A Precise Imprecision
The design and aesthetics behind Japanese cuisine
A few weeks ago I was sitting with Sylvan Mishima Brackett, chef and owner of the recently opened San Francisco restaurant Rintaro; the restaurant’s name means woods-boy in Japanese. The restaurant was largely built by Sylvan’s father, the noted carpenter Len Brackett, and the food and the space resemble one another in their attention to detail and their combination of simple elements to produce complex effects. “Rintaro” recalls both Sylvan’s rural upbringing outside of Nevada City, California, and, in a punning way, Sylvan’s dad’s craft, honed over many years of traditional apprenticeship in Kyoto, Japan (traditional Japanese carpenters are, to a great degree, also architects).
From our perch in one of the restaurant’s booths, Sylvan pointed out some of the design features of the space. The bar is a single, enormous piece of Port Orford cedar, and Sylvan knows the tree’s biography as if it were a member of his family. The cedar fell in the 1930s, and Len picked it up in the 1970s, storing it for a special occasion. Sylvan points out that the wood is smooth, though it hasn’t been sanded. “It’s planed with a hand-plane,” he explains, “and it took my father a day and a half to do it.” The bar is gorgeous, as are the booths. Light slants into the space (a one-time machine shop) from high windows, and there’s a sense of having subtly slipped from San Francisco into Kyoto — as if, as Sylvan joked, “San Francisco were a city in Japanese-controlled California.”
I came to Sylvan, who is an old friend of mine, because I knew that I had misconceptions about the central role of design in Japanese food. On my shelf at home is an impossible little piece of writing, The Book of Tea, first published in 1906, whose author, Okakura Kakuzo (also known as Okakura Tenshin), expounds at great length about what he calls “Teaism,” “a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence… The Philosophy of Tea … is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe.”  I didn’t derive my earliest impressions of Japanese food from Okakura, but he does a wonderful job of articulating them. His phrase “moral geometry” captures much of what I thought I knew about Japanese design and aesthetics — my assumption that there were hidden rules behind all of the artifacts of Japanese culture I saw, from temples to bento boxes. The logic of the world spilled out everywhere in shapes, contrasts and figures.
Okakura doesn’t speak for Japanese culture at large; he was an aesthete, and a strange one at that, who wrote The Book of Tea while serving as Curator of Oriental Art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, during the first decade of the twentieth century (when phrases like “Oriental Art” were still in widespread use). His language of “teaism” was meant to describe an elite style of life, something available only to a tiny minority of Japanese — and his work went on to fuel art-historical Orientalisms, bundles of stereotypes and assumptions about the “essence” of a culture, that can survive any amount of education and refinement. An even more abstract version of the same idea comes to us from the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, in his much later book, the 1983 Empire of Signs. Japan, Barthes thought, possessed an “empire of signifiers” so immense that it was in excess of speech.
I somehow came to think that design was the first principle of Japanese food culture, or more precisely, something called me de taberu, “eating with the eyes.” But after many years of eating Japanese food and after many trips to Japan, I knew how incomplete this story was. I wanted to recalibrate, to move beyond Okakura’s “teaism” and my own constant attention to the surface of things. So I went to talk to Sylvan.
Years before our interview at Rintaro, when we were neighbors in Oakland, I had the privilege of eating Sylvan’s home cooking. Then, he was working at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, first as an assistant to Alice Waters and later as Creative Director. I know the level of thought Sylvan puts into everything he does, and knew that Rintaro would reflect that kind of care. I also knew that Sylvan could help me better understand the place of design in Japanese food culture: an important one, but one far more modulated and subtle than I had thought. Rintaro is, notably, an izakaya, a style of Japanese restaurant/bar in which food tends to be relatively casual, intended to delight patrons but also bolster them for a night of drinking. I might have gotten very different answers had I gone directly to someone who makes kaiseki meals, those incredibly careful and formal meals that originated as preambles to the tea ceremony, and that now stand as the most refined version of Japanese cooking.
Ben Wurgaft: So, we’re in Rintaro, and we’re talking about design in Japanese cuisine, but also about the design of the space, and that seems like a good place to start. We were going to talk about your dad’s work in home design.
Sylvan Brackett: A lot of the feeling I was trying to create comes from the house I grew up in, which is out in the woods in the Sierras, outside of Nevada City. My dad bought the land, cut the trees, built the house, and it was really, really far from any utilities, didn’t have regular electricity, we had generators. Until I was about 12, we had an outhouse and we had to re-dig it every couple of months. It was pretty rural. Kerosene lamps. The house my dad built was basically a 16th-century Japanese house in the California woods.
BW: One of the things I remember reading is that when he began to take on clients, he found that people didn’t want to live in quite a 16th century house. And he had studied as a Japanese temple architect first, right? What about the distinction between the carpenter, the builder and the architect?
SB: The thing in Japanese construction is that the head carpenter will most often also be the head architect, and mechanical and structural engineer. It’s this idea of craftsman-as-designer, so although my dad is an architect, he calls himself a carpenter, because in order to design the building you have to know how it’s going to be put together. Especially in Japanese architecture there are all sorts of particular relationships and ratios and if you try to dream up some arbitrary design it won’t work. You can’t force it.
BW: Is there some understanding of the materials themselves that’s needed — say, you need to know what this kind of wood “likes to do”?
SB: Yeah, the strengths of various species of wood. As with so many Japanese things, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and most of the time it’s based on something real.
BW: How has your dad’s work influenced yours?
SB: If you have a beautiful piece of wood and you don’t screw it up, you can have something beautiful. Similarly with food, if you have beautiful ingredients, and you don’t do something bad to them, they will still be delicious when you serve them. So that kind of sensibility. But that’s also a general cook’s rule of thumb, and also a Chez Panisse thing, pretty heavily emphasized there.
BW: You’ve had the unique opportunity to have several strong influences you can draw upon, and I was always curious to ask where Chez Panisse, as a kind of house style, intersects with the kind of Japanese cooking you’ve been interested in, and how it doesn’t.
SB: I definitely have thoughts about that. In terms of my father’s work — it’s not particularly flashy, only in that it is something that is well done, with good materials, and carefully put together in a particular way. So it’s creative but it’s not artsy. In the same way, the food here is not uncreative but it’s not “chefy,” so we have things like the kabocha korokke, (croquettes of kabocha squash, fried in a light tempura batter) such a basic homestyle dish, but if you use very good potatoes and very good kabocha, and you cook them properly, and you season it with good curry powder, and you coat it with very good panko, and you do each step perfectly, you can end up with something pretty extraordinary, even though it’s a basic kind of dish. And we serve it with snowy shredded cabbage because it’s fresh and it’s light and you have to shred the cabbage in a very particular way in order to achieve that, otherwise you get this rough coleslaw-y texture, which is not special at all.
So we use a lot of hidden technique to do something that looks fairly effortless. There’s something similar in [my father’s] work. The tool that he used to hand-plane the bar is very simple — a blade and a block — but of course it’s super subtle because sharpening that blade, keeping it square and adjusting the plane, takes a lot of training. So he made a big, long, smooth bar, that’s nice to touch and that’ll be smooth forever, and that’s because at a microscopic level the wood is cut flat and clean. If you were to look at the same piece of wood that had been sanded, even with very fine-grit sandpaper, at a microscopic level it would have little hairs, it would be rough. As we wipe this wood it will become darker and richer and more beautiful over time. But just looking at it you wouldn’t have any idea of all of the labor that went into it.
BW: One thing I’ve been curious about — and maybe I came to this topic because I had this assumption I wanted to question — was the emphasis on visual presentation in a lot of Japanese food. I’ve been curious about all the invisible labor that goes into food that ends up seeming effortless.
SB: I worked at a place in Tokyo where we would cook the soybeans, and peel the soybeans — like, take them out of the pods, boil the soybeans, and then peel each individual bean — then turn it into a soup. It was absolutely ludicrous, because it was a waste of time and money, just very finicky. Then there’s a lot of very carefully and beautifully done carrot garnishes and the like, and I tend to shy away from that. First of all, I don’t really know how to do all of that stuff very well, and secondly it doesn’t really fit with the kind of vibe I’m going for, which is trying to be a little unpretentious and straightforward.
But that said, there are a lot of techniques for cutting, for example, a beautiful piece of sashimi. It’s not an easy thing to do. If you ever buy a piece of fish and try to cut sashimi, it will not look right unless you know how to do it. This was one of my early discoveries when I was working at Chez Panisse. I would try to take a kind of Chez Panisse approach to cooking Japanese food before I had much training. I would get a beautiful piece of fish and cut it, and it would be good, but it wouldn’t be extraordinarily good.
BW: So one of the things I’m trying to focus on is the distance between the stereotype of Japanese food — the centrality of some aesthetic vocabulary items like asymmetry, for example — and the way Japanese people eat every day. And I wanted to ask for your thoughts on the way design either figures or doesn’t figure, here, as a big deal in everyday Japanese cooking.
SB: There’s Japanese cooking and then there’s Japanese cooking. Because of my father’s experience being an apprentice, I have a lot of respect for the training it takes to do something at a very, very high level. I don’t pretend to do that kind of cooking. The kind of cooking I do is, I would say home cooking-esque, but it’s definitely advanced. Unless you were a very good home cook you couldn’t find all the ingredients and make it at the level that we’re doing it.
I do pay attention to some norms, like I don’t serve four of something, I serve things in odd numbers usually, I like stuff to look fairly natural on the plate so there’s not a lot of lined up pieces or squirts of sauce. I want it to look like it was done by somebody who wasn’t worried about the way it looked, except that they managed to do it perfectly.
BW: In many places, you would see people coming into Japanese restaurants and thinking, “I need to know the rules, so that I know how to appreciate it.”
SB: I think that there’s this kind of old-school Japanese restaurant, where you have chefs who come from Japan, they serve American customers who douse all of the rice in soy sauce, and they — the chefs — just get super frustrated, and they react to that by putting up signs that say “soy sauce by request only,” or the kind of “Sushi Nazi” thing where they’re yelling at you for putting the wrong thing on the wrong thing, because Japan is very particular. But I think that by being kind of aggressive and trying to enforce rules, you’re going against a more important tenet of hospitality in Japanese restaurants. In Japan, the service tends to be quite fabulous and you’d never have anyone talking to you like that.
I’m in a unique position because I grew up here, though my mother is Japanese, and I understand both cultures pretty well. I can explain Japanese food to an American audience without making the food lame, as in the teriyaki chicken of the world. Although you can make beautiful teriyaki chicken.
You have to keep the integrity of the thing you’re doing, but you don’t want to do something so obscure that people don’t know what the hell it is. So we have kind of a mix on the menu. We have the korokke, which every four-year-old in the country would probably be happy to eat it; and then we also have natto go-an, which is really good natto (fermented soybeans), and house-made umeboshi (pickled plum) paste, and its a very advanced taste. We try to do both things, because Japanese food contains all that.
BW: You can see contrast within a single dish — say, between a thing and its sauce — but it’s harder to see this between dishes. The idea that there might be a conversation between the things on your plate is usually less obvious.
SB: Yeah, and cold things and hot things and steamed things and fresh things and crunchy things and soft things.
BW: Like that old idea behind the combination of foods in a bento box: something from the mountains and something from the oceans and something from the plains.
Sylvan jumped back into the kitchen after our chat and I dawdled a bit at Rintaro, continuing to look at the midday San Francisco sun making its way through the fog and then into the high-beamed ceiling. I made arrangements to come in for dinner, hoping the sensory experience would help me with my quandary more than simply puzzling things through on my own. But before I ate at Rintaro, I interviewed Merry White, an anthropologist at Boston University (and, as it happens, my mother) who has spent much of her career conducting fieldwork in Japan, and who writes on Japanese foodways. She is well acquainted with the idea that cultures — including cultures of design — are far more complex and ambiguous than any analogy with language would suggest. In particular, I hoped she could help me to understand the idea of “eating with the eyes” itself.
Ben Wurgaft: To start off, what’s the significance of me de taberu in the way non-Japanese often encounter Japanese food?
Merry White: I find that right from the beginning, one problem with telling people that Japanese food has “principles,” is that people focus upon the principles and forget that it’s much more fun that that. When I take people who are earnest and well-meaning and smart to a Japanese restaurant, they assume there’s a right way of eating there. They’re glad I’m there to explain everything to them, because they think that without the explanation they can’t organize their experience, understand and enjoy the food.
BW: What role does visual presentation play here?
MW: Well, I suppose visual presentation gives them a hook for their understanding — it’s about being pretty, emulating or invoking nature, which is one of the great principles of Japanese foodways: an aesthetic of seasonality. But it’s not only about the visual. It’s a multiple experience in which all the senses are invoked. Flavor itself is only one dimension — it’s broader, it can even be about your companions, which is a big deal in Chinese and Japanese cuisine both, and the literal meaning of “companion,” from the Latin, is the person you eat your bread with — com-panion.
One aspect of me de taberu is diversity, the use of different colors for contrast, across all the different possibilities and variables of flavor as well as sight and sound — asymmetry is also an element. The important aspect of kaiseki is diversity and seasonality and attention to creating a specific mood, the importance of place, the importance of the meal itself, but also its transience. The moment a menu or meal gets codified, its raison d’etre is lost. Often these meals do involve a stylized imitation of nature: for example, nature is controlled by reducing it to, say, a pine branch with two needles, one of which pierces a gingko nut. Not that kaiseki is supposed to be fussy! There’s a casualness about it, a way that even these very special things are presented as if they’d just fallen on the plate. Now, I need to point out that most Japanese don’t get one of these meals in their entire lives. Sushi in Japan, too, is a rare experience. In Japan you don’t get sushi in supermarkets, generally speaking. It’s very special. Which is why Japanese wonder at how we have sushi all the time!
The kaiseki aesthetic developed through the rejection of the gaudy court art of China, at a time when Japan’s leaders were looking for something that would say “we are Japan;” this in the 1600–1700s, a time of peace, when the Shogun and the Daimyos [lords serving under the Shogun] could spend more money on the arts, showing things off to one another and bringing in the best ceramicists from Korea. Daimyos would even steal one another’s ceramicists. The art itself could be very restrained; this is also the time when the concept of wabi-sabi [an aesthetic, broadly, of imperfection, impermanence and incompletion] came in, and the tea ceremony was rusticated, the images were very simple and evocative and slightly melancholy, restrained, and there was competition to be more restrained in a Zen-like way, a slight feeling of mono no aware, that is, the feeling that everything is transient, everything passes, everything dissolves, and this is important in food because of course everything does — this is where Buddhism and food culture meet.
And I’ll just reiterate that the kaiseki meal is something that most Japanese never experience, even among the wealthy, if they don’t seek it out. And of course I should give the usual warning that there is no such thing as “Japanese food!” It’s as regional, if perhaps not as explicitly so, as Italian food. And kaiseki isn’t the only part of Japanese food that pays attention to aesthetics — another great example is the bento box that mothers pack for their children’s school lunch. If you look up “kawaii bentos” [cute bentos] online, you’ll be astounded. But part of the ploy of the bento box is to make the food attractive so that the child will eat it, and specifically eat “something from the mountains, something from the plains, and something from the sea.” When my daughter and I lived in Japan and I would pack her bento, she had this wonderful expression, “it’s like a dollhouse for food.” But I weep for the women who think they have to make them.
Something I need to point out is that the idea of “rules” in food aesthetics would be foreign to many Japanese; they’d probably say, “what rules?” Japanese food aesthetics can be very democratic. The noodle guy on the street will place those pork slices off-center, in an artful manner, with some consciousness behind his actions.
BW: But doesn’t that really lead us back to the question of whether or not there is an underlying rule?
MW: I don’t want to use the word “rules,” it sounds too top-down, as you might understand this in the West. Say instead that it’s an aesthetic that’s shared across society, rather than a trickle-down from elites to masses. It makes you feel that there is a shared expectation of what food should look like, of what food should be — food should possess the elements of asymmetry, seasonality, all those things we mentioned.
BW: Can I ask where the emphasis on asymmetry comes from?
MW: Obviously you find asymmetry in nature, you see this on TV shows about nature, and that’s lovely. In a paradoxical way, isn’t the interest in nature also an interest in the unpredictable, the thing over which you don’t have control? Maybe asymmetry is about humility and it’s about what you can’t control.
BW: You’re engaged in a new project on the “work of food” in Japan. How has attention to the ways in which foods are made influenced your understanding of how Japanese foods are designed?
MW: All of it adds to a bigger picture of the experience of taste — it includes, for example, the way tea is whisked, but it isn’t a scripted ritual, it’s a way of doing it that has proven to please all aspects of the experience. I took tea ceremony lessons in Japan for a whole year, five hours a week, and you know, I tried to not ask American questions like “Why are we doing this,” but my teacher sensed it, and she said, “The reason we do all this is to give a friend a nice cup of tea.”
BW: What do you take from that?
MW: It’s a human exchange, it’s about omoiyari, sensitivity to a moment in a relationship, and you are sensitive to all aspects of the room, the mood of the person you’re with, and what they like and what they don’t like. You can translate omoiyari as sensitivity to others, or anticipation of the needs or desires of others. What will make them happy. There’s meaning in the transaction between host and guest.
My friends and I arrived at Rintaro at 6:30 on a warm Saturday evening, walking through the courtyard past a log Sylvan had hollowed out for pounding mochi. I tried to put the interviews out of my mind to make room for the experience itself.
Delicious smells came from Sylvan’s kitchen — miso, fish, chicken, onion — but I noticed that they didn’t mask the scent of the wood Rintaro is made from; the walls are hand-packed clay, and the interior of the restaurant is defined by hand-made wooden beams (most things are beveled; no sharp edges), and by that beautiful long bar made out of a single piece of wood.
I noticed that everything seemed to float: not just the things that usually do, like the simple but elegant floral arrangement, but also the booth we were sitting in (raised a few inches from the floor), the latticework of non-load-bearing beams, upon which various objects were perched.
We ordered an array of sakes and then much of what was offered on the pleasantly short menu: Bergamot Tofu; Na No Hana To Aka Kabu No Shira-Ae, a plate of rapini and turnips with a dressing of tofu and walnut; Maguro Namero, a yellowtail tuna Sashimi dish flavored with ginger, lime sesame oil and miso; and then beautifully grilled skewers of chicken and mushrooms. Kabocha Korokke arrived — those croquettes of kabocha squash with snowy cabbage on the side, followed by a plate of Nishin Nanban, or “southern barbarian style” herring with a spicy vinegar. There was also Dashimaki tamago, a folded egg omelette that was one of my own childhood favorites, and rice with steelhead roe harvested by members of the Quinault Nation in the Pacific Northwest, with wasabi from nearby Half Moon Bay. Dessert was a soy sauce-flavored crème brûlée, served with a sesame cookie, and a matcha pave — green tea and white chocolate cake with a candied kumquat. Finally there was buckwheat tea, accompanied by deep satiation and contentment.
I remembered Sylvan’s insistence that he really doesn’t care if guests notice the handmade clay walls, the beveling of the wood, or any other detail, so long as they enjoy themselves. I could see what he meant about the subtlety of technique — his food isn’t showy, or “chef-y,” as he put it, and the dishes are relatively simple — but simple the way a perfectly cut jacket is simple, or the way his father’s work with a hand-plane is simple: grounded not by elaborate formulas or theories, but by an appreciation of the basic properties of things, and of the complexity they can produce in combination.