The first dish to emerge from the Tsurutokame kitchen, Japan’s only all-female kaiseki (traditional multicourse) restaurant, located in Ginza, is a sampling of persimmon, grapes, Japanese pear and pomegranate topped with a single viola blossom and a tiny sprig of dill. Drizzled with tofu sauce, its shape hints not only at Mount Fuji’s snow-draped shoulders, but also head chef Yubako Kamohara’s culinary skill.
Kamohara leads the other itamae (chefs) through the next 11 courses, making their singular culinary vision a reality. Among their creations is a whole yuzu citrus filled with warm, salted cherry blossom-flavored tofu, and buckwheat noodles swirled with black truffles, garlic and olive oil and topped with near-transparent strands of daikon.
While some customers are surprised or even skeptical of Kamohara and her team’s abilities, fixated on the chefs’ gender, rather than talent, what they discover is a beautiful and delicious kaiseki service that simply happens to be made by women.
“(Being an itamae) is such a big challenge, especially in Japan, where this industry is so male-dominated,” Kamohara explains. “So I always push myself. If I think ‘OK, that’s good enough,’ it won’t be sufficient.”
It’s a kind of determination she learned early. “I ran track in high school,” she says. “The more I trained and pushed myself, the more it came back in improved results. I apply the same principles here.”
Becoming an itamae, however, was not her first plan. Diagnosed at 17 with diabetes, Kamohara wanted to control her disease through food and teach others to do the same, so the Fukuoka native came to Tokyo to study nutrition.
“During my studies, I realized that traditional Japanese food is the healthiest in the world,” Kamohara says. “I wanted to tell everyone on the planet.”
After graduation, she landed a job as a nutritionist at a company cafeteria, but left after two years to set up her own bento business. She worked part-time at different cafes and restaurants to sharpen her skills and learn new techniques. When a supplier for one of these learned about Kamohara’s passion, they introduced her to Harumi and Osamu Mikuni, owners of Yasoshima Inc., the umbrella company for 11 restaurants in the Kanto region specializing in traditional Japanese food.
Hired in 2008 as general manager of Yasoshima’s deli department, Kamohara found herself immersed in the world of kaiseki.
“I ran that department for six years and was utterly enthralled,” she recalls. “For example, yuba (tofu skin) and namafu (raw gluten) alone don’t have a strong taste, so they adapt to any kind of cuisine. That fascinated me.”
Her work also brought her together with other Yasoshima chefs. On weekday mornings they all gathered at the company headquarters to prepare the food for each location. On weekends, Kamohara helped in other restaurants owned by the group, such as Inshotei and Kunimi. She credits both experiences for giving her the foundation she needed to lead Tsurutokame.
“At other restaurants, chefs in training usually aren’t even allowed to touch the ingredients for the first two or three years,” she says. “From the very start, I was able to get more experience.”
At the same time, the Mikunis were hatching a plan of their own. Frustrated by a lack of opportunity for talented female chefs — based on the general belief that women cannot handle the stress or workload of a restaurant kitchen — they decided to create a kaiseki restaurant fully staffed by women. Unconventional at best for this most traditional style of Japanese cuisine, they tapped Kamohara to lead in 2014.
Two years later, Tsurutokame welcomed its first guests, and, now in its fourth year, Kamohara and the restaurant are still going strong, redirecting their combined skills to bento box delivery during Japan’s national state of emergency before reopening (albeit with socially distanced seating).
To foster camaraderie and teamwork, she and the other chefs participate in various activities such as choir, calligraphy and ceramics, and live together in a dormitory. All of that, Kamohara believes, has a positive impact on their work.
“I can understand each person and see how to help them thrive. We also,” she adds, “learn how to be honest with each other. Without that and the teamwork it makes possible, there would be no tasty dishes.
“In kaiseki, you work right in front of the customer,” Kamohara explains, “It’s so gratifying to see them enjoying the food I make, but I also keep my eye on the big picture and strive to do my best for our customers and my team. It’s all part of the process.”
For more information about Tsurutokame, visit tsurutokame.jp/en. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food industry.