Anatomy of a Plate with Chef Chris Kajioka
How do chefs create the dishes that they make? What lessons can we learn from them to advance ourselves and the food industry as a whole? With each interview, we examine and dissect the creative processes behind taking a dish from conception, through development, plating, and eventually service to reveal the Anatomy of a Plate.
I first met Chef Chris Kajioka in 2012 outside of a hot dog stand in Honolulu. It wasn’t until after he left that the owner of the stand told me that he was the chef opening Vintage Cave.
Vintage Cave is backed by Japanese developer Takeshi Sekiguchi, and has been described as a restaurant that caters to the top 1% of the 1%.
When Kajioka was hired to be Vintage Cave’s first chef, Sekiguchi pretty much gave him a blank check with the directive to build the best restaurant in the world.
This shook the Hawaii food scene to it’s core, and created a mystique behind both Vintage Cave and Kajioka.
Who hasn’t joked among their friends about what they would do if a rich uncle they didn’t know about left them a fortune?
Kajioka was that guy. He was the chef with blank check, and the day I met him on the street, he seemed almost… normal.
Since that day on the street, I’ve had many opportunities to see Kajioka at work and to taste his food both when he was at Vintage Cave, and at his current restaurant, Senia.
I was able to see how he works, and now, I get to find out how he thinks in this chapter of Anatomy of a Plate.
When talking with Kajioka, he can be a bit of an enigma in the way that he is constantly thinking about food, while not really putting any thought into his food.
“My creative process happens pretty quick,” says Kajioka. “I don’t spend a lot of time on R&D where I’m constantly working on a dish.”
A dish that has become one of his signatures at Senia is a charred cabbage cooked with konbu, served with green goddess dressing and buttermilk.
“I did it for a dinner at the Food & Wine Chef’s club in New York,” recalls Kajioka. “It was the first time I did it, and we didn’t even practice the dish before we went there.” Kajioka pointed out during our interview that chefs don’t typically want to do a new untested dish for a group of food people in New York, but in this case, it worked out.
“I would like to say that I try these dishes over and over before they make it to the menu,” says Kajioka, “but, not really.”
Kajioka’s dishes always start with an ingredient. Once he has an ingredient in mind, his thought process then goes to questions like how has he used this ingredient before, and what can he do differently to make it more interesting or unique.
Although the idea for some of his dishes may come as an afterthought, he actively thinks about how to build on the flavor a dish once that idea takes root.
“I like dishes to be balanced and I like umami,” says Kajioka. “How much natural umami can we pull out?”
The layers of umami for the cabbage dish starts with a dashi infused with konbu and ginger. “It goes great with charred cabbage, which is super savory,” explains Kajioka. “From there, we’re just building layers of umami, like in parmesan, so it eats a lot heavier than it really is.”
To balance out the savory aspects of the dish, Kajioka adds dill for its bright flavor and buttermilk serves as an acid to break up the umami.
The final touch is a green goddess dressing that serves as a creamy element that brings the dish together.
“It’s not like I’m coming up with combinations that are crazy. To me they just make sense. It’s not anything wild, I’m not trying to be different, I just want to make something delicious,” says Kajioka, “That’s how I try to think about it.”
The Perfect Bite
Kajioka also spends a lot of time thinking about plate ware. “It’s not just how it looks,” says Kajioka, “but how the food eats on the plate.”
Kajioka admits that there have been times when he’s thought about the plates before thinking about the food that would go on it, particularly during his tenure at Vintage Cave.
There were pieces that were for certain dishes, which included a bowl he designed specifically for egg dishes. When it was time to change the menu, Kajioka would change the flavors in the egg dish.
At Senia, Kajioka does a venison tartar on toasted brioche that has a plate specifically designed for that dish.
Local Maui Venison is cooked with mushrooms and konbu to emphasize the umami, and is served on house-made brioche. “It’s super tasty. It doesn’t have much eye appeal, but it’s a dish that when we drop it, we know that people are going to love it,” Kajioka says proudly.
It’s a dish that has found a home, usually as the third course, on the Senia tasting menu.
The slight curve of the dish cradles the toasted brioche, so it doesn’t slide around like on a standard plate. The rounded edges serve as a pedestal, which showcases the dish, while making it easy for the diner to pick up the tartar.
I can see what Kajioka means by the dish not having much eye appeal. The various shades of brown make for a dreary color palate, however, the design of the plate helps it stand tall, proud, and reminiscent of a Greek column.
The Venison tartar is also a prime example of what Kajioka calls, “a perfect bite.”
“In a way, I want to take eating out of people’s hands,” says Kajioka. “Instead of putting things all over the place, I want to build it in a way that forces the diner to eat the dish a certain way.”
Similar to a trifle with layers, the Venison tartar is composed in a manner that the diner tastes every component in one bite.
“When you start deconstructing everything,” adds Kajioka, “the diner never gets a piece of everything in a bite, so they never get what the dish is really about.”
East vs West
When Kajioka opened Vintage Cave, he was given the directive to build the best restaurant in the world. As ambitious as that sounds, with names like Per Se, Aziza, and Parallel 37 on his resume, he had the pedigree to do it.
Many site the prestigious Michelin guide as the be all end all of high cuisine.
When the Michelin published its first Japan guide, many questioned the inclusion of sushi and yakitori restaurants.
How can places that serve just sushi or just yakitori compare to restaurants that do multiple course tasting menus paired with wine programs?
Given Kajioka’s career and his outlook on Japanese cuisine, I wondered if he had any thoughts on if there was parity between the two. So, I asked him, is a Michelin-rated sushi restaurant as good as an equally rated restaurant that does a multi-course tasting menu?
“That’s a fair argument, but I think it is just as hard to operate a restaurant that specializes in sushi or yakitori as it is to run one that does a multi-course tasting.
The quality of the food is what they are thinking about. It’s probably harder to be a specialist than to do a multi course that has a lot more bells and whistles.
There’s no hiding for a person who is grilling chicken. They break down the chicken perfectly, they have to cook it perfectly, and then they have to season it perfectly.
You have to be perfect every time.
I give anyone with a restaurant credit because it is so difficult. Any type of restaurant is difficult. I don’t think there is really a difference.”
Cooking with Confidence
Kajioka says that when he visited Japan for the first time, he fell in love.
“To me Japan is my ultimate inspiration,” laments Kajioka. “They have the best product treated with the best technique, but very simply. There is so much confidence in their cooking.”
Kajioka aspires to be as technically skilled as chefs in Japan, and said that if he were not a chef, he would be a sushi chef.
“Think about sushi and how skilled you have to be to be an amazing sushi chef,” says Kajioka. “Sushi has layers of flavor achieved though curing and aging. How you treat the fish. How you treat the rice, and the combination of the two. That’s big time technique, and I’m not that good.”
Like Kajioka, I am a firm believer that the simpler the dish, the harder it is to execute, and you can see the Japanese influence in his dishes.
“When I was younger, I wanted to put a lot of things on the plate” says Kajioka, “Now, I want the plate to look deceptively simple.”
As an example, Kajioka shared a story of a couple from San Francisco dining at the chef’s counter. They commented how very unassuming the cabbage dish looks, but when you eat it, it’s very complex.
“It all needs to make sense,” Kajioka adds, “Don’t throw all kinds of shit on the plate just because. Focus on the ingredients and then look for compliments that will add to that ingredient. All the garnishes that we add to the plate now make sense. If we put pea shoots on the salmon dish, it’s because there are English peas on the plate.”
My discussion with Kajioka about parity between Michelin restaurants was eye opening, mostly because early in my career, specialization was not emphasized in my training.
On the first day of my pastry apprenticeship with Chef Ernst Hiltbrand, he sat me down and complimented me about my proficiency at bread baking, therefore I was no longer allowed to bake bread as an apprentice.
He explained that the the purpose of my apprenticeship was not to make me a better baker, it was to make me a better pastry chef.
“Pastry chefs don’t just bake bread,” Hiltbrand told me. “They have to be able to do everything.” Pastry chefs need to bake bread, bake pastries pastries, decorate cakes, work with chocolate, make desserts, do show work, so on and so forth.
I could have chosen to specialize in any area of pastry, and made a good career out of it, however, Chef Hiltband showed me that I was more than just a baker – I was a chef. And to be a good chef, I had to be proficient in more than just one thing. Chefs are cooks, they are bakers, they are managers, they are psychiatrists, they are leaders, and yes, sometimes they are dish washers too.
The thing to keep in mind is that whether you are a specialist or a jack-of-all-trades, neither philosophy is wrong.
Yes, it is important to be well rounded, and be proficient in all aspects of your field. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with focusing on a specific area of your chosen field and refining your skills to achieve true mastery.
Both schools of thought have their advantages and their weaknesses, yet they both require the same commitment towards learning, and hard work. Neither is better than the other, and you need both types of people in your kitchen to succeed.