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Stripping things down to their bare essentials

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CHEF Genta Aoyagi at work.

THE JAPANESE have a gift in stripping something down to its core, allowing for the most essential and most important to come through. We had a taste of the essential on Sept. 19 at the Conrad Manila’s Brasserie on 3’s food promotion, A Taste of Japan. The promotion will run until Sept. 23.

Preparing the kaiseki dinner was Genta Aoyagi, head chef of Hilton Tokyo’s Junisoh Restaurant. Kaiseki is a word that means many things: it is first analogous to the Western degustacion, that is, a meal of multiple courses designed to give the diner a taste. On the other hand, it can also mean a small meal served to guests before a tea ceremony. And then it can also mean the set of skills a chef requires to execute such a presentation: a meal, a gathering, and a lifetime, all in one word.

For his part, Mr. Aoyagi is the Tokyo Governor winner of the 2015 National Japanese Cuisine Competition, while also bringing home the top titles for National Japanese Culinary Arts Championship in 2016 and 2017. Just last year, he was officially certified as a professional Japanese Culinary Cuisine Chef.

For dinner, the meal opened with Torched squid served in a champagne coupe with grilled eggplant and seaweed jelly. Around the stem of the champagne coupe was the menu, executed in the chef’s own beautiful calligraphy. In any case, the smoky eggplant served to wake up the taste buds for the next few courses, all while employing texture using the squid and the jelly.

A sashimi rainbow of tuna, salmon, and amberjack was served next, by turns velvety, distinctly marine, and then positively alive with freshness. Next came slices of tuna crusted with rice crackers. The rice cracker crust provided a nutty, crunchy contrast to the raw tenderness of the fish.

The meal’s piece de resistance, served on a very thin shaving of pinewood, was grilled wagyu beef with miso and steamed rice. While I describe it as a piece de resistance, it is an exercise in simplicity, the beef tasting as if it had been lopped off the animal just minutes before. The word “umami,” pertaining to a pleasant savory taste is thrown about so casually these days, but it felt as if I have only encountered this true taste in the wagyu’s miso crust.




Asked about the simple execution of the dishes, and the importance of emphasizing natural flavor in Japanese cuisine, Mr. Aoyagi said through an interpreter, “The French and the Chinese, when you cook, you always add the flavor. Add, add, add.” He then implied that in the Japanese tradition, it’s about “taking away the flavor,” roughly translating to stripping down an ingredient to its essentials. “Kaiseki is [for]…you to feel the natural flavor of the ingredients.”

Zeny Iglesias, Public Relations Consultant for the Conrad Manila said that Mr. Aoyagi’s guest appearance at the hotel is a portent of things to come. As an initiative of the Hilton community in the region, she said, “We’d like to promote each other. We’d like to really share the culinary secrets of our world-renowned chefs. That is why this is the first of a series.”

The dinner described above is available as a set menu for P3,800 nett; while the buffet at Brasserie on 3 is priced at P1,400 nett per person for lunch and P1,900 nett for dinner. — JLG