Seiji Yamamoto is set to be honoured with the inaugural American Express Icon Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony in Macau this year, where he will be hailed as “one of the most iconic Japanese chefs of the century”.
The chef-owner of seminal Tokyo kaiseki institution, Nihonryori Ryugin, made waves when his Roppongi restaurant debuted in 2003 with a pioneering style of progressive kaiseki cuisine that completely new. Fast-forward to today, not only has the restaurant transplanted itself from Roppongi to Hibiya, it has also spawned successful offshoots in Hong Kong and Taipei, Tenku Ryugin and Shoun Ryugin, both of which are decorated with two Michelin stars.
In the 15 years that Yamamoto has blazed a trail in kaiseki, his restaurant has also become a incubator for top-notch chef talent. In this story, we speak to a cadre of former-Ryugin chefs who have gone on to make a mark for themselves, each picking up two Michelin stars along the way.
After working his way across Europe - in Georges Blanc, France, and Domaine de Chateauvieux, Switzerland - Honda Seiichi returned home to Tokyo where he apprenticed at Nihonryori Ryugin for a year and a half before he took up the position of sous chef at Spanish restaurant Sant Pau, Nihonbashi, and subsequently opened Zurriola in 2011.
“We were scheduled to open on 25 March, 2011, but when the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck on 21 March we could not open due to a lack of access to produce,” says Seiichi, whose modern Basque restaurant opened in Azabu-Juban on 15 April, 2011. The restaurant moved to Ginza in 2016.
“During my time in Nihonryori Ryugin, I learnt the Japanese grill techniques (which I still use today) and the respect for ingredients,” says the Japanese chef, whose signature dish of courgette ravioli and smoked caviar at Zurriola displays his flair with the smoking technique.
Seiichi also had the opportunity to provide French and Spanish translations for Yamamoto-san when they travelled together in Europe previously. “His words, which I helped to translate then, are now deeply ingrained in my mind.”
To experience Seiichi’s Japanese-accented Basque creations, pick from one of two tasting menus. Both use a curated mix of Spanish and Japanese ingredients.
Ta Vie (Hong Kong)
Hideaki Sato parlayed five years of cooking chops in Hermitage de Tamura, a French restaurant in Karuizawa, to join Nihonryri Ryugin in 2009, where he spent three years before being posted to Hong Kong to open Tenku Ryugin , where he stayed for three more years. In 2015, he opened Ta Vie at The Pottinger Hotel.
Proffering Japanese-inflected French cuisine with the philosophy of “pure, simple and seasonal”, Sato’s cuisine features not just Japanese but Asia-wide ingredients from China, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia. “I love Japanese ingredients, they are good and familiar,” Sato says. “But I also want to take advantage of my locale in Hong Kong to deliver something unique.”
“I would need to write a book to document all my learnings from Nihonryori Ryugin,” says the chiseled jawed chef with a smile. “But the most important thing I learnt is chef Yamamoto’s standard as it relates to ingredients, technique, skill and service – his standard has become my standard.”
A dish from the eight-course tasting menu at Ta Vie that embodies Sato’s “standard” is the house-made pasta with seaweed sauce topped with fresh sea urchin. “It is one of my signature dishes – simple taste and appearance but tasty and flavoursome,” says Sato. “This is the result of learning how to bring out and respect the original taste and flavour of the ingredients.”
After learning the ropes in Chinese cuisine at Nishiazabu’s Azabu Chiangjiang, Tomoya Kawada joined Nihonryori Ryugin for three years before moving on to Shoun Ryugin, Taipei, as sous chef. In 2017, he opened Sazenka, an omakase-style Chinese restaurant with Japanese sensibilities.
A signature dish by Kawada that embodies the Japanese-Chinese "strong and delicate" essence of Sazenka is pheasant’s soup. “This soup has the exquisiteness and tastefulness of Chinese cuisine and the flavour of Japanese cuisine,” says Kawada, who uses a medley of Japanese and Chinese ingredients in his 15-course omakase menu.
“I learnt many things in my three years in Nihonryori Ryugin,” says Kawada, who cites techniques in a kitchen-knife, dashi-making and char-grilling as his key technical learnings in the vaunted kitchen of Yamamoto’s restaurant. “But most of all, I learned respect for ingredients and mental fortitude.”