12 Oct Wakuden in Galicia
Our taxi navigated the narrow streets of old Kyoto and deposited us on stone steps outside one of the city’s most revered and at the time, most inaccessible restaurants. A decade ago Kodaiji Wakuden required a personal introduction to secure a reservation. We were there to taste the ultimate Wakuden course, winter Taiza crab grilled over binchotan charcoal.
We sat for a few magical hours atop tatami mats in a private dining room enjoying the best foods the country had to offer, prepared by the most accomplished chefs. I was fresh to Japan, had no knowledge of the food culture or language and nary a concept of what my future here would look like. But by the kindness of new family and friends, I was gifted the meal of a lifetime.
Fast-forward to early summer 2016. With a passion for communicating Japan’s food culture in English, a grasp of the language, and a second helping of great good fortune, I found myself again in that same room sitting across from Wakuden’s fifth generation owner Yuko Kuwamura to talk about working together.
As sole heir Kuwamura is fiercely working to protect the Wakuden legacy in the face of very specific contemporary challenges. Today’s environmental conditions, the politics of farms and fisheries and the effects they bear on ingredients are of utmost concern to many a great restaurateur across the globe and Kuwamura is no exception. Wakuden sources Japan’s finest ingredients and the highly skilled chefs there prepare them with a practiced light touch to preserve each perfect flavor. As she navigates the challenges in Japan that affect the ingredients that her restaurant relies on, Kuwamura also looks for answers and inspiration abroad.
In August, British architect David Chipperfield hosted Kuwamura and a team of her chefs in the small Galician town of Corrubedo. The goal of the week was to investigate the local cuisine alongside the local practices and policies of agriculture and aquaculture, and to bring Japanese culinary philosophies and techniques to a new set of ingredients. Over the course of a week we toured markets, observed razor clam and Goose barnacle harvests, shellfish cultivation, and a Padron pepper farm. We dined at local restaurants and the Wakuden chefs cooked several meals, interpreting the local ingredients and flavors through a Japanese lens.
Every passing decade brings social, technological, and cultural shifts. In Japan where history is counted in centuries and businesses are passed from generation to generation, each successor must simultaneously hold tight to core values while considering social evolution and clientele with changing expectations. Respecting history and protecting tradition requires flexibility and a willingness to adapt. At the helm of one of Japan’s greatest restaurants, Kuwamura is in constant pursuit of how to do just that.