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The Japanese Origins of Modern Fine Dining

How Japanese chefs and traditions have shaped global luxury cuisine for the past 50 years

At Manresa, in Los Gatos, California, a perfectly poached halibut arrives topped with an auburn, whisper-thin crisp of eggplant. At Eleven Madison Park in New York, a clambake is re-imagined as a pair of perfectly shucked clams adorned with tiny herbs and finely shaved vegetables, all served alongside earthenware teapots of veloute. At El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, a steak tartare studded with the surprise of mustard ice cream references its own long history. And at Noma in Copenhagen, an array of “green shoots” are artfully, yet seemingly casually, placed on a circular dish, evoking a precise season — the last abundance of fall.

Around the world, a single aesthetic dominates the uppermost echelons of fine dining: The courses will be small and many. The plates and vessels will be distinct, often rustic, and sometimes surprising. The elaborate plating demands precision, either to execute a clever visual joke, or to produce a heart-stopping evocation of terroir. And all of these bites tell a story — of an ingredient, a person, or a very specific place. Each of these stories is unique, but not so unique that Central in Lima cannot be compared to Gaggan in Bangkok. Where, exactly, did this intense, exacting, intellectual form of haute cuisine come from?

While no cuisine actually emerges from a point of cultural purity, the predominant narrative for the genealogy of contemporary international fine dining is that its paternity is exclusively French. The story starts something like this: In 19th-century France, the height of tableside luxury was a feast that was heavy, complex, meat-centric, and occasionally theatrical, all duck a la presse and mille feuille. This bechamel-coated hegemony prevailed until 1925 when, far from the Parisian dining capital, the chef Fernand Point opened La Pyramide in southeastern France. Breaking with tradition, Point began to explicitly build his menu around peak ingredients, seasonality, and playfulness. He pioneered the use of baby vegetables, while also keeping much of France’s emphasis on decadence: La Pyramide’s signature dish was the spectacular poularde en vessie, a foie gras-stuffed chicken cooked in a pig bladder and opened tableside.

But Point is just prologue: the story really kicks off a few decades later, when some of Point’s disciples — most notably, Paul Bocuse — create nouvelle cuisine. Propelled by the hunger for change in post-1968 France, not to mention its own trio of hype men in the form of André Gayot, Christian Millau, and Henri Gault, this new generation of French chefs exploded the remaining French culinary orthodoxies by introducing light sauces, minimal cooking times, and more artful presentation. The new movement fundamentally reshaped what it meant to cook and eat at the highest levels, especially when it came to aesthetics — though, thankfully, diners are free of its heedlessly experimental heyday of lobster dishes served with melon.

Clambake with velouté at Eleven Madison Park
Adam Goldberg / A Life Worth Eating
Scallop with fresh peas and caviar at N/Naka
Wonho Frank Lee

Missing from that tidy story are a whole host of influences, most notably where this new style of cooking came from. There’s little precedent in Europe for the lightly cooked, lightly sauced, yet intricately plated dishes, what the late writer and critic Josh Ozersky called “tweezer food,” before it appeared suddenly and decisively in France in the 1960s. A great deal of nouvelle cuisine’s innovations, in fact, paralleled classical aspects of Japanese dining, especially the movement’s emphasis on shorter cooking times; minimalist, playful plating; and a focus on extracting the essential aspects of an ingredient, rather than transforming it. Perhaps not coincidentally, from the time that French chefs began visiting Japan (and Japanese chefs began training in France) in the mid-1960s, fine dining has become increasingly like Japan’s most formal dining tradition, kaiseki.

Kaiseki is most easily defined as Japanese haute cuisine, but like many translations, that equivalence leaves out key context. For one, while European haute cuisine descended from royal court banquets, kaiseki’s cultural legacy is tied both to the dining habits of the elite and to the Zen Buddhist tradition of the tea ceremony, which highlighted the rustic and the seasonal as a meditation on impermanence. Niki Nakayama, a classically trained kaiseki chef who is currently exploring the idea of Californian kaiseki at her Los Angeles restaurant N/Naka, describes it simply, as the most formal way of dining in Japan. In her telling, the tea ceremony included food that was simple, vegan, and could be served as a snack; later, the cuisine evolved into a celebratory meal for samurai.

Modern kaiseki, whose most famous practitioners, like Yoshihiro Murata and Kunio Tokuoka, are often second- or third-generation kaiseki chefs, dates to the postwar period in Japan, and features highly structured, multi-course meals that showcase micro-seasons, where menus shift dramatically depending on the availability of ingredients. Another notable aspect of kaiseki is how visual it is, partly to showcase seasonality, and partly to delight and surprise the diner. (Yes, there’s foraging.)

While in most of the preceding sentences, one could switch out “kaiseki” for “Noma,” in kaiseki many of these practices derive from the larger Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi, an untranslatable concept rooted in the acceptance of imperfection. Nakayama explains that, as wabi-sabi applies to food, the task of kaiseki is to answer the question, “How can you make the simple things complicated, and simplify the complicated?” She offers the example of meticulously creating a dashi broth that appears totally clear, like water, but is in fact suffused with layered, complex flavors; the dish is technically demanding but humble, apparently simple and yet anything but.

Kaiseki is openly beloved and studied by many of the world’s most famous chefs, who clamber to book meals with its most revered practitioners. Many of these restaurants are nearly impossible to get into, which might be one reason why kaiseki is lesser known in the West than French cuisine — or even than high-end sushi, whose influence on the fancier side of dining has been acknowledged for decades. But its vocabulary is everywhere. “As someone who knows Japanese cuisine, I see plating [that makes] people say, ‘Oh, so innovative,’” Nakayama says. “Well, yes in some ways, but no in others. It’s much more familiar to me.”

Culinary influence is messy and often untraceable, and neither the media nor the most visible chefs have ever completely obscured Japan’s influence. But the conversation between the global fine dining and Japanese cuisine is often presented in bursts, or as generalized inspiration catalyzed by specific, French individuals.

There is one individual who played a decisive role in bringing French chefs to Japan, though: Shizuo Tsuji, a Francophile, culinary ambassador, and founder of Japan’s most well-known cooking school, which he named after himself. In 1965, shortly after Paul Bocuse received his third Michelin star, he visited Tsuji’s school (now known as Tsuji Culinary Institute), where the pair struck up a friendship; the trip led to a surprisingly outsized Japanese influence on Bocuse’s cooking. Tsuji then invited other notable French chefs to Japan, both to teach at his school but also to introduce them to Japanese cuisine.

Dish by dish, influence is difficult to prove forensically — Jean and Pierre Troisgros, two key nouvelle cuisine innovators, were already serving their famous lightly cooked salmon with sorrel in 1966, just a year after Bocuse’s visit to Japan, and in that era, every aspect of French culture was primed for radical change — but when nouvelle cuisine exploded in the late 1960s, it employed many of the key techniques and aesthetics of Japanese food. Daniel Boulud told the LA Times in 2007 that those visits, which exposed the chefs to kaiseki, inspired their adoption of the tasting-menu format — setting the terms for a vision of fine dining that is still in practice today (sorry, Julia Child).

Assorted delicacies, field caviar with maitake mush at Kitcho
Adam Goldberg / A Life Worth Eating
Sweetbreads and bitter greens at Noma
Adam Goldberg / A Life Worth Eating

In the preface to his incredibly influential (but in- and out-of-print) 1980 cookbook Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, Tsuji argued that the culinary revolution that swept through the Western world had much more to do with Japan than many of its adherents or prophets let on. “Even though they may not admit it, those arbiters of haute cuisine, the great French chefs, have come to Japan and seen with their own eyes what we do here,” Tsuji writes, “and I think I can detect something of what they have seen emerging in their nouvelle cuisine and cuisine minceur,” a variation on nouvelle.

For a sense of how radically French cooking changed when nouvelle cuisine gained traction, the eyes are often enough. There’s a notable visual transformation in how fine dining looks between Point and Bocuse, between traditional French fine dining and what became known as nouvelle cuisine. At L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, Paul Bocuse serves a dish that’s an homage to his mentor — a fillet of white fish that’s swimming in a yellow-beige sauce and served on a white plate that perfectly evokes the classic dishes of the mid-20th century — and that would never be served on a high-end menu today. At the same restaurant, Bocuse also serves a fish dish of his own invention, featuring a fillet of red mullet covered in potato “scales,” with an artful arrangement of sauce in a leaf-shaped counterpoint. The leap, from white food with white sauce on a white plate to more visual evocation, was made in less than a generation.

The early history of the interplay between Japanese and French cuisine is so muddled that some of fine dining’s most famous chefs — even ones with restaurants in France and Japan — don’t always agree on their place within it. At a conference held last winter in Tokyo by Relais & Châteaux, a global alliance of independently owned luxury hotels and restaurants, Jean-Robert Pitte, a professor of geography focused on foodways, gave a presentation on the mutual cross-pollination between Japan and Europe, especially France. After a familiar review of the historical record, he invited the audience, packed with influential restaurateurs, hoteliers, and chefs, to consider the greatest hits of fine dining over the past 30 years.

Pitte introduced key aspects of kaiseki, then flicked through a slideshow of elaborate small plates from European restaurants and catalogued how un-European they were. The precise cutting and humble vegetables that lend beauty to Michel Bras’s legendary Gargouillou of Young Vegetables, according to Pitte, was “one of the first entries of Japanese aesthetics in French cuisine.” In another slide, Pitte pointed to the spray of color and flowers in a recent dish by Pierre Gagnaire as a far cry from monochromatic French food — but very close to the rainbow of kaiseki. Traditional French cuisine, he argued, was focused on a harmony of flavors and presentation — a balanced “symphony.” Now, European chefs were cooking in a deconstructed, hyper-colorful, raw, visual style that Pitte feared was in danger of becoming soulless, either from losing its own cultural roots, or from not incorporating the specific celebration of terroir and change in the Japanese cuisine it borrowed from.

Later in the day, Bras and Gagnaire, two of France’s current culinary eminences grises, took the stage as part of another panel about Japan’s influence on French cooking. They complicated Pitte’s argument that they were deeply influenced by, and indebted to, Japanese cuisine from the start of their careers. The pair claimed that their food came first, and that their discovery of Japan came second. Gagnaire said that when he traveled to Japan after starting out as a chef, he discovered they were “soul mates,” in an improvised speech that seemed to imply the country spoke to values or qualities he already had, rather than imparting new ones.

When reached over email, Bras explained that his first vegetable menu dates to 1978, and that he conceived of the Gargouillou of Young Vegetables, featured in Pitte’s slideshow of kaiseki-esque dishes, in 1981 — but he didn’t make his first trip to Japan until 1985. Bras emphasized, both at the conference and over email, his deep love and respect for Japanese cuisine, and how its traditions had deepened his own cooking considerably. Perhaps because Japanese aesthetics travel outside the country primarily in terms of visuals and ingredients, rather than training in specific kitchens, he suggested, the influence is omnipresent but difficult to pin down, an issue not confined to French cooking. “That's a global phenomenon,” he wrote.

In contrast to Bras’s and Gagnaire’s late introductions to Japan proper, the chef David Kinch, who is a generation younger and a pillar of California fine dining best known for his restaurant Manresa, readily catalogued the myriad ways Japan had influenced him as a young chef, starting with the moment of “wonder” when he tried sushi for the first time. At the conference, Kinch described the many instances he learned from Japanese chefs and writers, from the hard work — and sharp knives — of the Japanese stages he worked alongside in Europe, to the revelations that Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking presented to him as a young cook in the 1980s.

Kinch also offered an example of how a single visit to Japan could overturn the existing order: During his time at a New York restaurant in the 1990s, he witnessed the owner return from a month in Japan “a transformed man.” The restaurant took a complete “U-turn”: The cooking times diminished, the focus shifted to color and freshness, and the era’s omnipresent white plates were shelved for more evocative cooking vessels.

The complete portrait painted by Kinch, Bras, and Gagnaire is not a single moment of disruption but a constant stream of influence. In a culinary culture where greatness — not to mention money — flows toward chefs trained in specific European lineages, it can be a source of discomfort to acknowledge the omnipresent and complex influence of an Asian culture, one often gleaned through consumption. Kinch emphasized his own struggle not to create a surface-level fusion of California and Japanese cooking, but to instead truly and deeply incorporate the values he admired into his own work.

Halibut with eggplant, lemon verbena, and licorice at Manresa
Bill Addison / Eater
Herring roe, flower, Japanese licorice stem at Gora Kadan
Adam Goldberg / A Life Worth Eating

With the rise of global chef empires and incessant travel, the era of Japan’s removed influence is ending. Certainly this is true in California, which, as Kinch noted, is on the Pacific Rim. In addition to the state’s thriving Japanese culture, chefs are now much more likely to have trained in Japan, rather than confining their interactions to eating and research trips. Besides Niki Nakayama’s N/Naka, Los Angeles also boasts its own kappo restaurant (a more casual variation of Japanese fine dining, served at a chef’s counter), by David Schlosser, who trained extensively at Japanese restaurants in the U.S. and Japan, and Single Thread, which brands itself as a Japanese-style inn whose chef, Kyle Connaughton, worked at Michel Bras’s restaurant in Hokkaido. In other words, Japan has begun to take its rightful place as anointed culinary influencer, both in Europe and especially in the U.S.

If anything though, the credit could go much, much further. Even as Japanese chefs thrive in Paris, and Japan explicitly shapes California’s fine dining culture, the role of specific Japanese people and traditions in shaping everything from nouvelle cuisine to molecular gastronomy has been lost. Sources from the 1970s more explicitly note the obvious Japanese aspects of nouvelle cuisine than contemporary accounts do; in 1975 Gael Greene roasted American food media’s tardy mania for the French craze, especially its obsession with raw fish, “as if sushi and sashimi had never existed.”

There’s a tendency in food writing right now to claim that everything in Japan is better, perfect, that Tokyo is the new Paris, or the best food city, period. Often this is in regard to foods not thought of as distinctly Japanese — Neapolitan pizza, American cocktails, wherever the hell third wave coffee came from. But the way my breath stops when I see photos of kaiseki makes me wonder if we have it a little wrong. Maybe, after decades of being half-knowingly exposed to approaches from another culture, encountering the fully contextualized version is a thrill many Western diners (mostly) can’t name. That parade of Japanese-ish plates at special-occasion dinners has left non-Japanese diners both better prepared to appreciate the original and able see what they’ve been missing.

Beyond questions of credit and fairness, digging into the philosophy of kaiseki can save globalized fine dining from its worst excesses. Those tiny yet elaborate courses of peak-season perfect ingredients are ripe for both the fetishizing gaze of Chef’s Table and the snarky eye-roll of diners weary of cliche. Too often these meals feel like a copy of a copy of a copy, a flower here and a sprig of moss there because that’s what looks cool, rather than conveying depth beyond the spectacle. Kaiseki is not just pretty or challenging — it is a meal full of jokes, references, and stories that play on the tradition’s formalized structure or the time of year. The level of thought and care that goes into kaiseki is also universal among the world’s best chefs; conceptual rigor and narrative, not unique ingredients or technical skill, are what can make this omnipresent style of dining transcendent.

The night before the conference, and Pitte’s talk, journalists in attendance were served a formal dinner at Aoyagi, a kaiseki restaurant by Hirohisa Koyama. I remember remarking at the utter perfection especially of the visual presentation, beginning with a first course, a long, narrow black-lacquer bento box lined with small, square, elegant bites. American food writers love to describe kaiseki as jewel-studded, and I can’t avoid the cliche in my own work — the meal was a treat and a treasure. But unlike jewels, the bites were not meant to last — and I appreciated their beauty, their complex simplicity, and our shared impermanence, as they slid down my throat.

Meghan McCarron is a senior editor at Eater.
Header photo of the soup course at Chihana by Adam Goldberg of A Life Worth Eating
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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