Why do many international chefs come to Kyoto, a gastronomic city, to work as an apprentice to learn about Washoku or to provide their home cuisines in Kyoto and to pursue new food ideas? What attracts them to Kyoto? We will introduce Kyoto cuisine through the struggling and the successes of international chefs in Kyoto.
n the first feature, we interviewed Chef Stephan Pantel and asked him about his French restaurant and his feelings towards Kyoto. After working at many famous restaurants including Philippe Aubron Gion, Courantd'herbes, and KEZAKO, he opened his restaurant RYORIYA Stephan Pantel at a 100-year-old traditional Japanese-style house in Kyoto in 2012.
I deeply fell in love with Kyoto, an artisan city.
I am often asked "Are people from Kyoto carping?" "Is it difficult to live in Kyoto?". However, I've never felt that before. In that sense, I've been blessed with the people and environment around me. I've never felt that I wanted to return to France either. Of course, going back to France from time to time makes me happy. But, I somehow feel more comfortable to be in Kyoto than in France. Nowadays, I consider Kyoto to be my home.
What do I like about Kyoto? Although there are various things I like about Kyoto, the best is that people in Kyoto cherish artisans. There are a variety of artisans in Kyoto including chefs, toolmakers, vegetable farmers, and gardeners. They are all hard on themselves and pursue quality until they are satisfied with it. Such artisans inspire my dishes. The more I know about Kyoto, the better dishes I can make. I felt that Kyoto is the city where I can improve myself.
Since I married a Japanese woman, I wanted to visit the country where she grew up.
The reason why I came to Kyoto was that my wife was from the Kansai area. I met her in the one-star restaurant in Paris where I worked. She came to the restaurant to learn French cuisine. We married and had a child in Paris. Although I like Paris, I wanted to visit the country where she grew up. Luckily, I found a job in Kyoto and I was accepted as an opening staff member of Philippe Aubron Gion. It was very fortunate that I worked in Gion, which is regarded as the quintessence of Kyoto, from the start, because I could learn the history and traditions of Kyoto and temperament of its people every day. I love the cityscape of Kyoto and I even enjoy just walking around. In that regard, I feel that Kyoto is similar to Paris.
Encountering ingredients originating in Kyoto opened the door to new-style French dishes.
I came into full charge of KEZAKO. That allowed me to make my own dishes. Some customers criticized my dishes. Others taught me how to make them better. People from Kyoto are usually picky about ingredients and flavors of dishes. That's what I like about them. Every time I receive criticism, I got opportunities to learn about their refined taste and the best ingredient combinations.
I used a wide range of food produced in Kyoto such as vegetables at KEZAKO. Customers were often surprised about my knowledge of Japanese food, saying "Although you are French, you know about Japanese food very well." However, it is nothing special that chefs have a good knowledge of local food. I proactively tried Japanese food that I had never seen or eaten before. I think what makes it difficult for me is to determine the character of each food and use it in French cuisine.
For example, I created a dish that combined foie gras and narazuke (pickles seasoned in sake lees). It seems that people from Kyoto didn't expect this combination. I tried Tantakacho's narazuke when I first came to Kyoto and I thought "Narazuke might go well with foie gras". I decided to make a dish with narazuke and foie gras for Christmas dinner. I wrapped foie gras with narazuke and left it for ten days to mature it. I drizzled sour fruit sauce on it and that deepened its flavor.
The fat of foie gras blended well with the sweet flavor of narazuke to make it a gentle but rich flavor. While foie gras got a flavor of sake, narazuke absorbed the rich flavor of the foie gras. This combination created a new intense umami compared to having them separately. The reviews of this dish were better than I expected. More and more customers visited the restaurant to try this dish after they knew it through word of mouth and magazine articles. I originally planned to offer this dish only during Christmas but it became one of my specialties when I realized its popularity.
I found a fantastic traditional Japanese-style house when I decided to open my own restaurant.
I decided to open my own restaurant when KEZAKO shut down in 2001. 11 years passed after I came to Kyoto. However, it was difficult to find a nice property. Since I like the relaxed atmosphere of Japanese-style houses, I wanted to open my restaurant at a traditional Japanese-style house if possible, but I couldn't find the one that I was looking for. One day, I gave it a try to visit a small real estate agency to ask for a rental property for my restaurant. The staff at the agency said that it might be impossible to find a property that I was looking for. Perhaps, I was not Japanese so he didn't want me to rent a property. Surprisingly, he called me later, saying "I found an owner who said he could rent you a property because you were the chef at KEZAKO". I felt that what the owner said made all my hard work worth it. That was the house where my restaurant is now.
While I kept the Japanese atmosphere of the property such as the entrance gate and the garden, I added some international atmosphere. Thanks to my customers, 6 years has passed after its opening. Some customers come to my restaurant every month since I worked at KEZAKO.
Kyoto offers opportunities to easily get fresh, delicious ingredient such as vegetables produced in Ohara and Kamigamo.
I sometime visit farmers in Ohara and Kamigamo to harvest vegetables by myself. I could understand their hard work to make delicious vegetables when I worked at their fields. They elaborately work 365 days a year including winters and summers to make delicious vegetables. Since I know their hard work, I also work hard to enhance the deliciousness of vegetables in my cooking. There are so many things I have learned from food culture in Kyoto, such as miso, tofu, how to use broth, and meal structures. I was able to continue working in Kyoto because I wanted to surpass locals, or more precisely: be acknowledged by locals.
This is served as a main dish at my restaurant during spring. In France, bone-in lambs are roasted without cutting. At my restaurant, I cut them into two pieces and cooked them. A lamb loin is gently roasted and a bone-in lamb rib is pickled in salt overnight and was slowly cooked for 36 hours to make a lamb rib confit. The bones of this very tender confit can easily be removed so that you can enjoy its taste more. Shitake mushrooms produced in Shizuhara are simmered in gravy together with Kyobancha (a type of green tea produced in Kyoto) purchased from Ippodo tea shop. The tea aroma will faintly spread in your mouth right after you take a bite of the mushroom. Kyoto food inspired me to create new dishes and the number of my new recipes has increased a lot.
I want to continue to challenge myself in unchanged Kyoto.
It is said that people from Kyoto are tough on those who are not from Kyoto. However, as I am a foreigner, I can say that they are not tough on me because I am an outsider. When artisans from Kyoto hit it off with me and we work together, they will cherish me even though I am not from Kyoto. The same applies to my customers. Regardless of nationality, many customers acknowledge me if I strive to offer delicious taste that others can't make. I keep on challenging myself to make the best dishes and to satisfy my customers with these dishes.
■Ryoriya Stephan Pantel
4-182, Marutacho, yanaginobanba, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto
Closed days: Tuesdays and Wednesdays