Disclosure: Some links on this page are affiliate links from which I will earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
As this long, strange interlude continues, many of us are hankering for a trip overseas, craving fresh cultural encounters, and hungering for a taste of authentic foreign cuisines. No doubt many have Kyoto at the top of their “to visit” list once international travel resumes and feel frustrated that they cannot visit sooner. For the present though, if we are forced to simply dream of travel, perhaps we may while away some time with plans for future journeys, the people we will visit, and the food we will share.
Imagine yourself, one day in the not too distant future, strolling with a friend down Kyoto’s tree-lined Philosopher’s Path, and spotting a warm, firey glow from the windows of a small path-side restaurant, you ask your companion, “What do you think? Shall we give it a try?” A new book from Phaidon, tells the story of what you will find in that restaurant, with personal reflections from its chef and a sensory feast of fine photography to help feed your dreams of Kyoto, along with a series of unique recipes to help you bridge the hungry gap.
monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher’s Path tells the intimate story of monk, a 14-seat restaurant tucked away on a corner of Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Path, where chef Yoshihiro Imai serves up an ever-changing menu of fresh vegetables and Kyoto-style pizza from his wood-fired oven. Imai opened his restaurant in 2015, and quickly won renown for his innovative spin on Japanese cuisine, with his focus on pizza as a simple dish that is easily shared, and which also provides a versatile canvas on which to present a rich variety of local ingredients. The source of those ingredients is also crucial to the restaurant’s success. As Imai writes on his website, “Every morning I visit farms tucked in the mountains of Ohara and visit markets around Kyoto to collect and gather fresh ingredients. Breathing in the wind, I absorb the earth’s energies which I transport to the kitchen, the dishes, and our restaurant.” For Imai, cooking with fire is also central to bringing out the simple flavors of his ingredients and he states that “roasting vegetables in a wood-fired oven is the most delicious possible way to eat them.”
Imai doesn’t just serve pizza of course. That is simply the the climax of a 7-course omakase-style meal (decided by the chef) which heavily emphasizes seasonal vegetables, foraged mushrooms, nuts, and herbs, and game meat such as duck, venison, or wild boar. The main dish is your choice from that day’s pizza options which, depending on the season, may be topped with wildflowers, butterbur, or fiddlehead ferns.
In his book, Imai explains through a series of personal essays how his “primitive” style of cooking with fire, and his “small is beautiful” philosophy is inspired both by Japanese culture and his experiences working at restaurants around the world. The book takes you on a journey through the seasons, with stories of the farmers, fishermen, and artisans who form part of the restaurant’s supply-chain. He also relates how monk has managed to survive the current pandemic, by offering takeout meals and delivery services, that have not only kept his own business afloat and helped support his suppliers, but also enabled him to forge closer bonds with his local community. “It isn’t just the cooking that sustains me,” writes Imai, “but the full monk experience of sharing space with my guests. Everything from the conversations about the ingredients and the farmers to the sight of the burning firewood; the flowers, the music. This period has taught me that it’s the shared feeling of spending time with my guests itself that keeps me nourished.”
As can be expected from Phaidon, this book is a handsome hardback volume, fully illustrated throughout with color photographs from Yuka Yanazume. And at the end of the book Imai has provided a generous selection of 75 recipes which you can try yourself. Monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher’s Path is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.jp, and Amazon.co.uk.
All images by Yuka Yanazume. Text by Michael Lambe. All rights reserved.
Leave a Reply