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RyuGin - The Key to Connecting with Japanese Cuisine: Soul

Nihonryori RyuGin is a highly-acclaimed restaurant, awarded with three Michelin stars in the MICHELIN Guide Tokyo for ten years running. Their soulful Japanese cuisine impresses fans from all over the world with its beautiful presentation and sense of coexistence with Japanese culture. RyuGin also shined at the top of French restaurant guide ‘La Liste 2020’, ranking first place worldwide. We were given the opportunity to speak to Seiji YSamamoto, the owner of this exceptional restaurant.

One compliment determined his career as a chef

Seiji Yamamoto

“Once, when I was young, I cooked a dish that I had learned how to make in cooking class at school. My mother ate some, and said one word – ‘delicious’. That one compliment was what made me want to become a chef. I realised how happy it made me to hear someone call a dish I’d made totally from scratch ‘delicious’. It was an emotion I had never felt before.”

“From the age of sixteen, cooking was all I could think about. I’m almost certain no one else in this world loves cooking as much as I do, and I’m proud of that fact. After work each day, I would continue my training at home, and even my sleep schedule suffered as a result of how much I wanted to polish my skills. The more I enriched my learning, the more I realised that a little good food, happiness, and small discoveries can build up until they become something far bigger. I believe those concepts resonate with all things in nature.”

“This is my motto: ‘to cook is to assess’. My belief is that true cooking is determined by whether the ingredients were used with the chef’s intentions in mind. Even if you take the same steps each time, what really affects the taste is the soul that went into making that dish. Japanese cuisine in particular prizes itself on that part of the cooking process. A chef should always remember the importance of the soul of the dish, rather than getting hung up on the proper method or recipe. You have to be able to explain to the customer why you made the dish in such a way. No one can truly make a dish their own if all they ever do is imitate others. Japanese cuisine is unique in how every step of the preparation process depends on the chef’s instincts.”

On the wall of the dining room hangs a piece of calligraphy by Seiji Yamamoto. It reads “RyuGin zureba kumo okori” (“when the dragon calls, clouds gather”). Yamamoto named his restaurant with the first two characters from this Zen proverb.

“For example, the practice of cutting up the small bones in pike eels has been around in Japanese cuisine for a long time. However, I want to be able to explain to a customer in my own words as to why I cut up the eel bones. I want to share my personal knowledge of how the cut affects the size of the bones, or how it can enhance the texture and flavour. When I was twenty-five, I had the help of a doctor to investigate the scientific reason behind this phenomenon, and I got to present our research at an academic conference.”

“Food has a temporary element to it; no matter how much hard work and effort the chef puts into a dish, the journey reaches its conclusion as soon as it’s eaten. A dish with a foul taste is a dish wasted. When it comes to the taste test, it doesn’t matter what method you use to attain success. There are some benefits to deviating from textbook methods. If you cook with the constant question of ‘why am I doing this?’ in your mind, the dish you come up with will have the power to touch people’s hearts.”

“There are as many dishes as there are people who cook. Don’t forget that a chef only ever really feels happy with their work whilst a customer is eating their food. Even if you master the use of Japanese cooking utensils and polish your technical skills, you can’t call yourself a professional until the results reflect your efforts. Being familiar with the push-and-pull of the cooking process is one thing, but a chef must keep on working until they also understand that confidence and composure is what makes the dish.”

Using food to express Japan’s culture of nature and harmony

“I have my own interpretation of what constitutes ‘Japanese cuisine’ – it can be any dish that expresses the richness of Japan’s natural environment. Though humans may be able to cook, we can’t actually create the ingredients ourselves. In fact, I think the ingredients are wonderful things precisely because they’re something humans cannot physically create. In Japanese, we say ‘itadakimasu’ as thanks for the food before we eat, but it can also mean ‘to receive life’. In my cooking, I try to convey just how wonderful the raw materials we use are. Japanese cuisine is more than just cooking Japanese food in Japan. You have to make something that showcases the appeal of Japan’s natural environment to the customer.”

“I use food to represent the four seasons, and to express how precious the Gods and the blessings of nature are. I think that speaks to the harmonious spirit of the Japanese people.”

“While I am the head chef of RyuGin, I’m also the manager. I can easily give all sorts of advice concerning food, but nurturing my staff’s mental wellbeing to full health can be a very challenging task. I have a responsibility for everything that goes on at my company.”

“Food must be healthy. To make that happen, the chefs’ minds also need to be in good health. If not, I don’t think it’s possible to cook good food. Life experience and emotional strength are incredibly precious resources. When I employ new staff, I have them agree to a list of eighty rules. As the manager, I sometimes have to break bad news to my staff, though I wish I didn’t have to. I’ve found that sort of thing difficult ever since I opened the business.”

Food and fate

“In the past, I used to place a lot of importance on customer service. Then, one Saturday evening, I told a customer, ‘I hope you have a good weekend’. They replied, ‘thanks to you, I already have’. I never forgot those words. That customer left a deep impression on me; I was extremely happy. That was how I realised that my cooking is what I should be offering to the world, rather than my character.”

An ink painting featuring the Zen proverb, “RyuGin zureba kumo okori”. It decorates the ceiling of RyuGin’s main dining hall. The artist is Mayuka Eguchi.

“Cooking is really the only thing I’m good at, so I had the help of all sorts of people when I moved the location of my store and redecorated. In my experience, food was what introduced me to people in different industries and led me to my destiny. On the twenty-third of December 2003, the Emperor’s birthday at that time, I opened my Roppongi branch. Then, fifteen years later, I had the honour of moving our store location to the area surrounding the Imperial Palace. It was almost as if I’d been summoned there; fate works in mysterious ways.”

“I also believe that it is my duty to bring Japanese culture to people from other countries with my cooking. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, customers from all over the world came to eat at my restaurant. When people from other countries visit us, we have to consider the difference in culture that comes with them. The dining experience might be difficult for someone experiencing Japanese cuisine for the first time. For example, they might not know to drink soup directly from the bowl, or to not use a knife and fork with lacquerware. We try to make their time with us enjoyable; not only with the food, but also with the beauty of our premises and traditional Japanese craftwork.”

“With that goal in mind, we arrange our food on nationally certified Japanese tableware to emphasise the authenticity of our cuisine. The vigour of the potter and the sparkle of their work comes together in harmony to make a simple and sincere product. In my business, I hold on to the hope that customers will praise our food in the same way."


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