StarChefs 2011: “Cutting Kaiseki” – Isao Yamada, Brushstroke

(Ed. Note: With this post, I would like to welcome a new contributor to my website. Sara Gardener is a pseudonym of a fellow culinary enthusiast and talented writer who works in the business and would rather remain out of the spotlight. Sara will be presenting some detailed portraits of a number of the workshops and demonstrations from the StarChefs ICC. Sara helped me extend the presence of this website throughout the Congress. All photos are by me. Please enjoy!

-John M. Sconzo, M.D.)

Kaiseki refers both to a traditional multi-course Japanese meal as well as the techniques and skills that allow for its preparation. This astounding workshop with Kaiseki master Isao Yamada showcased the latter, and demonstrated why it takes years to become proficient in the craft.

Chef Isao Yamada of Brushstroke

The workshop began with a description of four different knives that are essential tools for a Kaiseki chef. The Yanagi knife, which we would get a chance to use later, is meant for cutting sashimi and raw fish. The Usuba is used for chopping and peeling—a seemingly simple task that is elevated to an art form by the proficiency with which these chefs are able to manipulate the ingredients. The Deba is a knife used as a clever in Japanese kitchens for breaking down whole fish and for other types of heavy use. Finally, the Hamo Kiri is meant specifically for breaking down eels.

Yanagi knives from bottom to top: new, 1 year old and 5 years old.

Four Yanagiknives were then laid out on the workspace; one had never been used, another had been used for one year, the next was five years old, and the last had been wielded by a chef for a decade. The knives were shown side-by-side to demonstrate how years of use and sharpening change the shape and characteristics of the tool. Depending on factors such as if a chef is right or left handed, the amount of force they use, and the angle at which they cut, each knife takes on a distinct form. Yamada explained that this represents the chef’s personality coming out in the knife. He showed that his own knife is round at the end because he uses it for multiple purposes (including zesting yuzu).

Japanese Knife Expert Hirano

This led into a demonstration by Hirano, an expert in the sharpening and maintenance of Japanese knives. Hirano explained that the construction of the knives makes them easy to sharpen, with the first layers forged out of hard steel, and the top layer of soft steel that can be manipulated. He then began to sharpen one of the knives, allowing it to stay flat on the stone when working on the back. The ideal angle at which to hold the knife against the stone, he stated, is 10 degrees (as opposed to a steeper 45 degree angle). Another important factor is to keep the angle consistent and not rock the blade as you go. He started with the tip of the knife, moving his left hand into his right little by little until the length of the knife was sharpened. He then changed the type of stone used (three total) and repeated the process. Hirano stressed that each cook must learn his own rhythm when sharpening and this is what distinguishes one cook’s knife from another’s. In addition, sharpening is a cooking skill. A cook must sharpen his knife daily and treat this as an important step in the culinary process.

An audience member slicing tuna for sushi

The next part of the workshop involved demonstrating the proper way to use these knives on fish and produce. The Yanagiknife was selected for cutting a pristine piece of tuna that Chef laid out on the workspace. The Yanagi has a long, narrow blade, the full extent of which is meant to be used for the cut. Keeping one finger on top of the blade, one of Chef’s cooks began at the base and explained that we should imagine cutting a circle with the knife as we sliced through the fish, ending with the tip of the blade—sliding and pulling the knife through the fish in one even motion. A damp towel should be kept on the side to clean the knife in between each cut. A sharp knife will cut straight through the molecular structure of the product, keeping the fish from getting jagged edges or tears that lead to an unpleasant texture in the mouth. The jagged edges would also catch soy sauce, causing the true flavor of the fish to be lost. This is why it is important to keep the knives extremely sharp, as well as why a Japanese style knife is preferred over a Western one for cutting raw fish. The pieces of tuna cut from the loin were a pristine shape, with rounded edges and of identical size. As each person in the demonstration was allowed to try this cut, it became astoundingly clear that what seemed like a simple task takes years of practice to master.

Hiroki Murashima Slicing Daikon with an Usuba Knife

The workshop concluded with a demonstration of the Usubaknife. Holding a large piece of daikon in one hand, one of Chef’s assistants tournéed the radish with the ease of cutting a stick of butter. He was left with a paper-thin sheet which he then used to cut perfect batons. As with the tuna, this proved to be infinitely more difficult than the demo indicated when we were given our own daikon on which to practice.

Chef Yamada Showing how to hold a Yanagi Knife.

Chef Yamada’s workshop offered a glimpse into the discipline it takes to master kaiseki skills, as well as the importance of the dedication to traditional techniques. However, it also embraced the need for interpretation within this craft, from the distinct rhythm of sharpening a knife, to the “personality” that is brought out through each chef’s use of their tool.


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