The Hot Seat: Kunio Tokuoka

Kyoto trad-cuisine master wants to touch his diners

The Hot Seat: Kunio Tokuoka

Illustration: Haruna Nitadori

Kunio Tokuoka, the master chef behind Kyoto’s Kitcho, opened his first overseas venture on May 2, 2010. The eponymous restaurant is located in the Crockfords Tower of Singapore’s Resort World Sentosa. Tokuoka has been manning the helm of his late grandfather Teiichi Yuki’s Kitcho since 1995. For the last fifteen years he has been preserving the traditions of his grandfather’s legacy while at the same time actively nurturing a new generation of Japanese chefs. He’s also been hosting umami themed events in London and California.

2005 saw Tokuoka participating in a Madrid Fusion, a mega-symposium of the world’s foremost chefs and culinary experts, who had come together to share cuisine’s most cutting-edge technology and techniques. He was entrusted with overseeing the dinner party for the prime minister’s delegation to the 2008 G8 Summit. In 2009 his Kyoto Kitcho Arashiyama was honoured with three stars in the Kyoto/Osaka edition of the Michelin guide. On May 26, 2010 he collaborated with Keisuke Matsushima at the latter’s Shinjuku area Restaurant-I, delighting the lucky throngs with their fusion of French and Japanese cuisine. (And yes that is the same Keisuke Matsushima whose original Nice, France restaurant garnered a Michelin star five years running.) Time Out Tokyo talked with Tokuoka about the source of this energy of his that supports him in so many different endeavours.

So what kind of restaurant is Kunio Tokuoka?
KT: Well, I’ve always provided the trademark and the know-how; but now it’s my name that’s up there on the front door, so you’d better believe that I’m going to be in charge of every little decision that’s going to be made. For example, the entire staff – everyone – they’ve all worked at Kitcho for at least a year, and they had to get my personal stamp of approval to make it to Singapore. Now for the interior design – I got the plasterer Shuhei Hasado to do the mud walls, and the designer Eriko Horiki to make these objets d’art with Japanese paper. The moss – the moss is by bonsai artisan Kenji Kobayashi. Moss normally grows on the underside of things, but Kobayashi was able to get us these orbs of moss sprouting up like popcorn. We’ve got this Japanese lacquer chandelier. We had it made from all these black and vermillion crescents assembled together until they took on a three-dimensional shape.

It sounds like all the raw materials you’ve used are traditional Japanese materials, but that you’ve used them in new ways…
KT: The other day I saw this retrospective about the Hubble space telescope; it was about how galaxies are formed. There are a lot of galaxies besides the one that Earth is in, and all of these galaxies are expanding, spinning about, and they even bump into each other from time to time. When two old galaxies bump into each other, this new bit splits away from where they bumped, and an entirely new galaxy is formed. So while I’m watching this, I’m thinking about how that’s kind of like what happens with mergers and acquisitions. You sort out your current state of affairs, slap together two companies, and create something new that’s better suited to the current time period. It’s the same with people too. It takes two people to make a child, but the child isn’t exactly the same as either of his or her parents. Now you might think that you get a new whole thing by combining half of one thing and half of the other thing, but that’s not actually the case. One side is going to take control. One side is going to have a competitive edge over the other. One colour of dye is going to be the dominant colour in the dying process, so to speak. During the election campaign, President Obama kept talking about ‘change’, but change isn’t really what’s important. What’s important is that one adapts oneself to what’s to come – and for that very reason I’d say that the interior of my Singapore restaurant is practical rather than exorbitant. In it, there’s a fusion of my history and my past experiences. Everything’s done in a new way, but there’s also this familiar feeling to it, and I think that that’s a very important element, that familiarity.

You’ve branched away from cooking and are now developing all of these genre-defying collaborations with all sorts of different people. So what was the impulse that drew you out from your kitchen?
KT: It helped that Kitcho was on the verge of bankruptcy. [Laughs] My grandfather Teiichi Yuki was the founder of Kitcho, and the thing you need to know about my grandfather is that if he insisted that something was white, it was white, even if it was actually black. Now up until the bubble burst that was fine, but after the bubble burst that was a terrible way to go about doing business. Everything that made Kitcho work, everything that made the brand name Teiichi Yuki work, just suddenly stopped working. It just wasn’t possible to keep having blind faith in everything like you always had been. The problem is that everyone else in the Kitcho organisation still had blind faith in it. And then there’s me, standing out like a sore thumb, and I didn’t have faith in it anymore. For one thing, to begin with, I never really wanted to be my grandfather’s successor. I was in this band at the time – I was the drummer – and I really thought that I was going to be a professional musician, so I had all these friends who were quite removed from the world of cooking. I’d talk with these friends and they wouldn’t make me feel very good about what I was doing with my life.

What do you mean?
KT: Up until the bubble burst traditional Japanese restaurants were these shady places, no one knew what was really going on; they were completely shrouded in mystery. There were all these corrupt politicians, and assorted other unsavoury characters who were all living in this dream world. But Kitcho also became a place where normal people could splurge for one evening and create a new special memory. To this end I set up a website for the restaurant. Now at this stage I was still just in the kitchen, I didn’t have much pull, and my superiors for the life of them couldn’t figure out what I was trying to accomplish. They’d snap at me to ‘get back in the kitchen and work harder’, or to ‘go tidy up the gardens’. But if you don’t let the customers know you’re there, they aren’t going to come. You have to do something about what you want getting done. The restaurant was half bankrupt, we were already over the cliff and hanging only by a finger or two, so it really wasn’t the time to be nit-picking. You have got to come up with a course of action for dragging yourself back up from the precipice. You need to figure out what is going to bring results. I consulted with all sorts of people, which rapidly increased my circle of connections. Of course I bumped heads with a few people in the process, but I was rapidly branching out. I became a more aggressive person out of this necessity. In the end I was pressured into returning to Kitcho, which drove me to drink. [Laughs]

How do you train your staff these days?
KT: When the restaurant was going through tough times I’d have these philosophical conversations with all of them about why we were even bothering to keep going. Customers were paying ¥50,000 a pop, so of course the food was delicious. Yeah – but why did we keep going? We talked on and on about this to the point of obsession; We tried out all sorts of ideas, and in the end we realised that the restaurant’s theme was genuinely touching. Kitcho existed for the sole purpose of allowing people to experience what it tastes like to be genuinely touched to the verge of tears. I wanted everyone to just smile and actually talk to one another. Real, honest to goodness communication was born, amongst our customers, and amongst my staff. Err, I’m making it sound like I’m in direct competition with Disneyland! [Laughs]

But it seems as if you’ve put so much thought into it that you’ve moved beyond just food, and beyond just entertainment, to the very heart of what it means to be a person.
KT: People. People do things in order to have an impact on other people. They really try, and it’s quite important to them. No matter what country he or she is from, everyone’s the same. Even this idea of what it means for something to be delicious, with a little bit of room for interpretation, it’s all the same. There’s some variation in what kind of spices people like, and how much they use, but if you come up with a fusion of different people’s ideals of ‘delicious’, then you’re sorted. Yeah, I’m definitely on to something when I say that people want to do things to help other people. Even as individuals. People want to be an indispensable part of their environment. It’s not because they appreciate this in its own right. It’s because they want to be appreciated by the other people in their environment. Love’s probably the same. You appreciate your partner, and your partner appreciates you. It’s all a matter of give and take, which allows the relationship to keep working. But if the balance gets thrown out of whack, it’s going to end in emotional bankruptcy. That’s the way everything is, business affairs, affairs of the heart, even the environment, all as if by some sort of interstellar providence.

In parting can you suggest any good spots for cheap eats in Kyoto?
KT: Do you like yakitori? There’s a great restaurant called Wabiya Korekidou. Or what about Italian? You should check out Vineria t.v.b. And for great deserts there’s always Tokuya.

Oh, and one last thing. Earlier you said that when you were younger you played the drums, right? Do you mind my asking why you went with the drums?
KT: My friends and I started this band because we thought it would get us somewhere with the ladies. Naturally, to the most talented of us went the guitar. Next in line came the bass. And then there was me – who had no talent to speak of. I was left with the drums. [Laughs]

By Akiko Toya
Translated by E. Kavanagh
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.



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