Kohaku, located in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka district, has been awarded three Michelin stars two years running, in 2016 and 2017. Each visit to this restaurant rewards diners with new and exciting discoveries, and its revolutionary take on Japanese cuisine draws visitors from around the globe. We spoke to owner Koji Koizumi, whose cuisine opens up a brand new culinary world.
Fresh Ingredients, Fresh Possibilities,
In Pursuit of a Brand New Style of Japanese Cuisine
While I am always open to exploring new possibilities at Kohaku, it is important that the ingredients we use fit with the established principles of Japanese cuisine.
There are almost limitless ways to combine these ingredients in all sorts of delicious ways. I wouldn’t dare to deny the splendor of traditional Japanese cuisine. However, my passion is for incorporating non-traditional ingredients into Japanese cuisine in ways that feel absolutely authentic.
New Stories Born from Dashi
There’s a simple secret to integrating punchy ingredients like caviar and shark fin into Japanese cuisine: dashi. Ingredients from any corner of the world soon take on a distinctly Japanese character and aroma when soaked in the skipjack tuna and kelp dashi we use on a daily basis at Kohaku.
Seasonality is also vitally important. Dashi always serves as my base when I’m experimenting with new combinations; that’s my style.
In order to create the most flavourful dashi, I use water sourced from Shirakami-Sanchi, which has some of the softest water in the world. Water is always an essential part of cooking, and I believe the character of Shirakami-Sanchi’s water is perfect for drawing out the flavour of the kelp and skipjack tuna flakes Kohaku’s dashi is based on. It also pairs well with the ingredients that form the foundations of our dishes. I actually sent away for water from all over Japan in order to find the perfect one for us. It took a good deal of testing, but Shirakami-Sanchi’s water eventually emerged as the winner.
A New Genre of Japanese Cuisine, Unique to Kohaku
My style of incorporating fresh, surprising ingredients into Japanese cuisine was born from a desire to create an original style of cooking that could be found nowhere else but my restaurant. These days, many restaurants across Japan take up this challenge and we now have a fusion style of Japanese cuisine known as sōsaku washoku. However, back in 2008, when I opened Kohaku, there were very few restaurants experimenting with non-traditional ingredients like foie gras and caviar. This was why I thought that if I really wanted to challenge myself, I should try to create a brand new genre, a style no-one else was attempting.
I don’t intend any slight against traditional restaurants like Kagurazaka Ishikawa. It’s just that I always want Kohaku to offer Japanese cuisine that is totally unique.
Seasonality is Key for Sensational Flavour
At Kohaku, we never offer the same menu year to year. We’re constantly updating with new dishes and new ingredients.
The reason for this is that I myself am constantly evolving as a chef. Every year brings me a new range of experiences, and I want that to be reflected in my cooking. I’m always trying my hand at new things, always trying to move forward. Based on my accumulated experience, I use my judgement to select and present customers with the very finest each season has to offer.
Sashimi served at Kohaku comes with our secret recipe jelly, made with a variety of herbs and spices, rather than the traditional soy sauce and wasabi. We offer a variety of combinations and arrangements of sashimi, and our jelly has become known as one of our specialities.
There are dozens of ingredients which, at a glance, seem a million miles away from Japanese cuisine. Once you begin experimenting, however, you soon find that the scope for creating delicious flavour combinations is much broader than you expected.
One of Kohaku’s specialities is sweetfish, arranged in such a way that it seems to be leaping into a cylindrical pot. The sauce is made with a truffle and dashi base, to which we add milk, a little butter, and a light soy sauce. It looks like a typical white sauce, but its flavour is unmistakably Japanese. It was truly eye-opening to discover how beautifully the distinct bitterness of sweetfish paired with the truffle.
Even for dessert, I don’t settle for serving a simple dish of fruit. I am always searching for new ways to arrange the best of the season’s produce. Currently, I’m in the process of trialling a new watermelon dessert.
I first strain azuki beans to create a cold soup-like base. To this I add ripe watermelon, water shield, and salted ice with the aroma of toasted mochi. Water shield isn’t an ingredient typically used in desserts, but I think it makes an excellent addition with its smooth, slippery texture and fresh aftertaste. And there’s nothing like watermelon with a little salt, of course. I put just as much care into my desserts as I do into my main dishes, always searching for interesting ways to combine various textures and aromas.
One pitfall I am always careful to avoid is making my desserts too sweet. The sweetness should be pitched just right to pleasantly round off a Japanese meal. I also pay close attention to the overall arrangement of the dessert, aiming to highlight contrasts. I’m very grateful to the many customers who tell me they look forward to my desserts.
The Sense of Beauty Inherited from my Mother
I clearly remember the events that led me to becoming a chef of Japanese cuisine. I had a friend in high school who decided to go to a cookery school; we went to visit it together. While on the trip, we visited a number of high-class restaurants. This was my first real encounter with traditional Japanese cuisine.
To be frank, at the time, I didn’t have any strong feelings towards Japanese cuisine at all, because I had never tried it. I didn’t really understand what it was.
However, I clearly remember how moved I was by the level of care taken in its presentation. Every aspect of the meal, from the selection of dishware, the arrangement of the dishes, and the decorative flora, was carefully chosen to evoke a sense of the season. I found that so beautiful. I knew there and then that this was the kind of work I wanted to create in future.
My mother loved traditional culture such as kimono, tea ceremony, and flower arranging. On weekends and holidays, she would often take me to art galleries, exhibitions of traditional crafts, and so on. I’m sure that also had a significant influence on me.
Japanese cuisine is a microcosm of traditional Japanese culture; that’s why seasonality is such a crucial part of its presentation. There have been many moments since I became a chef when I’ve felt the influence of that traditional culture upon my own sense of aesthetics.
I still enjoy visiting small exhibitions and antique shops. The experience of appreciating beautiful objects other than dishware is very important, I think, as is seeing these objects in the flesh, not just on a page or screen. This is something I keep in mind in my daily life.
A Restaurant Brimming with Art
When I opened Kohaku, I commissioned decor and artwork from Kenichi Takanaka. While opting not to offer private dining rooms, I wanted to create a relaxed atmosphere for my customers, free from any stiffness or formality. The interior was designed to be a visual treat to compliment the cuisine, a graceful yet warm space.
The overall interior design is the work of Yoshihiro Hirotani from Archivision. The concept was a surprising space, outside of anything customers might encounter in daily life. Hirotani did a superb job of translating my ideas into physical forms.
The Group is a Family
We in the Ishikawa Group have been working so closely and so long now that our relationships go way beyond mere colleagues; we’re family. Hideki Ishikawa was head chef at the first restaurant I worked at after graduating, so we go back an especially long way. I consider him my mentor.
Within Kohaku, too, the team all support each other like family. Customers notice when you have great teamwork and mutual respect between the staff. Unless everyone is motivated, fulfilled, and enjoying their work, I don’t think you can even hope to create a happy atmosphere for your customers. I want Kohaku to be somewhere my employees will always feel glad to be a part of.