In 1963, Hiroyuki Kanda was born as the eldest son of a family running a high-class Japanese restaurant in Tokushima prefecture. After graduating from senior high school, he trained in traditional Japanese cooking for five years in Osaka, then moved to France. In Paris, he served as the chef of a Japanese restaurant for five years. Upon returning to Japan, he worked at the celebrated Japanese restaurant Aoyagi in Tokushima and Basara in Akasaka, Tokyo, before becoming independent in 2004. Now thriving as the owner and chef of Kanda in Toranomon Hills, Tokyo, he creates dishes that remain faithful to orthodox Japanese cuisine but with his own imaginative flourish. He shared with us his wide-ranging perspectives on the subjects he is most interested in.
“The same ingredients you’d find in Japan had such different flavours”
The restaurant Kanda, which has been winning three stars in the Michelin Guide Tokyo for many years in a row, is a minimalistic. Since the chef is attentive to everything that goes on in this space, there is no menu set down on paper. Instead, he serves the meal and the drinks that are perfectly tuned to each individual guest, in impeccable timing.
Although the world of Japanese cuisine gives the impression of being conventional, Kanda is different. He strongly believes it needs to be flexible enough to reflect the changing times and to appeal to an international audience.
He had the same stance when he was an apprentice: rather than cling to Japan, he set off for Paris at twenty-three. “At the time, I had the idea that Japanese cuisine should incorporate ingredients from overseas and absorb foreign techniques. So I decided that it would be quicker for me to go there myself and learn directly, instead of waiting for the information to come to me.”
Kanda places great emphasis on the material for cooking, and it was the culinary ingredients in Paris that left a deep impression on him. “The same kinds of vegetables or fish you’d find in Japan had such different flavours. This made me review all the ingredients that we use at the restaurant. I also travelled to various places in France where those produce had come from, both on the coast and in the mountains, and I learned so much from that experience.”
He has held a keen interest in culinary ingredients and their production since his twenties. As a result, he is very active in supporting producers: in 2010, he joined hands with five chefs and founded the NPO “FUUDO.”
From growing rice to making sake: On sustainable production and Japan's unique culinary culture
Stimulated by encounters with people through his work, Kanda is especially devoted to programmes for the production of rice, the crop at the heart of Japanese culture.
“Every year, in the seasons for planting and harvesting, I go with more than a hundred young people to Minamiuonuma in Niigata prefecture, to help out at a rice farm that makes the rice for my restaurant.”
In addition, he has developed his own brand of Japanese sake, called “Ultra Refined Pure Sake: Produced by Kanda,” which is sold online. A luxurious sake, it is brewed from Yamada Nishiki rice grown in Hyogo prefecture. The grains are milled and polished up to fifty per cent, fermented into sake, then matured for one year at three degrees below freezing point. This new junmai-daigin’jyo-shu, or highly refined sake made of pure rice, brings out the deep umami of rice to the maximum and is a superb companion to food.
“The junmai-daigin’jyo is a wonderful kind of sake,” says Kanda. “You could say it’s one ideal form of Japanese sake. But due to reasons related to management and distribution, it often ends up on the store shelves too quickly. In many cases, people are drinking sake that have just been made.”
When Japanese sake is matured over time, the sugar content lightens and the taste settles down, giving it a deeper, more rounded flavour. However, it is difficult to store the sake during its fermentation while maintaining its quality.
“Another problem is that in Japan’s liquor tax law, you must pay tax at the time of purchase from the supplier. That’s why liquor shops in Japan tend to put the bottles up in the shop as soon as they stock them. There was no system in place to store sake properly to let it rest. So about five years ago, I worked together with a sake producer to create a new system based on advance payments, so that the Junmai Daiginjo can be matured without putting extra burden on the liquor shops.”
The label on “Ultra Refined Pure Sake: Produced by Kanda” shows Kanda’s own calligraphy, printed on the Awa washi from Tokushima prefecture. Every detail of the bottle reflects Kanda’s aesthetics. Its cap, for instance, is made using the same methods as “Satsuma buttons,” which draws on the exquisite painting technique of the traditional White Satsuma ware from Kagoshima prefecture. Each bottle is wrapped in a tenugui cloth dyed in Awa indigo.
In recent times, the restaurant industry suffered a considerable blow from the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are concerns about the loss of diverse food cultures. Kanda, with his wide-ranging perspective that includes systems of distribution and production, argues for the importance of protecting Japan’s food resources.
“Japan is a nation surrounded by the sea, and we have resources for food all around us. We should be considering a self-sufficient system of production that doesn’t rely on other countries. We should increase our self-sufficiency rate and the ratio of agricultural and maricultural products within the country. Moreover, if we keep consuming as we’ve been doing so far, we’ll likely lose our valuable resources. It’s time to think about sustainability in the ocean, the mountains, and the farms.”
Kanda’s vision spans over the future of production sites. With the firm conviction and creative energy of a craftsman and a master of culinary arts, he is realising his ideas one step at a time.
‘We’re not artists’ . The artistry born of a craftsman’s hands
Naturally, Kanda’s originality shines most of all in his culinary creations. He says that the sensibility and inspiration for his work are highly intuitive, deriving from years of experience.
“I think of cooking as something like this: you touch the ingredients with your right hand, they pass through the filter of your body, and they come out from your left hand.”
Japanese cuisine is often compared to works of art, for it integrates the colours of nature and seasonal ingredients, requiring a delicate sensibility on the part of the chef.
“We’re proud that we’re not artists, but artisans,” says Kanda, regarding his own work. “Many works of art have been created by craftspeople. Cooking, too, involves artistry. I always want to be a craftsman myself, and I hope to imbue the flavour of my cooking with artistry.”
Kanda is reaching for new heights by collaborating with a leading practitioner of a different field: he is working on building a new restaurant with the artist and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto.
“Mr Sugimoto’s sensibility, of course, is in the artist camp. We’re envisioning a new space that combines his worldview as an artist and my worldview as a chef.”
It has been about twenty years since he opened his restaurant Kanda. Internationally recognised as a chef, Kanda will be turning sixty soon. Even now, he is eager to keep creating in new ways: “I want to cook more freely, drawing on my own intuition.”
Kanda is always earnest in his approach to culinary material, and he is constantly exploring new possibilities for cooking, with a supple sensibility that is never bound by preconceived ideas. We glimpsed the essence of a craftsman of Japan who makes beauty blossom in a single dish.