On my way to the restaurant in Fukuoka where I'm currently a shugyo, or trainee, I bumped into my chef, who motioned me to join him. His destination: the Yanagibashi market.
Established in 1916, this old market is a warren of stalls and narrow passageways, a cooperative of shops that reflect the easygoing charm of this city, the biggest on Japan's Kyushu island, one of my favorite parts of Japan.
As we entered the market the chef greeted fellow chefs also shopping for their restaurant. We stopped at a fish stall with rows of flying fish, tilefish, grunt, bonito, huge squid, sea urchin in their shells, clams and other sea creatures resting on ice or swimming in buckets. A fishmonger served us tea and the chef placed his order.
But chefs weren't the only shoppers at the market. Ordinary residents of the city walked the isles, too, snapping up the same pristine fish and vegetables the chefs cook with at their restaurants. And that's what I love about Japan: The quality and variety of ingredients here are so outstanding -- and readily available to everyone.
What also struck me is the leeway this bounty of ingredients gives the chef in the kitchen. His restaurant serves classic kaiseki cooking, an arresting procession of exquisite seasonal dishes. There's no menu, of course; diners expect the chef to select the finest expressions of "shun," an ingredient's peak season of flavor. And that's exactly what the chef does every morning at the Yanagibashi Market.