Food & Drink | KYOTO RESTAURANTS

Kei Yoshioka: More than a dash of personality

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Chef and owner Kei Yoshioka, 37, spent three years transforming a former pawn shop into a restaurant. When it was finally ready to open in early 2017, Yoshioka christened his creation Maker — a fitting name given how much of his time and personality have gone into metamorphosing a simple one-room operation into one of Kyoto’s most distinctive and personal restaurants.

Yoshioka’s personality is imbued in the details: the Remington cash register; the lattice of red electric wiring along the walls lined with dried flowers and herbs; the collection of dishes built up over a lifetime, some with imperfect little wabi-sabi chips; the homemade coriander-based mustard.

“I could have created the restaurant faster if I hadn’t worked alone,” Yoshioka says, standing in the kitchen of Maker, overlooking the single table that is the centerpiece of the room. He says this as a matter of fact, without regret.

After graduating high school, Yoshioka proceeded to art school, where he studied sculpture. He worked his way through college as a waiter, an unsurprising move considering the professions of his close family. Yoshioka’s parents ran a catering business back in Kyotango, in Kyoto Prefecture, near the Sea of Japan, and his four siblings have all ended up in the food industry in some capacity. Food is clearly in the blood.

“I never thought about going down the route of job-hunting and settling down to work with one company,” Yoshioka says. “But, ever since university, I had this vague idea that I wanted to have my own restaurant.”

While we talk, Yoshioka prepares hummus, which on its own is reason enough to visit Maker. For a dish that has huge global appeal, it hasn’t made much of a dent in Japan and it’s a rare treat at restaurants here. Yoshioka got to liking hummus when he was traveling in the U.K. where his wife lived for a period. He serves a rich, creamy spread topped with cumin and is generous with the portions.

Another thing you’ll notice at Maker is the flow. As with most kappō restaurants — where the chef and cooks are up front and within conversation distance of customers — Yoshioka’s kitchen is within touching distance of the diners, who sit at one end of a 10-seater table made from Japanese zelkova wood. Spanning out from its center is a decorative organic ornament: club moss, its tentacles running across the smooth surface of the table.

Apart from two “date seats” tucked off in an alcove, this is the only table at Maker. “The idea behind the single table is that I wanted it to be like a dining table at home,” says Yoshioka. “I want it to be a borderless space.”

Yoshioka doesn’t go so far as Tan, a similar-sized restaurant in Kyoto’s Gion district, which also consists of only one table, but where patrons share from communal dishes as if at a picnic. But Yoshioka does see dining as something that is communal. He’s careful not to push things, though, mindful that there are diners who want to enjoy each other’s company and not that of strangers.

If the theme of the restaurant is hard to pin down — some diners claim a maritime connection owing to the heavy metal lamps hanging over the table — the food menu is more clearly themed: Yoshioka goes for vegetables, spices and herbs. Where and when possible he tries to source organic produce, and complements this with a natural wine menu.

After the hummus we try a simple but supreme dish that consists of eggplant and grapes sourced from Kyotango, where Yoshioka often returns to forage for vegetables and plants. The ingredients were marinated in balsamic vinegar and are served with basil infused with a hint of anise.

A final, meaty dish comprises roasted Australian lamb served with homemade mustard and a watercress salad. For a self-taught cook, Yoshioka relies on preternatural talent, evident in the coriander-based mustard that’s mixed with lemon peel and lemon thyme. The lamb chop is great, but the little dollop of mustard is an unexpected revelation.

In the three years Yoshioka labored to get Maker up and running, he had a lot of time to think: “I spent a lot of time here, alone, and I would overthink, my thoughts going round in circles.”

Whatever mental gymnastics he performed, the result is formidable. And the Saiin district, just west of Kyoto’s city center, where Maker is located, remains an overlooked gem.

Saiinsanzo-cho 49, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 615 0021; 075-950-0081; www.makerkyoto.com; open Wed.-Sun. & 6 p.m.-midnight.; lunch service on Fri. & Sat. 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m; menu a la carte; nonsmoking; English menu, some English spoken