He loves pasta. But, a deep connection with his Japanese roots nudged chef Ken Sakamoto to reinterpret Italian cuisine through the lens of “the fifth taste”. The dark, intense, and salty mouthfeel that triggers cravings, and elevates the sensory experience of food. Umami takes centre stage at his award-winning restaurant Cenci in Kyoto, where he serves pasta with miso, seaweed and cured fish.
The Japanese pasta master is also known for his work outside the restaurant kitchen, where his interactions with food growers and producers culminate in his greater philosophy of cooking with hyperlocal produce using heritage techniques. For the last few years, he has been steering the conversation around sustainable fishing practices to address the ecological effects of overfishing.
Last week, the Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur was in Mumbai for a four-hand collaboration with chef-owner Vanika Choudhary at her restaurant Noon in BKC. Beyond the Kitchen was a unique amalgamation of the culinary cultures of India and Japan that put a spotlight on the fermentation practices of both the countries. The shared vision was fuelled by a foraging trip in the mountains of Sahyadri, where Sakamoto tasted mahua and made bhakris over a chulha. The indigenous forest produce made its way to a 10-course inventive menu. Think mahua puran poli with amazake ice-cream and trout with fish sauce koji and wild bamboo shoot achar.
In a candid chat with chef Ken Sakamoto, we got talking about his Michelin star, learnings from the pandemic, and why he would not go vegetarian.
Hat tip to Sana Ueda from the Cenci team for helping with transcribing the interview.
1. Tell us a bit about your childhood and growing up years in Kyoto.
My parents were busy people as they both worked as school teachers. My mother enjoyed cooking usually during her free time, and I enjoyed watching her. But I was a hungry child. So when I became a little older, I knew I had to take matters into my own hands. I realised I must be able to cook for myself because it was important for me to eat.
2. Your restaurant Cenci in Kyoto is popular for Italian food, but with a strong Japanese approach. What were you thinking?
After completing high school, I enrolled myself at university. At that time, I had no idea what I’d do after my graduation. Meanwhile I decided to travel to London during a break. I made new friends, and soon they were cooking for me. Once an Italian friend made me a bowl of carbonara. The flavours just blew me away. I had eaten pasta back home considering Italian food has always been popular in Japan. But this tasted out of the world. The more I ate, the more I was drawn to the cuisine. Be it the fresh vegetables or the seafood, the pancetta or the Parmigiano-Reggiano—it was so simple yet so delicious. I returned home, and knew what to do. Japanese food was in my blood. And I realised championing my culture through my fondness for Italian food was something that fascinated me. Cenci opened in 2014.
3. How did your early years in Kyoto influence your perspective towards food and what you serve at Cenci today?
Kyoto’s food culture is slightly different from say Hokkaido, which is in the north, and Kyushu in the south. But being in the centre, we have imbibed both. In ancient times, our emperor preferred to eat his vegetables flavoured with seaweed stock as there was no access to fresh seafood back then. I think it was the beginning of a style of cuisine where umami ruled the palate. Our traditional food has a very easy approach. It is enhanced by the use of fermented ingredients such as miso, katsuobushi or dried and smoked tuna, kombu, a type of seaweed, and of course dashi stock that are considered to be the cornerstones of Japanese cuisine today. Kyoto is also blessed with diverse hyperlocal produce that keeps changing with the season. This inherent knowledge of my culture made me draw parallels with Italian cooking that was also in some way deeply rooted in its terroir. To blend both therefore made perfect sense.
4. It seems diners at your restaurant return for the unusual flavour pairings. Can you give us some examples?
Italian food has a huge fan following in Japan, but somehow, I never wanted to serve pasta the way most restaurants did. At Cenci, our classics such as ravioli, fettuccine and risotto are umami bombs because what we do is prepare them with dashi stock or miso. Because if we go back in time, some of these ingredients find their roots in and around Kyoto. Our diners, especially the local Japanese, often get surprised by the unique fusions, but they find comfort in the familiarity. Umami makes them calm.
5. Japanese food in India has gained a lot of popularity in the last few years. But, our understanding of the cuisine is limited to sushi, sashimi and ramen. What do you really eat on a normal day?
Soba or udon. We eat them every day; they are considered to be comfort foods.
6. So, you don’t eat sushi every day?
Actually, what the world commonly eats in the name of sushi is very different from what we do. It has been popularised by the West to an extent that it is now everywhere. And the real problem is that in Japan, good sushi is hard to come by, especially with unsustainable fishing practices, which has led to overfishing and thereby commercialisation. It is also very expensive, and to get a reservation at such restaurants is tough. In Kyoto, sushi is enjoyed more like a bowl of seafood along with vegetables, eggs, and rice. It’s very casual and mostly eaten during special occasions. So, to answer your question—no, we don’t eat sushi every day.
7. Of late, there has been a lot of talk around vegetarianism and plant-based food. Have you ever thought of going that way at Cenci?
Vegetarianism could be better for the planet, but what the West has caught on in the name of plant-based food, is highly questionable. Are we really choosing environment-friendly ways to go vegetarian? It is also important to understand that in Asia, our culture and heritage have always focused on eating seasonal, and from our surroundings. Eating as per ritual and tradition, and also what is inherent to our overall well-being is what I would like to promote rather than any specific diets. The Japanese, especially the youth, are hardcore meat-eaters. It is cultural, and therefore very difficult to bring about a shift in the attitude. I’d rather want them to make sustainable food choices, and aim for balance.
8. Getting a Michelin star must have been rewarding…
Not really. It is more important for the diners to enjoy my food. The energy of the space, the smiles that follow after eating a meal, and the interaction in between keep me going.
9. How did the pandemic change your sensibilities as a chef?
I think it made most of us conscious about our environment. It changed our outlook towards food, especially how it is sourced. Because fine dining is not about plating food cooked with things bought from the supermarket. It is about telling stories behind the ingredients, and how they are closely connected with the history and culture of a certain community. As a chef, the pandemic has made me aware, where I want my diners to think about what is good for the planet, and make informed choices.
10. Your top restaurant recommendations for a first-timer in Kyoto would be…
You have to eat at Sojiki Nakahigashi. Chef Hisao Nakahigashi goes foraging every morning on the outskirts of the town for wild vegetables and fruits. It is a 35-year-old institution.
11. What should a starter kit consist of when it comes to cooking Japanese food at home?
Dashi, miso, katsuobushi, mirin, and soba noodles are a must.
12. Among all the dishes that you cooked with chef Vanika at Noon, what excited you the most?
The mountain food. The foraging trip with the entire crew at Noon is something I will cherish. The wild mushrooms were my favourite.
13. What is that one meal you want to eat before leaving Mumbai?
Dosa with coconut chutney.