KYOTO – Eiichi Takahashi, 74, was recently designated as a part of Kyoto’s intangible cultural heritage as the 14th generation owner and head chef of Hyotei, a restaurant steeped in traditional Japanese cuisine with a history dating back more than 400 years.
“Do not tinker too much with ingredients and express a sense of the season in your dishes — that’s our restaurant’s way,” said Takahashi, a master of Kyoto cuisine and “kaiseki” multicourse meals.
The Kyoto Prefecture board of education designated Takahashi as an intangible cultural asset last month.
He was trained in Tokyo and Osaka after graduating from Doshisha University in Kyoto. When he was 28, he took over his father’s restaurant following his death in 1967.
At the restaurant, just outside the main gate of Nanzenji, a Zen temple in the ancient capital, Takahashi exudes a humility that disguises his passion for cooking.
“I am a man who can only cook,” Takahashi said. But the peaceful look on his face vanishes instantly once he is in the kitchen, which hasn’t changed a bit since he was an elementary school student who came to watch his father in action.
Looking at a huge sea bream on a cutting board, he takes out a knife and slits its gill. After meticulously removing the tiny bones, he tips the knife to cut the fish into slices.
Takahashi cherishes traditions, but he doesn’t just stick to them.
“Traditions will die out if we only try to preserve them,” he said.
He has no problems making Shinjo dumplings from Challans duck, a luxury ingredient in French cuisine, and has even introduced Chinese cooking techniques into his traditional Japanese fare.
“If we make one step over the fence, it can be an innovation,” he said. “But if we make one more step, we will get complaints from our patrons — that is not the food of Hyotei.”
Takahashi has stuck to a delicate balance between tradition and creation by listening to his customers.
These days, his son Yoshihiro is in charge of the kitchen.
“I have become able to watch him cook with ease, but there is still a lot to teach him,” Takahashi said.
He also enjoys arranging flowers and plants he has grown and always keeps in mind the teachings of Sen no Rikyu, the 16th-century tea master who perfected “the way of tea” and had a significant influence on Japanese culture and manners.
“Japanese food is a combination of diverse cultural aspects,” including the selection of plates to put dishes on, the arrangement of a garden as well as hospitality, Takahashi says.
“That is why Japanese cuisine is so extensive and profound,” he adds.