Kaiseki, the multicourse meal that is the height of refinement in Japanese cuisine, occupying a similar place to haute cuisine in French cooking, is the modus operandi of chef Hitoshi Miyazawa. As head chef of Ishizuka, a kaiseki restaurant in Melbourne, he tries to stay true to traditional Japanese cooking precepts while also catering to Australian sensibilities.
Growing up in the suburbs between Narita airport and Tokyo to parents who worked in the local government may seem like a surprising background for an international career in Japanese cooking. But Miyazawa’s interest in cooking began from an early age. It was watching episodes of the “Iron Chef” TV show as an elementary student in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, that sparked his love of food.
“As a child, I was really intrigued by the knives used by the chefs on TV. That led me to want to study food, even though my family had no connection to cooking professionally. So, I went to a culinary high school where I could get a food preparation license,” he says, adding that originally he planned to study Western cooking.
“At first I was interested in French cuisine and wanted to focus on Western food,” he recalls. “Then I decided that because I was Japanese, I should have a grounding in Japanese food.”
That decision led to Miyazawa taking an apprenticeship at Hisago, a kaiseki restaurant, now closed, located near the National Diet building in Tokyo.
“My teacher at high school introduced me to Hisago, and that’s how I found the job immediately after school. That’s when I started learning about kaiseki,” he says. “I started by cleaning, washing dishes and making pickles for the first two to three years, work anyone can do. I learned cooking from watching the older chefs while I was cleaning. That’s the typical pattern for apprenticeships at kaiseki restaurants in Japan.”
When his chef-teacher, Mamoru Sakamoto, left Hisago, Miyazawa followed him. “In Japan, when the head chef leaves a restaurant, all the chefs under him leave. At least that’s what it was like when I was young. So that’s what I did,” he explains.
Miyazawa worked with Sakamoto for 10 years. After leaving Hisago, he gained experience at various establishments, including a Fukui Prefecture-influenced kaiseki restaurant and the Pan Pacific Yokohama Bay Hotel Tokyu. It was in 2010 that he decided to work abroad.
“I was approached by a chef headhunter I know and he introduced me to an opportunity in Singapore,” Miyazawa says. “I had been interested in going beyond Japan for a while, and wanted to see Japanese food culture outside of Japan, so I decided to make the leap.”
After a two-year stint at a restaurant in Singapore, Miyazawa returned to Japan. However, the experience left him with the desire to work abroad again, and in 2017 he made the move to Australia, where he took on the role of head chef at Ishizuka.
“Ishizuka is the first time I’ve been given the opportunity to create my own course menu from scratch,” he says enthusiastically. “Typically, in a kaiseki restaurant, the main chef makes the menu and the other chefs follow that menu as closely as possible. Previously, I worked at an izakaya pub restaurant where I had the chance to devise some of my own dishes to complement the standard set menu. But this is the first time I get to make up my own course menus. That makes it a very exciting opportunity.”
At Ishizuka, though, there are some challenges. Miyazawa has to use Australian ingredients to create authentic kaiseki meals that are traditional but also suited to a different audience.
“There are some ingredients, some basic things, that I just can’t get in Australia, so I have to find substitutes,” he says, adding that his diners in Australia also value a different kind of presentation to those in Japan.
“Many of my customers are Australian or Chinese, not Japanese. They want food presentation that has some flair, that is a little theatrical,” he explains. “Kaiseki in Japan, though, is about wabi sabi, expressing a sense of time passing, through refined presentation. So I needed to adjust my presentation skills when I started making my own menus here in Australia.”
To add more complication to the mix, Miyazawa also works with an international crew of chefs.
“One of my chefs is Japanese but the others are not, so we work together in English — that’s a challenge for me. I’m still working on my English, but my Japanese chef speaks English which is a great help,” he says. “Also, even though they are all good chefs, they didn’t grow up in Japan, so they don’t have traditional kaiseki training. That makes it hard for them to recreate the taste — that’s something we are working on.”
When asked whether or not he wants to return to Japan, Miyazawa pauses.
“I think Japan is a great place to visit, and of course I love it. But the working and living situation in Australia is really good,” he reflects. “I don’t have to work overtime, and it’s easy to live here. When I am with my family in Australia, people are happy to make space for my children. They are kind — I like that. I’d like to keep working as a chef here.”
Of course, there are things about Japan that Miyazawa is still influenced by and has brought with him to Australia.
“In Japan we really value giri (duty and honor) and ninjō (empathy and kindness to others),” he says. “I believe that the connections between human beings are important. Helping each other out and supporting each other is key. Those are values that I always have with me, and when I am cooking.”
Name: Hitoshi Miyazawa
Profession: Head chef at Ishizuka, Melbourne, Australia
Hometown: Inzai, Chiba Prefecture
Key moments in career:
1994 — Watches “Iron Chef” and becomes interested in cooking
2001 — Graduates from a culinary high school and starts as an apprentice at Hisago, a kaiseki restaurant in Tokyo
2010 — Moves to Singapore to work at a restaurant and learn about other food cultures
2012 — Returns to Japan to create his own Japanese food using experiences from abroad
2017 — Moves to Australia
2018 — Starts as head chef at Ishizuka Things I miss about Japan: “Izakaya pub restaurants.”
Things I like about Australia: “People are so nice to families, like mine, with small children.”