10 Mar 2017
Kaiseki, or kaiseki-ryori, is the name for a traditional Japanese multicourse meal. Kaiseki meals typically present a sequence of ten or more small curated dishes, designed to showcase strictly the best ingredients in season and a harmonious sequence of exciting flavors, textures, and presentations. Nowdays there are more than a few super-high-end restaurants offering meals based on the kaiseki tradition, serving incredible food at incredible prices to match.
As a Christmas gift, I chose to invite my parents and girlfriend for a home-cooked meal in "Modern Kaiseki" style. I wanted the meal to be an opportunity to gather my loved ones and showcase the best ingredients I could possibly find and the best skills I could muster as a nascent cook. I started planning several months before Christmas, and all in all spent about six months planning and practicing various menus before the meal in March 2017.
It was more important to me to showcase my own voice as a cook than to strictly adhere to the letter of ancient tradition. Kaiseki meals generally follow a very strict order of courses: for example, a small appetizer to start followed by seasonal sushi and sashimi, a lidded soup, a flame-grilled food, seasonal pickles, and so on. For those who may have had a true kaiseki meal in Japan or elsewhere, you may scoff at some of the dishes I've chosen, or my interpretation of some of the traditional courses. Hence the "Modern" in Modern Kaiseki - it's about subtly incorporating elements of modernist cuisine, but also a liberal license to deviate from total adherence to what's come before, I think. With that said, this was the menu I developed and presented to guests:
On the left is the course names (sakizuke means small appetizer, for example). On the right is the actual dish, which on menus these days is just a list of ingredients. This was by no means the first menu I came up with. I designed most of an entire 10-course menu shortly after coming up with the idea, and ended up scrapping virtually the entire thing the more I learned about cooking. I was fortunate enough to have two fantastic meals at Benu and Mosu in San Francisco while planning, both of which were enormously influential in terms of how I wanted to develop flavors, have a proper flow during a long menu, and generally present the experience. The Coi cookbook changed the way I think about food within the last week or two before the actual meal, leading to new dishes and reworking of old ones.
What I found, though, is that you can only plan so much ahead of time. Kaiseki (and all of California cuisine, really) is hyper-focused on local and seasonal ingredients. Thus, rather than trying to design recipes while sitting at my desk I made decisions based on what looked best at the farmer's markets as close to the dinner as possible (including the morning of!). One dish, the sunchoke soup, was a giant question mark in my notes until two days before the scheduled meal, when I found some nice sunchokes at the market and decided to use them. Do your research ahead of time and be prepared, but ultimately choose what's best at your fingertips.
I wrote a bit about the process behind designing a good tasting menu in this post; to recap, a good menu highlights bold and focused flavors one at a time, but also has a good "flow" between courses. It's important to pay attention to texture and flavor within and across courses to make sure that you're properly constrasting soft and crunchy, rich and fresh, bitter and acidic. I am particularly attuned to balancing richness - I have eaten parades of pork belly, lobster, and truffles, and while delicious it can be exhausting. A good menu generously intersperses small acidic counterparts and palate cleansers; this is easy in Japanese cuisine, with its focus on pickles!
One interesting aspect I've been fortunate enough to observe after several meals in very nice restaurants is how much of the artistry and craft in the experience comes from things besides the food. Obviously, the food has to be incredibly delicious and presented in a novel way. But it's crazy how much of a difference beautiful dinnerware can make, for example. Hand-crafted pottery, or some tiny serving dish in just the right interesting shape, or an adorably tiny spoon dramatically alters one's initial perception and really elevates the experience. Tired of my incredibly average plates, bowls, and wine glasses, I set out to make sure every dish for this meal was perfectly presented, and that meant buying a whole bunch of gorgeous new dinnerware (how terrible!) - it's the little details that complete the whole thing.
On the subject of alcohol - I'll be the first to admit I don't know a whole lot about pairing wine with food, and truth be told I did not obsess over a wine pairing or anything like that for this menu. Sake is very traditional with kaiseki meals, but in this case I favored wine and chose a 1999 Pride Mountain Merlot, and kept it on hand about 5 months before serving. We combined it with a Dutton Estate 2013 Chardonnay for those who preferred white. Everyone had a great time. I don't have any tips on pairing wine against food - drink what you enjoy!
The only way to successfully cook a menu like this on your own is to a) practice obsessively ahead of time, but importantly b) prepare in advance. It is simply not possible to prepare more than a few dishes from scratch during service time, especially if you have any hope of sitting with your guests at all. I did the vast, vast majority of prep ahead of time, preparing stocks, soups, sauces, ice cream base, and other things that don't demand to be prepared at serving time. Mise en place, or carefully laying out your needed tools, ingredients, and dishes ahead of time, is non-optional. As much as possible my goal was to apply heat as needed and assemble during serving time - you can see my pre-prep game plan at the end of this post. All in all, the meal took about three and a half hours, which is about how long a menu of this length takes at a restaurant anyways, and I was able to sit with my guests for the courses, at least briefly.
And now without further ado...
If you are so inclined as to try this menu at home, you may want to consider enlisting a friend. Cooking this menu solo is a heroic task, for me at least - I took the day before off work to prepare. You'll need an array of specialist equipment on hand to make the dishes properly, ranging from a sous vide circulator, vacuum sealer, digital scales, and whipping siphon, and modernist ingredients like agar agar, sodium bisulfite, and locust bean gum. Substitutes and alternatives are given when applicable, but modern cuisine is all about chasing down diminishing returns and you'll get the best results with the best equipment and ingredients.
Here is the game plan I followed for a dinner scheduled at 6:30pm on a Saturday. The components and recipes are explained in detail in the individual recipe pages. I keep homemade stock in the freezer, so you won't see it here.