-degree angle.

Q: You've talked about the evolution of Japanese cuisine. How do you see Japanese food going forward?

A: There are three aspects. First, with ingredients becoming more and more available and our surroundings improving, cooking will evolve just by using what's available with the technology at hand.

Another is taking a Japanese dish to another direction. For example, I've replaced yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit) with orange peel when combining it with stock mixed with soy sauce. Thirdly, there is the incorporation of something that didn't exist before in the basics of cooking, for example, using liquid nitrogen. Ten years from now, there will probably be many new discoveries.

In Japan, we are not taught to be unique. We are taught to be harmonious. But in cooking, that shouldn't matter, because cooking is about creativity. As long as you can express something that tastes good, you have freedom beyond that.

Q: What is your favorite ingredient?

A: Fish. The quality of the fish is absolutely important. Also, the dashi soup stock. Dashi is the basis of Japanese cooking. I aim for the kind of stock that people can feel "I'm glad I'm Japanese" when they drink it. Not so much of a "it's delicious" sensation, but more of a comforting feeling.

Q: Are you working on any new cooking techniques?

A: I'm looking into traditional things now. For example, a chawan-mushi (savoury egg custard) might turn out different if you steam it at 100 degrees or 95 degrees.

Q: What do you think is behind the growing international interest in Japanese cooking?

A: There was never anyone who promoted Japanese cooking to the rest of the world. When people take an interest in Japan, they are surprised. Everything is new to them, whether it is old or new. There are many things in Japan that are only in Japan. People smell yuzu, taste wasabi and say "wow."

Many Japanese go to Paris so they can learn to cook French food. But the trainees from abroad who come to my restaurant, they are only looking to broaden their cooking experience. If someday, a French trainee came to me wanting to open a Japanese restaurant in Paris, then that would be something.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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