As a mercenary chef — jumping from kitchen to kitchen, to help out for a few days or to just observe — I've picked up new and interesting ways to approach the things I've done so many times before. Even the best dish from the best chef needs an occasional reworking. Last year's plates and presentation sometimes give a dated look to the table. And an outside chef in the kitchen can learn as well as inspire new takes on old food.

The same updating is required with classic dishes, no matter what the cuisine. For a while sosaku restaurants — the Japanese equivalent of fusion restaurants — were all the rage. As that fad is on its way out (we hope), we are seeing the rise of places that call themselves Nouvelle Japanese. Rather than fusion confusion on a plate, I am seeing some slimmed-down but flavored-up elegant dishes. This version of the classic Japanese steamed-egg custard is just one of those dishes.

Chawan mushi (literally "steamed cup") is a classic dish found at most sushi restaurants in its vernacular form (see Japan Times, Oct. 21, 2001), or in a spruced-up version like the one below, served at finer kappo-style restaurants and in kaiseki presentations. It is not terribly hard to make at home, and it's a good excuse to buy the beautiful lidded cups made exclusively for this dish.