Cover image: Left Nancy Matsumoto (left) and Chef Kiyomi Mikuni (center) and interpreter Stacy Smith at the Japan Society © Kaori Mahajan for WhereNYC
Like many award-winning chefs in the industry, Kiyomi Mikuni’s career started with a humble, but a poignant introduction to food at an early age.
Gregarious, friendly, full of humor and fully fluent in Japanese and French, he is not shy of modesty when describing his cheffy abilities in the kitchen nor his friendships with the likes of high end kitchen heavy weights such as Thomas Keller. But he has a certain humbleness when it comes to children.
The son of a Hokkaido fisherman, he used to scour the shore gathering fresh sea pineapples with his father, who taught him the simplicity of taste of pure ingredients. “Wash with just a little sea water,” he said speaking through an interpreter. The sea pineapple had the five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. That particular food memory had a lasting effect on him as went on to culinary school in Switzerland and trained as a protégé in France under Alain Chapelle, where he mastered the art of French gastronomy. And it followed him as he chased after the highest accolades, including being the first Japanese chef to earn the prestigious Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in cuisine. Even as chef patron at the luxurious Hôtel de Mikuni in Tokyo since 1985, he still invests a great deal of time running ambitious culinary workshops for youngsters.
His inspiration to invest in educating the youth about food and nutrition stems from legendary chemistry professor and food-lover Dr. Jacques Puisais who founded the Institut de Goût in France, which pioneered taste education for kids. His other inspiration to work with students came from the Slow Food organisation in Italy, that according to Mr. Mikuni, used food coloring and yogurts in one of its workshops to teach children about color and association of flavor.
Inspired by both Dr. Puisais and Slow Food, Mr. Mikuni founded the Syndicat de la Haute Cuisine Française au Japon in 1999 to educate chefs and school children about healthy food choices. Currently, his institute in Japan is in partnership with 50 schools working with close to 2,500 students. The aim is to excite them about local, healthy ingredients while putting a little fun into making dishes. Chef Mikuni created dishes, for example, from drawings submitted by students. Many of the programs are interactive allowing kids to participate while they learn. “When you make it yourself, it’s always better,” he said.
When asked about the interest of working with children, his answer had to do with science as well as compassion. Parents should take note: instead of cooking one kind of food, consider exposing children to as many kinds of food as possible. By eight years, children acquire a home cooking taste, which is familiar and comforting. And at 12 years, the five senses are fully formed, and child’s taste buds are at their peak. As they age, they rely more on taste memory as their taste buds decrease. Finally, he said that kids who have not experienced all five tastes, are at risk of developing behavioral problems and tend to “lash out.”
Following the tragedy of the 2011 tsunami in Sendai and subsequent nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, his collaboration with the Smiles of Tohoku, helped provide lunches to surviving local students. “It started bleak with scared kids,’ he said. Now, they are eating more and beginning to enjoy learning about different tastes including the famed umami flavor.
What is umami?
“Complete deliciousness,” defined by Chef David Bouley, owner of Bouley and Brushstroke in New York. Often referred to the fifth taste by many in the chef world, it remains a mystery when describing it. While there are the big four: bitter, salty, sweet, and sour, umami has an unusual savory characteristic that can enhance flavor. As per Chef Mikuni, there are three components of umami flavor including glutamate and inosinate and guanylate, which were discovered by three Japanese scientists: Dr. Ikeda of the then Tokyo Imperial University in 1908 and later professors Dr. Kodama and Dr. Kuninaka.
Combining both glutamate and inosinate actually boosts the richness or mattari by eight times! While this explains the use of the artificial flavor enhancer MSG in many processed foods, Mr. Mikuni is quick to point out that all three components are found in natural foods such as tomatoes, fish, cheese, and mushrooms. To get the umami flavor, one could simply chew three tomatoes 30 times.
Following the talk, Chef Mikuni and his assistant treated us to a live demonstration of making fragrant dashi, or golden broth using shaved dried bonito and rausu konbu from Hokkaido before we headed to the reception to sample at tasty chicken-tomato stock and the katso broth. The tasting menu including a mixture of Western and Japanese dishes that shared umami elements including a delicious Kuramoto sake. The flavors were fantastic, but the miso cappuccino and sautéed mushrooms with a mayonnaise sauce and sesame dressing were the triumphs of the plate and a perfect send-off as the evening concluded.