A trip to the Hoshinoya Hotel in Kyoto would not be complete without sampling the seasonal delights of Head Chef Ichiro Kubota. Hailed to have successfully achieved “umami," this Kyoto native uses unconventional ingredients and flavours to seduce his diners. It is no wonder he achieved his first Michelin star at the age of 31, whilst working as the executive chef in London’s Umu, a Kyoto inspired Michelin star restaurant in Mayfair.
We spoke with Kubota to hear of his inspirations, motives, and an answer to the ever-pressing question; “What exactly is Umami?”
Your father was a chef. Was he your main inspiration to become a chef growing up? At what age did you know that you wanted to follow in his footsteps and what was your main motivation?
My father influenced me a lot to be a chef, but on the other hand, my grandfather influenced me the most. He was a dentist but also a gourmet chef, he took me to so many restaurants and I learned a lot from them. He normally chose French or Italian, especially his favourite restaurant, Rose Room in Hiroshima - which has since closed. This was the restaurant that gave me my first sensational memory through its cuisine. The most memorable dish was corn potage, it was this dish that inspired me to be a chef.
Our trip to Kyoto was inspiring, historic quaint and every moment felt like a special moment to be savoured and devoured. I feel this translates in your dishes. Do you draw inspiration from Kyoto and how do you translate this on to the menu?
I am not conservative when it comes to my cuisine. I’m not very careful when it comes to Kyoto history, since Japanese cuisine itself cannot be talked without elements of Kyoto. Cuisine is always developed or renovated with historical and cultural backgrounds. For example when Kyoto was the capital, we had been in central in meaning of police authority, we could gain anything we want, if it switch to culinary story, we could gain any ingredients and techniques from anywhere we want. In conclusion, as long as I cook Japanese cuisine, we at least use Kyoto indigenous ingredients and condiments, and it will finally refers to indigenous historical and cultural matters.
What is the most traditional local dish you serve?
Local food is vegetable perhaps. As I explained as above, we have so many indigenous innovated elements on our cuisine, so as vegetables such as Kamonasu egg plant, Manganji sweet green pepper, Murasakizukin soy beans, Kujo spring onion, and so on.
We do not serve typical Kyoto dish however we do serve dishes using those Kyoto peculiar natural blessings.
The seasonal course menu we sampled was a unique dining experience; please explain to our readers the importance for you of serving seasonal dishes in your restaurant.
The 4 seasons are very important for Japanese cuisine, in our doctrines, in spring we cherish the taste of bitterness, in summer we cherish the taste of coolness, in autumn we cherish the taste of aroma, in winter we cherish the taste of warmth. We express those through our cuisine by coordinating its colours, temperatures, and core flavours. And also, we have ritual ceremonies belonging to Shintoism and Buddhism monthly, we have to consider to use specific ingredients to suggest them in our tasting menu. For example, girl's day March 3, we have to use clam, since clam has two shells, those shell will never be fitted if one of the shells mixed with other shell from other clam. This is meant to be the harmony of married couple. Husband and wife. Since girl’s day, we celebrate the matureness and happy growth of the girl.
You have worked in restaurants all over the world, most notably as executive chef at Umu in the UK where you earned your fist Michelin star. You then moved to Hoshinoya; why did you make this move?
The move from London to Japan was simple, I am a bit tired of being in London and plus, I was afraid of losing my real Japanese culinary techniques. Since I could not get some ingredients which require special techniques, I could not use them for a long time. However, these days, I miss London a lot.
In your own words what makes Hoshinoya so unique?
Hoshinoya Kyoto is unique, since I am the head chef who has seen so many different worlds, and working experiences. The answer will be simple like this.
What is umami?
Umami is defined as the 6th sense of your palate, or essential amino acids such as glutamic acid or inocilic acid from nucleic acid. But for me, it is the memory of breastfeeding on your tongue as an original flavour. It is the neutral point in the harmony of the five senses of taste
What is your culinary philosophy?
Focusing on persistency is my passion and I have clear picture for my dishes. First is taste, and second is aesthetic.
Finally, what would you recommend to our readers from your menu? If this is based on a seasonal selection, please explain why this season is the best time of year to visit Hoshinoya.
I do not choose one of the four seasons over another. Each month has its own unique character, its own ingredients, and techniques. The view from Hoshinoya is so different each season, so you can only imagine how our cuisine will differ. Please look forward to it.
Images Courtesy of Jorge Abian and Hoshinoya Hotel
Words by Erin Fee
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