An extraordinary invitation prompted my trip to Japan this past June: A chance to spend a month training in the kitchen of Hyotei, the hallowed 400-year-old ryotei in Kyoto. Hyotei is no ordinary restaurant. Located along a historic pilgrim's route to Nanzen-ji Temple, it started out as a teahouse where travelers could rest, refresh and change their woven reed sandals before entering the temple's hallowed grounds, just up the road. Today, the original thatched-roof teahouse and genkan, or entranceway, still stand from four centuries ago -- and the direct descendents of the founders, the Takahashi family, still welcome guests 16 generations later. Hyotei defines the intrinsically Japanese notions of omotenashi, tea, and kaiseki ryori; to spend a month in the midst of the extended Takahashi family (that's what the restaurant felt like - a big family), was a profoundly seminal experience. It was also an incredibly moving one; I'm humbled by the welcome, kindness and warmth everyone there bestowed on me.
I've been thinking about how to write about this experience for weeks now. I could fill a book with what I saw and learned -- wait, there's an idea -- and I'm still unraveling everything in my mind. So right now, I thought to share a bunch of photos I took during my training to give you a glimpse inside this traditional kitchen. Cooks don't just work at Hyotei; they embrace a life of total commitment and focus -- they typically spend a decade training, and live in the restaurant's dorm. All the food was important, from the sublime dishes served to guests to the daily makanai, or staff meals. Ingredients were delivered every morning in tiny, absolutely fresh quantities by a steady stream of vendors, some whose companies have been supplying Hyotei for generations. And -- I love this -- the restaurant's signature dish was a simple soft-boiled egg, accented with a drop of soy sauce. An egg. The simplicity, velvety yolk, perfect eggy flavor of that egg, harvested by an elderly farmer in tiny farm in northern Kyoto, and carefully sliced in half and composed on in a stunning presentation says it all about Hyotei, and Japanese cooking. (My deepest thanks to the Takahashi family.) Here are the photos: