Stop me if you’ve heard the one where the chef is compared to an artist. But what about a sculptor?
For Akihiro Kakimoto, the comparison is warranted. Since 2013, he’s made regular pilgrimages to Paris, where he competes against the world’s best confectionery chefs to create chocolate sculptures and desserts that have to be seen to be believed.
But Kakimoto, 49, didn’t participate in his first confectionary contest in Japan until he was 34.
“Even though I was new to competitions, I was confident,” Kakimoto says at Assemblages Kakimoto, his elegant restaurant and patisserie housed in a serene machiya near the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
At that first contest, however, he was in for a rude awakening. Of the 38 contestants, he came second to last.
“I was shocked (by the result),” Kakimoto recalls. However, he was not deterred and, over the next few years, kept refining his technique. In 2012 he was chosen as Japan’s representative to compete at the World Chocolate Masters, an annual contest that pits the world’s most talented chocolatiers against each other. Some of their elaborate creations wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary art gallery.
Art and architecture have interested Kakimoto since his childhood in Uji, the famed tea-growing region outside Kyoto. He was also interested in rugby and cooking, deciding early on he wanted to become a patissier. After graduating from high school, he gained a wide knowledge of the industry, first in the back office at a confectionery company in Osaka, and then as a pastry chef at Salon de Royal in Kyoto. From Kyoto he went to Kobe, arguably the home of Western sweets in Japan, where he worked at the Hotel Piena Kobe’s pastry shop, now called Luciole.
There, he split his time between the restaurant and the pastry station. But after a few years Kakimoto felt like he “had reached a barrier,” saying he “didn’t know what to do next.”
So Kakimoto made a slightly unorthodox next move. Before he hit 30, he quit his job and moved to Iriomote, a remote island in the Okinawan archipelago best-known for its eponymous wildcats. And, for a while, he enjoyed life off the beaten track.
“There was a minshuku (bed and breakfast) down there,” he says, “and I heard they were looking for a chef and I thought, ‘Why not?’ Every day after I finished cooking breakfast, I’d go down to the beach and swim. And then wander back up in the afternoon and make dinner.”
Kakimoto traveled throughout the rest of the Okinawan archipelago and into Kyushu, but when money ran out he returned to Osaka to work at Atelier Alcyon, a patisserie where he learned the ins and outs of management — and also got his introduction to the arcane world of chocolate sculptures.
Fast forward to 2016, and Kakimoto opened Assemblages Kakimoto. While you won’t be able to see — or bite into — the 100-kilogram, life-size chocolate sculptures he fashions in Paris, you can witness (and eat) some of his smaller, intricate desserts such as “Le Jardin,” a sphere of hard chocolate that’s doused in liquor and set alight. After the fire goes out, what remains is a pistachio ice cream infused with perilla leaves and melted chocolate.
Taking advantage of his global platform, Kakimoto increasingly incorporates Japanese flavors such as matcha, yuzu citrus, myōga ginger and nori.
In September last year, Kakimoto embarked on two new ventures: Assemblages Hanare, which offers dessert courses by appointment only, and the Henri Charpentier Kyoto Imperial Palace South Chocolate Research Institute, which Kakimoto envisions as a space for culinary professionals to collaborate.
The word assemblage means “mix” or “combine,” he explains, and this concept defines his goal “to continue making delicious desserts.”
Matsumotocho 587-5, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-0982; 075-202-1351; assemblages.jp; takeout 12-7 p.m., dinner 6-8 p.m (L.O.); closed Tues., every second, fourth Wed.; dinner ¥15,800; nearest station Kyoto Shiyakushomae; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; Japanese, some English spoken