When our daughter was little, she loved hearing legends of the selkie girls, mermaid-like creatures who inhabit the waters off the Irish coast. Sleek as seals in the sea, they shed their skin once captured and turn into humans on land, yet they always long to return to the deep. Leila is grown now, and I haven’t thought about selkies for years, but they came vividly to mind a couple of months ago when I visited the southwest coast of Ireland, where I spent a magical day on the water foraging for seaweed by kayak. Gannets and gulls swooped through the air, on the lookout for fish. As we paddled through a natural arch I caught sight of a grey seal poised on a rock. A selkie! In that misty environment all transformations seemed possible.
I had flown to Ireland to speak at the first Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, brilliantly organized by Máirtín Mac ConIomaire at the Dublin Institute of Technology. Afterwards I headed to West Cork to meet John and Sally McKenna, creators of the annual Bridgestone Irish Food Guide. For a couple of years Sally has teamed up with Jim Kennedy at Atlantic Sea Kayaking to offer special foraging trips. Jim, an international champion kayaker who traded racing for gentler paddling, guided us along the rocky coast to a trove of seaweed in vivid colors: yellow and orange and purple and pink. We found carrageen and dilisk and sea lettuce and kelp—all common along the Irish coast—and were thrilled to spot a far rarer bloom of nori. I took a bite: mineral and salt, tasting of rock and sea. I nibbled on a couple of different kinds of wrack and sloke that were mainly chewy, but I swooned over pepper dulse with its piquant bite. As we hovered by the rocks, the clouds shifted, turning the water and sky various shades of grey and blue. Changeability defines this landscape—no wonder selkie legends arose. And no wonder that the dull brown strands of sea spaghetti drifting in the water should turn emerald green on boiling. Surely the tresses of mermaids!
Yoshinori ishii is a prominent kaiseki chef. Kaiseki is a meal that epitomizes Japanese taste and aesthetics. It is never the same twice, changing with the seasons, the locality, and the chef’s creativity. Ishii has cooked at two fabulous Japanese restaurants: Kitcho, the ultimate kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto, Japan, and Iron Chef Morimoto’s Morimoto in New York City. He is now the chef at Umu in Mayfair, London.
Corky White: How did you get involved with food? Were you interested in it when you were a child?
Yoshinori Ishii: As a child I loved making things with my hands, and I loved fishing. When I caught a fish, I ate it. That was the first sashimi I made. I love to fish; the eating came second.
CW: You became a cook, though, not a professional fisherman. How did that happen?
YI: I went to high school in Saitama Prefecture [near Tokyo] and liked working in kitchens, so I entered Tsuji [Osaka Abeno Tsuji Cooking School] directly from high school, in 1989. Over a one-year course I learned kaiseki and Japanese cooking, Chinese, French, and Italian food. I learned how to use the finest ingredients and the techniques to bring out flavor. For example, if you make a French-style fond and use sake instead of wine and negi [Japanese scallion] instead of onions, you have the very best base for a sukiyaki. You can learn from all cuisines. I also worked at night in an ikesu kappo restaurant, a place where the customer chooses a fish from a tank or pond at the restaurant. I was chef for deep-fried dishes.
CW: You went on to cook at Kitcho in Kyoto. That is probably the Japanese restaurant best known outside of Japan, and probably one of the most expensive. It serves kaiseki food, which may be among the most demanding of cuisines.
YI: I continued to learn at Kitcho. It is a place where they pursue perfection — and I mean perfection. Let me tell you a story about Kitcho. They emphasize perfection in the service as well as in the food. The waitress pays attention to the customers so she can tell the kitchen when the next course should appear, never rushing the customer and always serving food at the perfect moment. One time a table of guests took their time before the rice course. They were talking and relaxing, so the waitress told the kitchen to stop making the rice. The cooks waited until the waitress signaled them to start a new batch, but she had to stop them again. This went on eleven times before the last batch was finally served, so important was it to deliver the perfect rice at the perfect time.
CW: Cooking at Kitcho with such an agenda must have been difficult. What was the trajectory of learning?
YI: My first year at Kitcho was spent learning to cut sashimi and to boil foods. I also learned about organic farming and local Kyoto vegetable varieties—like the round tama eggplant and the long, brightly colored carrots. Every morning I went to the fields to choose the vegetables for the day. My favorite jobs were arranging the display of scrolls, ceramics, and tea utensils for the restaurant’s rooms. I learned to love traditional ceramics, and I myself now make dishes and bowls. If I weren’t a cook I would be a potter.
The second year I was tsukemono (pickles) chef. I also helped prepare off-site dishes for ocha kaiseki (the tea ceremony meal) events, and I maintained the tea rooms at the restaurant. I loved cultivating the mountain land owned by Kitcho. It was a mix of activities.
In years three through five I was chef for main dishes. I also continued all the other activities, especially flower arrangement. During my last three years, I was kitchen manager and loved learning calligraphy to create the menus (I’m second danlevel) and other traditional arts. Through it all, I fished. When I am traveling, I am so fanatic about fishing that I pack my fishing rods in my bags before I pack my kitchen knives.