The other day I read a food review on Food and Wine’s website by author of Free Food for Millionaires, Min Jin Lee. I was simply blown away. Not only was the review, “Why Restaurants Revere Seiji Yamamoto,” fantastically written, but the descriptions made me want to hop on a plane to Tokyo, seat myself at Nihonryori Ryugin and experience kaiseki, the most traditional—and expensive—style of Japanese cuisine.
Lee writes: “A classic kaiseki menu can vary widely in its number of courses, but at a minimum, the meal is comprised of an appetizer (sakizuke), sashimi (mukozuke), a simmered dish (shiizakana), a grilled dish (yakimono) and a steamed dish (mushimono).” She describes each of the items presented to her with delicious detail, I could almost taste them through my monitor. 😉
Lee starts off with her immigrant upbringing in Elmhurst, NY, and how her father encouraged her to study and pick a restaurant each year to try out because he believed “that knowing how to butter bread properly should be as much a part of his children’s education as algebra and spelling.” I loved reading about his joie de vivre approach to dining: “Our means were modest, but Dad told my two sisters and me to get whatever we fancied. ‘Does money die or does Lee die?’ he’d say. We’d assure him of his immortality, then order beef bourguignon or sole meunière.” I had a lovely vision of a Korean-American family waltzing into a predominantly WASP dining establishment and just having the time of their lives. It’s such a contrast to many Korean-American families, who avoid high-end restaurants because 1) they can’t justify the expense; 2) pride—not wanting to appear foolish because one doesn’t know what to order.
Then Lee describes Chef Seiji Yamamoto’s unorthodox, bold approach to food preparation. For instance, at a culinary conference in Spain, Chef Yamamoto “‘chopped the head off a live fish and ran what looked like piano wire down its back, which made it go limp.’ The technique seemed to prevent the fish from stiffening with rigor mortis, which changes the texture of the flesh.” In reading this, I realize that I have yet to experience the ultimate sushi/sashimi. Even the most tender and delicious sushi and sashimi I’ve had must still have been in the throes of rigor mortis. I’ve only had the kind of fish that were prefilleted and peeking through the sliding windows at the sushi bar.
Lee mentions Chef Yamamoto’s dedication to the art of preparing his dishes, going as far as getting a CT scan for a hamo eel in order to study its anatomy: “Now, he’s able to carve eels with such precision that he creates chrysanthemum flowers out of the flesh, which appear to float in a deliciously fragrant stock made from eel bones and matsutake mushrooms.”
Here’s my other favorite description—about the famous -196 Degrees Celsius Candy Apple: “With spoons, we tapped what looked like a lady apple, so shiny it could have been a Christmas ornament, and it shattered into shards of candy shell. Inside were two bites of powdered ice cream that tasted like the most delicious apple pie ever.” Who would have ever thought about making dessert with liquid nitrogen?! Wow. I remember trying freeze-dried ice cream from the Smithsonian gift shop, which is nothing compared to this, I’m sure.
Anyway, I’ve just started reading Min Jin Lee’s, Free Food for Millionaires, and am just humbled by what I’ve read so far. She has written a Korean-American novel that I can only dream of writing. (For an excerpt of her novel, visit her website.) And on top of this, she’s an awesome food writer.