As we continue to celebrate Vegetarian Awareness Month and our recent awards feting the 52 Best Restaurants for Vegetarians in America, we’re pleased to highlight Kajitsu, another winning restaurant. Serving shojin cuisine, chef Hiroki Odo discusses his journey to preparing #vegforward fare in “Unbridled Restraint at Kajitsu: A Carnivorous Chef’s Vegan Table.”
While the idea of visiting a Michelin-starred vegan restaurant steeped in centuries-old Buddhist tradition elevated to the highest form of Japanese cuisine may give one reason to expect an exceptionally rigid atmosphere where diners are to be judged on every click of their chopsticks, Kajitsu, in the age of chef Hiroki Odo, stands in stark contrast. No doubt, Odo is very serious about his craft, committed to pleasing each customer who walks into his establishment. He is also far from being a conventional purist — and far from finished outdoing himself.
The shojin cuisine that Kajitsu specializes in ties back to the 12th-century Japanese Buddhist temples where vegetarian meals were prepared for the monks who lived there. The word shojin (“devotion”) refers to the conviction of the monks in upholding their values. Kaiseki refers to the sublime preparation and presentation of these dishes. Kaiseki, in its modern sense, is the Japanese analog to the French haute cuisine, the apex of Japanese culinary arts, with origins in traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which also hails from Buddhist tradition.
But enough about historical context. That the kaiseki dishes at Kajitsu are vegan is almost beside the point. Through careful, painstaking techniques, much of which happens long before any customers arrive, Odo and his team extract and enrich profound flavors from simple plant-based ingredients. Flavors that equal the well-seasoned stocks and sauces one can far more easily render from meat and bones.
“I’m not even a vegetarian,” Odo confesses. “I like fried chicken and hamburgers. But what I do at Kajitsu is special because it is all prepared within the limitations and respect of traditional Japanese shojin cuisine. It is those very limitations that motivate me to create dishes that will delight and surprise my customers.”
To do this, Odo draws upon his extensive training as a young cook at restaurants in Kyoto, where kaiseki was developed. Moving to Kyoto after culinary school was for him the equivalent of a student of French cuisine seeking an apprenticeship in Paris. Kyoto would provide an opportunity to work with the very best chefs, albeit in a trying and sometimes harsh environment complete with a strict hierarchical order and a sense of discipline in which Odo thrived.
Odo says he enjoyed the rigorous teamwork, even when the conditions were almost brutal. Sleeping in dormitories with half a dozen workers sharing a room, working long hours, sleeping as little as 2 to 3 hours a night was both physically and mentally demanding. But cooking gave him a creative outlet with near instant gratification.
“In high school, I had trained to become a carpenter,” says Odo. “But constructing a house or a building takes a long time to complete whereas, with cooking, the results can be enjoyed almost immediately. So, I went to culinary school.”
But like many in his industry, Odo would not find that gratification quite so instantly. “At my first job after school, I did nothing but wash dishes and clean house,” Odo remembers.
He soon followed a mentor to the Michelin two-starred restaurant Wakuden in Kyoto, working as sous chef and learning what it would take to satisfy the highly demanding tastes of his clientele. “It was difficult,” says Odo. “People in Kyoto take their food very seriously, and they will tell you right to your face when they don’t like something.” That close interaction proved critical to Odo’s developing his skills. And today it is what keeps him firmly grounded in the present. “I watch my customers eat,” says Odo. “Not just what they eat, but how they eat it. Are they taking their time? Are they smiling? Are they appreciating the presentation? All of this helps inform me so that I can shape the flavors of the next dishes to suit their tastes.”
When asked about the American taste for Japanese food, Odo demonstrates a democratic worldview. He acknowledges that American diners tend to favor richer flavors and more vibrant textures than their Japanese counterparts, and he finds ways to accommodate them. He garnishes his Full Moon Black Sesame Tofu with not only lily bulb but also powdered olive oil and cacao nibs to add depth and crunch. Does he consider these concessions? “No,” says Odo. “Every person’s taste is different. For me, this is just another challenge to take on. I want to cater to and meet the expectations of my customers. I enjoy that.”
For all his outward seriousness, Odo brings a youthful exuberance and — if you’re lucky to catch it — a broad smile to the chef’s counter at Kajitsu. It is fitting that he should have been invited to come to New York where he has the opportunity to cook for a discerning multinational audience. Situated in Murray Hill, within striking distance of the United Nations and Grand Central Terminal, Kajitsu is not the sort of place that caters primarily to people who already understand the context of shojin cuisine, nor does it cater primarily to vegetarians.
Rather, Kajitsu appeals to anyone seeking new experiences in flavor, texture, and presentation. Dishes satisfy both the palette and the appetite as heartily as any meat- or fish-based dish because of Odo’s balanced application of ingredients and technique. Take, for example, his Matsutake Clear Soup, made with fresh yuba (tofu skin), scallion, mochi (rice cake) and yuzu fruit. The broth derived from pine mushroom is delicate on the tongue, yet rich in earthy umami flavor. “Clear soup is my favorite dish to make,” says Odo. “It’s the ultimate challenge to create something deliciously satisfying from simple ingredients. It is also, by its nature, a light and subtle dish. Mastering it requires considerable time and study.”
His Imomeigetsu (Seasonal Assortment for Moon Viewing) is a light tempura dish that highlights the bounties of a late summer harvest, gathered and presented as if freshly fallen from a tree. With mountain yam, cucumber, tomato, okura, shiso, spinach, chrysanthemum petal, myoga, grape, Japanese taro, royal fern, shiitake, corn, edamame, zucchini flower, sweet potato, green bean, and lotus root, it is almost as pleasing to look at as it is to eat.
The menu at Kajitsu changes monthly and offers a four-course and an eight-course meal, each featuring seasonal vegetables and imported wheat gluten (nama fu), the primary source of protein served in shojin cuisine. Soba noodles are prepared fresh daily. The eight-course Hana meal includes an appropriate closer of Japanese matcha green tea and confections.
When he’s not behind his counter at Kajistu, Hiroki Odo can most likely be spotted as a patron at another restaurant. “Eating out is my favorite hobby,” Odo says.
If eating out is your favorite hobby, book at table at Kajitsu or any other one of the #vegforward 52 Best Restaurants for Vegetarians on OpenTable. Then, let us know where you #chooseveg this month, here or over on Facebook, G+, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter.
Michael Rice is a New York-based writer, musician, and food enthusiast whose work has taken him to China, Japan, and throughout the United States. You can follow him on Twitter @mricenyc.