I and Jon met at a Japanese kitchen knife shop called Tosho Knife Arts located in Toronto, Canada. I met many amazing people there include him. They made me realize that many things from Japan keep making people interest and many people are trying to belong to the Japanese culture. They dreamed to come to Japan to learn some skill and culture, but Jon was the only person actually did it.
I start this project not only because he is a humble and nice guy, but I also start to think that we need to explain more about our detail of culture. Because it took a long time to build in history, there are so many small details and it is really easy to miss, but importantly these are all connected. It may easy to indicate the wrong knowledge but we need to try to explain why and how they do it, I believe that is the way we can bring the tradition on next generation in this world. Please enjoy about Japan looking through Jon's eye as Kaiseki cook.
- President of Hitohira: Hokuto Aizawa
MY STORY: JON KLIP
Japanese food brought me halfway around the world since leaving my hometown of Toronto over five years ago. I currently live and work at a century-old restaurant in Arashiyama, a small town located in the outskirts of Kyoto, Japan. I often feel out of place here. Unfamiliarity is a frequent visitor, appearing whilst knee-deep in the mud of a rice field or sorting through a bucket of live eels.
Food has, and continues to be a guiding force in my life. I can remember being in middle school, opening my lunchbox, and receiving many curious glares from my peers. Inquiries would stir, with questions like, “Jon, what is that??” and “Is that chicken? Why is it red?” as I cut into the red-wine-braised-rabbit leftovers. At the time, I thought it was normal to have such extravagant meals, but I’ve since realized how fortunate I am to have parents who fostered such a beautiful appreciation for food.
My time in high school was aimless; no sports, no music, bad grades. I often felt unmotivated, with little to no future aspirations. The restaurant kitchen gifted me the direction I needed. The kitchen was a beacon of ambition and drive. This environment felt like home; I knew it was my purpose. Little did I know, in a few short years, I would be cutting Hamo (pike-tooth conger eel) in Arashiyama.
The Japanese knife exposed authentic Washoku (Japanese food). After a few years of working in sales and as a sharpener at Tosho Knife Arts in Toronto, I was given the chance to train with the blacksmith Shosui Takeda san of Takeda Hamono in Okayama. A charismatic craftsman, artist and serious gourmand. We enjoyed Suppon Nabe, a simmered dish of the wild softshell turtle, local wild boar and whale. I was exposed to a world of food, realizing an instant connection but not fully understanding why.
After working in European cuisine for a number of years, I found myself at the back doorstep of a Shojin Kaiseki restaurant in New York City. Their style of cooking originated in the art of Japanese tea ceremony and was limited to the Buddhist monk’s diet (void of all animal protein). Although in the middle of Manhattan, living and working there felt more immersive than living in Kyoto. I was the only English speaking member of the kitchen and knew nothing yet of Sen no Rikyu or the monk Sengai. The restaurant and the chefs I worked with opened my mind and took me into the ancient world of Kaiseki.
I was entrusted with running the counter (granted, I was the only one who could speak English) and did most of the restaurant’s ordering. Though it was an incredible opportunity, I became frustrated and quit. I could not apply my newfound skills and knowledge in this environment. Work methods seemed medieval and out of date. The hierarchy and interpersonal working relationships were the most difficult to grasp. I watched my coworkers work day and night. Their mental and physically health crumbled. In my first three weeks there, I lost seven kilos. (Those weren’t a spare seven I was carrying either.) At 22 years old, I was ready to forget the turmoil evading Japanese kitchens.
With an imminent visa expiry, I received email from my friend Sam at 10:00 pm. I didn’t read it until a few hours after finished work. He sent me the link to apply to a program under the Japanese ministry of agriculture. It was a free ticket to Japan for 15 foreigners. The itinerary involved a month of language and cooking school followed by six months of unpaid work in historic Japanese restaurants . The offer seemed fabricated. I thought, “It shouldn’t be this easy? There must be a catch. There always is.” The deadline for the application was at midnight, only 25 minutes away. I decided it was not too late, and I should seize the opportunity. It was unlikely they would even be interested (or so I thought).
I could not get to sleep (a rarity considering my perpetual sleep deprivation). I could not stop thinking about the opportunity to train in some of the best kitchens in Japan. The only thing keeping me from applying was simply being too tired to get up. I gave up on sleep, finally got out of bed at 2:30 am, and started to write my essay for the application. I could at least say, “I tried” and go back to bed. It was all on a whim. I did not anticipate the results.
One week later, in the middle of setting up the counter, my chef gets a call. He is speaking Japanese and repeatedly glancing at me from across the room. He put the phone down to his chest and shouts, “Jon, you want to go to Japan?” I quickly nodded my head, baffled by the question, having already forgotten about the email last week. In a surprising turn of fate, some of the government staff in charge of selecting chefs for the program were eating at our sister restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo. Next thing I know, I was in a Skype interview and on my way to the Japanese consulate office in Manhattan.
After a short month in Tokyo, those who made the final cut were on to the next stage. We would start our formal education on Japanese cuisine and culture in the old capital, Kyoto. Three weeks of intensive training at Chourishi Senmon Gakko flew by, a glimpse of what Japanese food culture is all about. Now, we would delve into the depths of Kaiseki. Each of us were sent to different restaurants all over Japan. No one was there to hold our hand. From this point on, we were on our own, skimming by on a couple weeks of language lessons and Katsuramuki.
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This article was written by Jon Klip. Please visit here to see his recent work on Instagram.