Born in Yamagata Prefecture, Hirokazu Tomisawa has a kind smile for everyone. His career is flourishing as the head chef and manager of the Japanese restaurant, Yoshimura, and he has also been recognised officially as a Contemporary Highly Skilled Craftsperson and is active as a Goodwill Ambassador of Japanese Cuisine, appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. We spoke to him about his past, present, and future.
What was it that turned you on to becoming a chef in Japanese cuisine? What do you remember most from your apprentice days?
Many years ago, there was a drama show on TV called Dear Mother (Zenryaku Ofukuro-sama), starring Kenichi Hagiwara. As soon as I watched it, I thought, “this is it.” I wasn’t interested in anything else.
There were many restaurants around my childhood home, and when I passed through the side alleys, I could look right into their kitchens. I was full of admiration for the itamae (expert cooks) as a young child. I also saw restaurants for other cuisines, like Western, Italian, or Chinese, but I was always set on studying Japanese cuisine. I never wavered.
I was born in Yamagata, and I first became an apprentice in Kyoto. I was blown away by all the ingredients that I had never seen, let alone heard of, both vegetables and fish. When I tried them, it was so delicious that it made me want to learn more. I was amazed by the subtle techniques for using knives, too, and how they differentiated between each kind of knife depending on the use. I couldn’t wait to master those skills myself.
Even on my days off, I showed up to the kitchen. Then my boss would let me try some new skills on the side and things like that. It’s a tough field, so the work was intense, but all the same, I had fun.
Could you tell us about your creed, “the bowl is a kimono for the meal”?
It’s a maxim by Kitaoji Rosanjin, a representative artist of Japan. He was a restaurateur, painter, ceramicist, calligrapher, as well as a gourmet. For us cooks, he’s truly a star. I came across this saying in a book about him. “The bowl is a kimono for the meal.” It’s an obvious truth, of course, but it left a deep impression on me, and I’ve carried those words with me since.
Through my work, I often meet ceramicists. I strongly believe in the power of unique bowls and dishes, stamped with the personality and individuality of each artist, to showcase the colours of my Japanese cooking. Sometimes I choose the bowl first, sometimes the menu.
Each ceramic piece has its own character—if it’s made by a young artist, it might be vibrating with energy, and if it’s by a woman artist, you might feel a sense of warmth or gentleness. It’s a wonderful thing, those colourful personalities.
What would you like to show or convey to people through Japanese cuisine?
Of course, Japanese cuisine and the four seasons are just inseparable. I’m always attentive to what’s in season and making the best of those seasonal ingredients. And then I think about how easy it is to eat for the customer, and how balanced the meal is in terms of nutrition. I think Japanese food has gained much attention overseas as a healthy cuisine. The nutritional balance and using ingredients that are in season are extremely important elements.
Technique is very valuable as well, though this applies to other cuisines, too. Even using one knife, for example, involves delicate techniques—it’s a form of art. I believe we need to hone our aesthetic intuition for the whole process, including the arrangement of the meal for serving.
As for things that are related to Japanese food, there’s the cultures of tea ceremonies and flower arrangement, so I’d very much like to spread more knowledge about those. As a craftsman in Japanese cuisine, I couldn’t possibly offer any meal without having learnt about these two traditions first.
Photos/ 50th Anniversary Special Kaiseki (no longer available) "Connection - YUKARI"
How has your experience been as a Goodwill Ambassador of Japanese Cuisine?
I’ve had the opportunity to visit various places in China, and I’ve also given a Japanese cooking class in Paraguay. The title of that class was “Sushi,” actually. It goes to show how deeply sushi has taken root. I taught them about what the typical Japanese course meal entails, but in the Q & A session at the end, they asked me to teach them how to make nigiri sushi. For sushi, you use a variety of knives in different methods depending on the ingredients, and I realised just how central sushi is in people’s image of Japanese cuisine. That was a valuable moment for me.
Besides those experiences, I also offered sampling sessions and received feedback face-to-face at places like embassies and shopping malls. It was indeed a great pleasure to hear how much people in other countries enjoyed Japanese cuisine.
Is there anything you keep in mind in your work, or a goal you’d like to achieve in the future?
At Yoshimura, we also offer lunch and bento (lunch box) menus—we believe that people don’t necessarily have to pay a high price to enjoy excellent Japanese cuisine. I always think about the highest level of meal I can offer, making the best use of the subtle techniques and ways of using ingredients that are specific to Japanese food. Chefs of Japanese cuisine have mastered many different techniques, so I hope to create such courses that will captivate the taste buds of our diners.