A chef can spend fifty years mastering a cuisine with a thousand-year history; can take the greatest care in choosing his ingredients and training his staff; can keep his counter spare and clean, accented only by a plaque that bears the three Michelin stars he earned twenty-nine years after he opened his restaurant—and still, he may be disrespected by his guests.
Dinner would have been fine, I suspect, had I not spoken. Never mind that the Chinese businessman sitting in the counter seat beside me kept making horribly vulgar comments about women, about his absent wife. Or that the intensity of his mastications would drown out the most dedicated of chewing-gum-smackers. The American family on the far left—the father, checking work emails on his phone; the son, hissing at his father for prioritizing work; the mother, wearily mediating—could largely be ignored. I’d feel the itch of impatience until the next course arrived and all was momentarily forgiven.
But the American mother wanted to chat with her neighbors, and the Chinese businessman spoke poor English. So I, reluctantly, became the interpreter.
Interpreters enable conversation, yet are powerless to direct it. I hated that irony most when the Chinese diner thrust three pieces of wagyu beef in front of the cooks and asked me to tell them that it did not taste like beef. And when the American lady, while challenging the cooks to stop her, asked me to convey to the Chinese diner that she insisted on giving her serving of beef to him. They laughed, raised glasses. I could do nothing but translate and look at the cooks, who had trained for years to respect kaiseki cuisine, and who were now watching it bandied about like ping pong balls.
After dinner, the new friends exchanged business cards and spoke glibly about meeting again in Guilin, or in Napa Valley. The diner to my right, who had clearly wanted no part in the imbroglio, left in great haste. Taxis arrived for the American family to return to the Four Seasons, for the Chinese businessman, presumably, to meet his wife, and then it was just the cooks and the waitstaff, and I and the chef. He was smiling, in spite of it all.
I considered apologizing for my fellow diners, for whom I had become a surrogate. I was reminded, yet again, that money buys prestige, not class.
In the end, I said what I thought was true, something for which I did not have to apologize, and from which I hoped he could take away a little pride:
Thank you for an exquisite meal. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Kichisen, one of a handful of three-Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto, also happens to be among the most affordable (relatively speaking). Located near the 2,000-year-old Shimogamo Shrine, it is helmed by Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa, who gained notoriety in Japan after competing on and winning an episode of Iron Chef. As with all kaiseki meals, each course highlights the freshness of the ingredients, and certainly it is the raw or near-raw dishes that leave the deepest impression: the squid sashimi and wagyu beef, with textures silkier than should be possible, for instance, or the Hokkaido melon, heart-achingly sweet. Solo diners or small groups are seated at the counter and served directly by the cooks; private rooms are also available.
Name in Japanese
5 Tadasu-no-mori (Morimoto-cho), Shimogamo, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto
Mon-Sun: 12:00-14:30, 18:00-22:00
075 711 6121
Around 23,000 JPY per person (excluding drinks)