Chef Motokazu Nakamura is the 6th generation head chef and owner of the Michelin 2-star kaiseki restaurant Nakamura. This article, translated from a series about the top Kyoto chefs, discusses the importance of the concept of “isshisōden” – the Japanese custom of the preservation of a secret art by transmitting the oral tradition from parent to just one child. This word prefixes the full title of the restaurant: Isshisōden Kyōnoaji Nakamura
The method of transmission that characterises Nakamura is known as “isshisōden” 一子相伝. Passing down a tradition to just one child, who is your own flesh and blood, is like creating something so precious that it can never be taken away, which is quite different to the way that a master craftsman or scholar might just choose some disciple to carry on their lineage. In the “isshisōden” way, the parent can take pride in the reassurance that the tradition will be passed on into the future without the slightest change. It is this pride that is reflected in the name of the Kyoto cuisine restaurant “Isshisoden Nakamura.”
The history of restaurant itself starts in 1804, when the founding Nakamura set up a fish shop which supplied tilefish, mackerel, flounder, and so on, that had been brought directly from Wakasa Bay, on the Sea of Japan, to Kyoto, along the famous “Mackerel Highway.” From the time of second generation Nakamura, they honed their cooking skills by preparing meals that were particularly liked by the court nobility. Then the third generation Nakamura expanded the catering business and fourth generation Nakamura opened an inn for visiting important government officials, until finally, they opened up their own Kyoto cuisine restaurant. And so now the sixth generation inheritor of these Nakamura specialties is Motokazu Nakamura, who carries on the tradition with dishes such as shiromiso-ozoni and guji-no-sakeyaki [tilefish grilled with sake].
Let’s take for example the shiromiso-ozoni, which is one of Nakamura’s signature dishes. A round cake of mochi is baked on coals until it releases a pleasing char-grilled aroma; then the mochi is immersed into a glossy white miso soup and garnished with a thinned karashi mustard. This dish is closely associated with the cuisine of the Imperial Court from the era when the palace was located in Kyoto. The chef’s skill is in drawing out the flavours of these four simple ingredients – water, miso, karashi mustard, and mochi – without the use of dashi stock or added seasoning.
Motokazu Nakamura says, “As the only son inheriting the culinary tradition of Nakamura, what was transmitted to me was just simple cooking. For this reason, there’s just no need for fancy bells and whistles! For example, you have to be aware of the slight changes in the taste of the miso, such as the miso at the bottom of the barrel is more pungent than the sweeter tasting miso from the middle of the barrel. And the mochi has to be grilled to just the right degree in order to bring out the sweetness of the miso. It is this perfect and complete balance of those four ingredients that is the foundation of culinary success.”
The essential sense for a chef to develop is not so much in the craft of cooking, but rather to what extent he is able to “hear the voice of the ingredients.” Precisely because this is such an intuitive sense, handing down this knowledge is extremely difficult. Cultivating this intuitive sense of taste by educating the palate and developing an understanding through the body can only be learned by being fully immersed in the tradition from early childhood. It would seem then that this means of transmission is indeed a unique method.
Motokazu Nakamura continues, “In talking about isshisōden, I don’t mean that we learn secret arts of cooking that we cannot share with the outside. But rather, what is learned is a kind of spirituality through which we can transmit this knowledge about the ingredients to the guests we serve. When I was learning how to grill the mochi for the ozoni from my father, who was the fifth generation Nakamura, he would say ‘Grill this mochi as if your life depended on it!’ He really thought it wasn’t an exaggeration to say you have to risk your life for this mochi! [laugh] But now when I think about it, I realise that it was this attitude of complete devotion towards cooking that was passed on down to me.”
In cultivating this deep harmony between parent and child, it is the spirit of offering the guest a unique and precious experience that is the true culinary inheritance.
You can read an interview in English with Motokazu Nakamura at Phaidon