I wrote this story a year ago with my friend Reiko Sagioka. It's about one of my absolute culinary heroes in Japan, a legendary chef named Hisao Nakahigashi. I've had the great priviledge to get to know Nakahigashi-san over the past few years, and learn from him.
At seven thirty on an overcast morning chef Hisao Nakahigashi tramps along a berm between freshly-turned fields in rural Ohara, Japan, a twenty minute drive from Kyoto. A double-billed Deerstalker planted on his head, he wears a yellow rain slick and tan pants tucked into black Wellingtons. He soon spots a damp embankment choked with grass and weeds.
To Mr. Nakahigashi this patch is Mother Nature's version of the Dean & Deluca produce isle: He drops to hands and knees, and shops. He carefully eases white bulbs out of the black dirt with an old butcher knife. He swings a hand-held scythe to slice off tender shoots and buds that look like tiny, tan-colored asparagus crowns. He clips bright green leaves -- and pops a few into his mouth.
His gray plastic basket fills with his harvest: Clover, aster, mugwort, horsetail and wild onion. Noninjin shoots that taste like carrots, suito, a sour lettuce, and spicy nazuna leaves.
In these wild vegetables you find the soul of Mr. Nakahigashi's eponymous Kyoto restaurant, a twenty eight-seat establishment with up to a five month waiting list.
That's a tough reservation even for a four-star New York chef.
A friend helped get him a seat the first time, said Masa Takayama from his rarified Times Warner Center eatery a world away. That dinner, three years ago, got his attention. A culinary kinship was born.
"We're looking for the same things," said Mr. Takayama. "I don't want to touch, cook too much; I don't want to do anything." Mr. Nakahigashi shares this unfussy feeling about food, he said. "I love his style."
Mr. Nakahigashi's cooking style, which he calls So-Jiki, "Eating Leaves," riffs on Japan's iconic multi-course kaiseki cuisine. But he thinks inside this particular box: He makes tradition his own -- modestly, as the name suggests -- by subtly coaxing flavors from humble wild and local artisanal ingredients.
You sense the umami in his cooking, explained Mr. Takayama. This so-called "sixth taste," is to a Japanese chef what 'inner voice' is to a piano virtuoso: The music he makes between the notes that lifts a concerto -- or cuisine -- into the sublime.
Mr. Nakahigashi takes inspiration from old, nearly-forgotten Japanese eating traditions, said Mr. Takayama. "People come from all over Japan to eat his stuff. No one else does it."
A light drizzle falls as Mr. Nakahigashi loads his wild harvest in Ohara into his silver Toyota "Boxy" passenger van. White fog dances over mountains and ravines thick with cedar across the country road. Japanese-style farmhouses, their gray-colored clay-tiled roofs and white siding slick with rain, stand solemnly besides the fields. Except for the occasional panel truck or subcompact whizzing by, the morning is still. You smell the rich, fertile soil.
"I soak in the scenery and the seasons here and I feel their spirit," Mr. Nakahigashi explained. 52-years-old, fit, of medium build, he has a soothing way about him. He speaks in a quiet voice and laughs gently. His eyes are thoughtful and sharp. He drives here from the city every morning, he said. "I give my customers all the spirit I feel here."
His own spirit he said comes from his culinary mentor -- his mother. "Traditional homemakers of her generation had their own plots and grew their own shokuzai (ingredients)," Mr. Nakahigashi explained. She taught him how to cook, he said, by taking cues from her shokuzai and the wild plants she collected.
"I never apprenticed," he said. He cooked instead at his family's storied ryokan, or traditional inn. "Because I didn't go anywhere I had more of an opportunity to have a conversation with the shokuzai."
"I don't pick only the best condition of each material," he explained. "Foods like shiitake tell me how they want to be eaten," he said. "I always get one certain type of shiitake but depending on the seasons it comes older or drier so I adjust my cooking to each condition." Otherwise, he said, "the shiitake would be upset, I would think."
Mr. Nakahigashi navigates his Boxy along a winding mountain road to a local farm. Visiting the people who grow his food is part of his morning routine. "Each farmer puts his own character into the shokuzai," he explained.
He pulls into the courtyard of the Tazuru home, a family that plants vegetables in an urban plot in northern Kyoto. Along one wall, leeks, turnips, carrots and onions stack neatly in green plastic milk crates. Handwritten signs announce the prices; neighbors buy on the honor system. Mr. Nakahigashi picks up a flat of strawberries the Tazurus grow just for him. Then it's back to the restaurant by nine.
By lunchtime only the healthy glow of his face betrays Mr. Nakahigashi's morning ritual. He's now dressed in the formal style of Kyoto chefs: full-length white apron, crisp white cotton tunic over white button-down shirt and green tie, and white chef's cap. His room is unadorned and brightly lit. The hubbub of tourists outside heading to a popular temple nearby -- and unaware of this place -- melts away. A dozen of his luckiest customers sit along a cedar dining counter finished in burgundy lacquer. The chef works on the other side.
There is no menu here; Mr. Nakahigashi cooks a six or eight-course lunch from some thirty wild and artisanal ingredients. The meal begins with the hassun, an appetizer of small tastes, simply prepared: grilled whole baby sea bream; mochi rice ball wrapped in wasabi leaf; tiny marinated squid; octopus tentacles; fiddlehead fern sprinkled with dried milk; and a slice of a paper-thin omelet rolled like a savory Yule Log around an orange dab of egg yolk pickled in miso. The ingredients are delicately arranged on a rectangular oatmeal-colored ceramic dish. Next to it a porcelain cup holds dandelion flowers and leaves, and horsetail and other wild greens steeped in a subtle fish broth.
The chef delivers the courses and explains each one. Bitter young shoots and leaves transmit a feeling of the spring season. Shaved air-dried venison and local carp celebrate this inland city's culinary history. Customers lean in to listen when he speaks. Some, who waited so long for this meal, quietly scribble notes. A twenty-something woman dining solo at a leisurely pace and dressed in a classic indigo kimono asks the chef questions.
What Mr. Nakahigashi considers his signature dish arrives at the finish. He cooks it in a handmade, traditional scarlet-colored clay oven -- the size of a washer/dryer set side by side -- that he calls Okudo-san for respect, like calling it Revered Oven. It's stationed prominently, right behind where he works.
With his Okudo-san he makes the two ingredients for this dish, as well as the point of his cooking: Rice, gurgling under an earthenware lid, and grilled mezashi, anchovy-sized fish.
Back at his New York restaurant, Masa Takayama -- who also owns an Okudo-san -- explained: "He tries to express how good just this piece of anchovy grilled perfectly is, then the perfectly steamed rice." Simplicity, taste, tradition. "We forgot a long time ago how good this is."
Other chefs try to get fancy, said Mr. Takayama. But for Mr. Nakahigashi the flavors of his rice, mezashi, wild greens and other shokuzai are enough. "That was just regular Japanese food," said Mr. Takayama. The food of Mr. Nakahigashi's mother.