Kaiseki dining has been making the rounds and gaining popularity in Bangkok for quite a while now. Nevertheless, despite its ubiquity, its definition and relation to the famous omakase is still obscure to some.
In an attempt to understand and explore the kaiseki dining style, we paid a visit to one of the most prominent kaiseki restaurants in town, Kinu by Takagi at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok. This elegant 10-seat restaurant serves up exceptional Japanese delicacies, imagined by Chef Kazuo Takagi, and created by Chef de Cuisine Norihisa Maeda. Celebrating the launch of the recent autumn menu, we sat down and had a passionate chat with chef Maeda on all things kaiseki dining and even kaiseki etiquette.
All About Kaiseki Dining, Explained by Chef Maeda of Kinu by Takagi
How did your culinary journey start? How did you come to work with kaiseki dining?
After finishing high school, I went to Tokyo and started working in a kaiseki restaurant right away. Later, I moved around to explore the art of Japanese fine and casual dining, and finally opened my first restaurant when I was 30.
After much exploration of various Japanese cuisines – whether casual, izakaya, kaiseki, or others – I constantly found myself drawn to kaiseki the most. With the seasonal changes, detailed decoration, and meticulous procedures it entails, kaiseki suits my personality more than any other.
Can you tell us what exactly kaiseki is? How is it different from omakase?
Many customers, not only in Thailand but around the world, mistake kaiseki with omakase. Since omakase sushi brought fame to this style of dining in the first place, some customers come to the restaurant and immediately imagine sushi. However, omakase simply means ‘chef’s choice,’ whereby guests will leave their meal entirely up to the chef.
On the other hand, kaiseki dining is a course meal that includes different cooking techniques. A kaiseki meal might consist of an appetiser, soup, sashimi, deep-fried dish, rice, and dessert, that is cooked by charcoal-grilling, simmering, deep-frying, and more. On that note, Kinu by Takagi is an omakase-kaiseki dining restaurant, meaning that we serve kaiseki-style course meals designed solely by the chef.
Are there any rules or etiquettes we should keep in mind when dining at a kaiseki restaurant?
There are some dos and don’ts regarding politeness, though it may vary among different kinds of restaurants and cultures. Here are a few.
Don’t put wasabi in soy sauce, put it straight on the food
Most kaiseki restaurants will serve fresh wasabi as a more premium condiment to be eaten with sashimi. The taste is less strong than the frozen wasabi served at a casual restaurant, so it’s best to place fresh wasabi directly on top of the fish and dip into soy sauce. This way you would get a clearer taste and aroma.
Don’t pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks
In all kinds of dining, it’s considered inappropriate in Japanese culture to pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks. Instead, you can place it on a plate first before asking others to pick up from the plate.
Place utensils horizontally between you and the plate
In contrast to the western ways of placing utensils on both sides of the plate vertically, the Japanese place their chopsticks horizontally between themselves and the plate. Some believe that food is a sacred element that gives life to human-beings, and therefore should be separated from the diners. On that note, it is also impolite to place the chopsticks on top of the plate or bowl.
Use two hands to grab bowls
A lot of authentic Japanese restaurants won’t provide a spoon for soup, because they expect their diners to sip directly from the bowl. Whenever you’re holding a bowl, always use two hands to hold it as you sip.
You don’t need to clean your plate
In a kaiseki restaurant, it’s not considered impolite if you cannot finish all the food. The chefs are more likely to look for other kinds of expressions to read your opinions on the dish, since everybody’s capacity is different.
It’s acceptable to ask for condiments, but better not, in order to appreciate the style of the chef
Of course, you can ask for more shoyu or pepper, for example. Nevertheless, in Japanese culture, most diners will understand the style of the chef and accept the dish they are given as it is. They usually don’t request any extra seasoning or condiments to change the palate.
Kinu by Takagi is located inside the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok. It opens from Wednesday to Sunday for a 5-course lunch from 12pm-2.30pm and a 10-course dinner from 6-10pm. All courses are served to diners at the same time, so it’s important to arrive on time to enjoy the welcome tea.
For more information and reservations, contact 02 659 9000 or visit the website.