Tradition & Transcendence: The modest virtuosity of Shigeyuki Furukawa

Kaiseki // Photo by Wing Ta

The kitchen and small dining area of Kaiseki Furukawa // Photo by Wing Ta

Shigeyuki Furukawa is turning a cylinder into a plane.

I don’t know the exact geometry of it, but I do know that it looks much more like magic than like mathematics, and that it is happening before my very eyes.

With the tips of the fingers of his left hand, he is holding a peeled white daikon radish the approximate size and shape of a can of soup. In his right hand, he is holding a knife that is a cross between a chef’s knife and a cleaver, and he is turning the radish wheel clockwise against this blade, smoothly, so that a translucent sheet of radish travels over his knife, and drapes onto his cutting board in a continuous spill like paper unrolling from a spindle.

He is wearing a white chef’s jacket with loose sleeves rolled up just past his wrists. In the V-shaped frame created by the jacket’s lapels, there is displayed a large, bright bow tie that in most contexts would seem to be aiming for a kind of boyish jauntiness, but that in the kitchen of Shigeyuki Furukawa simply adds one more detail to the general air of thoughtful and painstaking formality.

When the entire radish has been unwound into a narrow scroll of vegetable paper, Furukawa, who goes by the name Shigei (SHIH-gay), cuts this scroll carefully into individual rectangular sheets with the tip of his knife, then stacks those sheets into short reams, then piles those reams onto each other, and begins slicing them into threads so eyelash thin that as his knife slides forward and back it does not appear to be traveling sideways at all, merely sawing the same path over and over.

Eventually, however, he will work his way from one end of the rectangle to the other, and what I’m trying to say is that this will generate perhaps two small handfuls of radish vermicelli, which will serve as pillowy nests to lean slices of sashimi against, and those nests will make up only one part of the garnish of one single dish in a 12-course menu he will serve later this evening, all of the rest of the courses of which will be prepared with this same level of care, and that is maybe the best way I can describe what a dinner is like at Shigei’s restaurant, Kaiseki Furukawa.

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Kaiseki is a particular kind of Japanese restaurant tradition, with roots in both simple monastic tea ceremonies and the complexities of imperial courts. Its closest Western equivalent would probably be the extended haute cuisine tasting menu. Both are built on a structure of multiple courses of mostly small, breathtakingly refined portions, stretching from light, palate awakening appetizers through a carefully-thought-out suite of main courses, and on through dessert.

Both traditions, at their best, offer the uniquely satisfying experience of placing yourself entirely in the hands of a master who will, like a great storyteller, hold you spellbound for several hours—comforting you, surprising you, guiding you pleasurably through a narrative in which each step makes logical and emotional sense, in which the overall construction has both internal and historical coherence, and at the end of which you feel sated, stimulated, cared for, and complete.

If there is a difference between kaiseki and a classic Western tasting menu, it lies primarily in how the chef perceives his or her role. In both cases the chef is an acknowledged virtuoso, but a Michelin-starred American or European restaurant is in some sense the expression of the ego and ambition of the towering figure in the kitchen. The role of the kaiseki chef, in contrast, is closer to an interpreter than a monologist. Rather than bending tradition to his or her genius, the kaiseki chef tends to live more quietly inside the house that tradition has built, creating exquisite improvised furnishings now and then, but leaving the structure largely intact.

It should also be said that there is, really, nothing in Western culinary tradition quite like the symbolic and seasonal references in a kaiseki meal.

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Shigei’s assistant Jacob has been assembling a sample of the first several courses of tonight’s meal. I’m sitting across from him at a sort of deluxe sushi bar—an entire counter made from a single tree.

The dish Jacob sets in front of me is a little masterpiece of symbolism and minimalist restraint. We are most of the way through January,  a month that both celebrates a new year, and looks forward to what that year might bring.

Accordingly, I find myself looking down at a platter of individual dishes, each with a connection to the month, the season, and the new year.

There is a dish of blanched burdock root rolled in sesame seeds—burdock being an especially deep-rooted plant, symbolizing stability and connection to home over the next 12 months. Next to that is a little Lego stack of alternating rectangular batons of white radish and orange carrot. The carrot has been cooked in orange juice and gardenia seeds to deepen its color to nearly red—red and white being traditional Japanese colors of celebration.

Photo by Wing Ta

Photo by Wing Ta

Next to this is a handmade ceramic bowl containing beans whose proper Japanese name also means “diligence.” As both a new year’s wish that diligence might be part of my life, and as an example of diligence itself, these beans have been simmered for three days, in three separate changes of syrup, with such expertise that they have somehow reached an almost impossibly swollen plumpness without any burst or wrinkled skins. They are tender and suggestively sweet, and I eat them one at a time, with chopsticks, ingesting, along with the beans, tiny flakes of edible gold leaf that have been sprinkled over the preparation—a symbolism obvious even to this American, who has suddenly begun to feel large and unsubtle, as if all of his eating up until now has been experienced with oven mitts on his hands, and a head cold.

I am just taking my first, almost crunchy bite of marinated herring roe, and reckoning with its tidings of fertility and plenty, when Shigei brings out a plastic bin full of large green leaves soaking in water. They are kelp leaves, and this is the first step in the making of dashi, the essential Japanese broth. He explains that he will only accept kelp leaves from the cold waters of Hokkaido, in northern Japan, and that he will only soak them in mineral water, not tap water.

Thanks to Shigei, I am about to receive one of the subtlest and most satisfying taste lessons of my life.

He dips a shallow soy sauce dish in the kelp water and invites me to drink it. It tastes like ocean. Like oyster brine. Like the smell in the air that you notice when you first get close enough to the coast to hear the cry of gulls. I could drink it all day.

But he’s not done.

Next he brings a small pot of the brine to a boil on the stove. As it heats, he opens a canister and hands it to me.

“We make our own bonito flakes,” he says, as I dip my head toward a gently smoky aroma that is somewhere between the smell of fish and the smell of beef.

Photo by Wing Ta

Photo by Wing Ta

When the water reaches a boil, he turns off the heat, and scatters some bonito flakes into the water. He dips a saucer of this for me, and I blow on it and take a sip. The ocean water is now infused with the smokiness and the fishy-meaty smell of the bonito, and it tastes like the difference between vegetable stock and chicken stock. The taste receptors that recognize protein are all firing, but the bonito flavor is so subtle that I can still taste all of the ocean in my original sip of kelp brine.

He strains the broth almost right away, and then adds a healthy pinch of salt. He stirs, and dips, and hands me the saucer again.

I think of the taste of unsalted food as an experience like being on one side of a wall, with the food I’m trying to taste sitting on the other side. I can sort of sense it over there, but not all of the signals are coming through. Salt breaks down that wall, and suddenly the flavor of my food and I are in the same room together.

This is what my next taste is like. All of the flavors and aromas of the first two rounds are still there, but intensified. The broth is more purely itself—more marine flavored, more umami satisfying, more smoked-fish savory.

And then Shigei adds a tiny splash of light-colored soy sauce—custom blended, naturally, in his own kitchen—and dips a final time, and I am sipping dashi, enormously complex, monstrously simple, with all of the flavors separated in my brain by those four successive sips, and all joined together into a stock that is one thing and also all of the things that make it up.

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A week later, I will come back for an entire evening at Kaiseki Furukawa. It will be February, and as a result the entire menu will have changed, as it does every month, because the heart of kaiseki is exactly that kind of intimate connection to the evolution of the year.

My wife Mary Jo—a seasonalist without many peers—will remind me about the traditional Japanese calendar that divides the year into 72 microseasons of about five days each. The 12 courses of our meal that night will contain that kind of simple, focused attention. For a Western eater, it is almost a redefinition of what constitutes refinement and quality.

The meal is also, in its restraint, a reminder that great food (unlike good food) is sometimes about what we can’t have. It is, right now in our history, virtually always possible to buy very fresh fish of some kind. But in kaiseki, as in the very few remaining true regional cuisines, you only serve, say, fatty yellowtail in winter, because winter is the only season in which yellowtail put on fat, and, not coincidentally, winter is the season when it is most comforting to ingest the fat of animals. It is not possible to find, buy, or serve, fatty yellowtail in summer. Kaiseki celebrates this—both the abundance of seasonality, and its limitations. It celebrates what we can have and what we can’t.

The meal will turn out to be an experience unlike any other I have ever had in the Twin Cities—possibly unlike any the Twin Cities has ever had.

One of the two ideograms used to denote “kaiseki” in Japanese translates roughly as “formal occasion,” and it’s important to note that a three or four hour meal at one of the priciest tables in the Twin Cities is not for everyone, and frankly not for anyone very often. But it is an experience—when one of those occasion comes along—more likely to happen in a transcendent realm than anything else I’ve experienced as a Twin Cities eater in almost as long as I can remember. It might be the finest dining available to us at this time, in this place.

Shigeyuki Furukawa apprenticed in Tokyo for eight years. Then he cooked for eight more years in New York. Then he went back to Osaka for two more years out of fear that his palate had been unduly Westernized. Then he came to Minneapolis, and finally felt he had earned the right to open his own restaurant.

Currently, between San Francisco and New York City there is one kaiseki restaurant, on the corner of North First Street and North First Avenue in Minneapolis.

We can take this privilege lightly, if we choose, or we can, in the spirit of Shigei’s self-imposed 10-year apprenticeship, take it very seriously.

It’s a question of what you can have, and what you can’t.