If kaiseki (traditional multicourse) chefs are, as writer Junko Sakai pointed out, not unlike novelists in their approach, then perhaps it’s not surprising that certain dishes require considerable time and fine-tuning to perfect.

For two years, Shintaro Katayama worked and re-worked his version of saba-zushi, a dish that is relatively elemental: a combination of sushi rice, pickled chub mackerel and gossamer strands of konbu (kelp).

On a visit earlier this month to Rakushin — the austere Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant that Katayama, 42, opened six years ago this April — the chef served his saba-zushi. It was accompanied by an ornate sashimi plate of sea bream decorated with cherry blossoms and “snow” in the form of salt flakes.

This sakura– (cherry blossom) themed sashimi dish was clearly the showstopper on Katayama’s culinary catwalk, but the saba-zushi was, without a doubt, the most perfect balance of salt, vinegar and rice I have ever tasted.

Flexible yet respectful: Chef Katayama
Flexible yet respectful: Chef Katayama’s saba-zushi, a perfect balance of salt, vinegar and rice. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

You can tell that Katayama knows he has this dish down: He’s neither boastful, or bashful, but, like a novelist, he knows when something can’t be improved on.

Katayama was born near Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture, not a coincidence since both his parents were cabin attendants. When his father died at the age of 45, his mother moved the family to her hometown in Saga Prefecture in the far western reaches of Japan.

“If he was still alive, I might have followed his path,” Katayama says, speaking of his father.

While the path he ultimately forged is much different, Katayama acknowledges there is plenty he owes to his parents. Both had artistic sensibilities, which he says he inherited. Food also had a powerful presence during his father’s sickness.

“My mother put a lot of care into cooking, making his food more delicate,” Katayama says.

When he decided to pursue cooking, Katayama moved to Osaka where he studied at Tsuji Culinary Institute before embarking upon a 10-year period of apprenticeship at Esato, Toyonaka Sakurae and Masuda, a two-Michelin-star sushi restaurant in Osaka’s Shinsaibashi.

One of the things I am interested in with kaiseki chefs is their experience as novices — particularly as so many apprentice chefs tiptoe around senior chefs as if walking on fish scales.

Katayama is unequivocal on one aspect of his early experience: “Of course it was hard work,” he says. “But I loved the people, so it was enjoyable.

“I am the way I am right now, because I met the people I did. I was surrounded by talented people, and I wanted to be like them.”

Seasonal touches: Sea bream sashimi decorated with cherry blossoms.
Seasonal touches: Sea bream sashimi decorated with cherry blossoms. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Like many an ambitious chef, Katayama’s goal was to be able to one day hang the noren curtains on his own restaurant. It was a gamble financially, but a friend of his encouraged him to pursue his dream. The final piece in the jigsaw slotted into place when he was introduced to the space where Rakushin now stands: a former tailors down a side street in Fukushima Ward. Katayama remembers there was still remnants of fabric in the shop when he first visited. His immediate reaction was, “this is the place.”

In the years since he opened Rakushin, Katayama, together with his wife, a sommelier, has paid great consideration to wine pairings with his food.

Perhaps because Katayama is a first-generation kaiseki chef, he is both flexible and respectful when it comes to the genre’s canon. As he says, it’s important to conform to traditions, “but it’s important to think about how I can deliver the tradition to people living today.”

Part of that flexibility is being curious, especially to new encounters. This past December he joined a team of chefs for a charity fundraiser on the final day of service at Hertog Jan, a three-star Michelin restaurant outside Bruges, Belgium.

This was the second time Katayama teamed up with Belgian chef Gert De Mangeleer, a frequent visitor to Japan, and Rakushin.

Katayama also hosted Jon Arvid Rosengren, the Swedish 2016 World’s Best Sommelier Competition champion at Rakushin for a ¥100,000 full-course menu in July 2017.

Katayama is a strong believer in the ability of Japanese food to work across borders. “Japanese food is good at harmonizing with other types of food because it has a unique flow,” he says, illustrating his point with a gentle wave-like motion, signaling the ebb and flow of a kaiseki meal.

There’s one more reason to love Rakushin: the window display facing the counter and behind Katayama’s back. With what could otherwise be a dull and forgettable space used for storage, Katayama and his team have created a miniature garden space that is an absolute triumph.

Much like Katayama’s cooking.

Course menus from ¥20,000

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