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23 July 2014

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Big in Japan: interview with Yoshihiro Murata

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chrysan interview 2012_yoshihiro murata - Chrysan_Yoshihiro-Murata.jpgHe’s the master of traditional kaiseki Japanese haute cuisine and the apple of Michelin’s eye but chef Yoshihiro Murata is now intent on conquering London. Ben McCormack finds out more about the launch of Chrysan in the City.

Yoshihiro Murata may not be a household name in the UK, but in his native Japan, he’s the most Michelin-starred chef around. Murata is the third generation chef-patron of Kikunoi Honten, a 100-year-old ryotei (Japan’s most traditional and luxurious type of restaurant) in Kyoto, which holds three stars. He also has two stars apiece for Kikunoi Roan, also in Kyoto, and Kikunoi Akasaka, in Tokyo. But his profile in Britain is set to rocket with the opening of Chrysan, near Liverpool Street, launched in partnership with the Hakkasan Group.

Of course, every three Michelin-starred chef worth their salt wants a profile in London, and Murata is no exception. ‘London is the centre of Europe,’ he says, ‘so if I can succeed in London, I know I can succeed in Europe, too.’

Unusually for a Japanese chef, Murata did part of his training in France, taking what he learnt back to Kyoto to modernise his family’s cuisine. It was while studying in France that Murata made his first trip to London – and he’s been an Anglophile ever since. ‘I feel that English people are trustworthy and fair. They don’t talk with hidden messages.’

Murata is best known in Japan for kaiseki cuisine. ‘Literally, it means “bosom stone”,’ he explains. ‘It comes from Zen monks who would be outside consulting the stars. They used to put a hot stone in their robes against their chest to relieve their hunger. These days, it simply means a traditional menu of small courses.’

Where Chrysan departs from Murata’s restaurants in Japan is that here, kaiseki has been adapted to western sensibilities. ‘I believe that food has to be local to the tastes and culture; it doesn’t make sense to serve the same thing in London as in Tokyo.’ So as well as a seven-course kaiseki menu, you can have a three-course meal at Chrysan, featuring much bigger main courses than you would find in Japan, and sushi is served at the start of the meal instead of the end.

Forging a new style

chrysan 2012 - Chrysan-2012.jpg‘For the main courses, I use beef, duck, lamb and pork, which in traditional Japanese cuisine would never happen. But because I use traditional techniques, the end result is still Japanese.’

What’s more, Chrysan is just the start. ‘I believe this way of serving kaiseki will become an accepted Japanese style. My mission is to spread good Japanese cuisine around the world. Traditionally, there are restrictions, so if another Japanese chef tried this style outside Japan people might say, “Oh, that’s not Japanese”. But because I’m older and experienced, I think people will respect me.’

Indeed they should: Murata is chairman of the Japanese Culinary Academy, a promotional body through which some of the world’s most famous chefs have passed, including Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal. ‘I remember Heston studying 10 years ago. I respect him because his style hasn’t changed since before he became well-known – he hasn’t been moved by fame or money.’

Daily head-chef duties at Chrysan fall to Daisuke Hayashi, who has worked with Murata at Kikunoi for 12 years. He and Murata have been eating out at high-end Japanese restaurants in London, though the Kyoto master has been unimpressed: ‘My impression of Japanese food in London is that the standard of preparation is not very high – but the price is.’

Certainly, Hakkasan has high hopes for Chrysan. The group already owns the Japanese Sake No Hana in St James’s, but Chrysan marks a new departure, and one Hakkasan chief executive Niall Howard believes has expansion potential.

‘We hope to spin more of a mid-level concept out of Chrysan, like we did with Hakkasan and Yauatcha. Chrysan will be the brand centre, so people will begin to love it and trust it – and then we can use that to try out more different concepts.’

A buzz about the City

Chrysan 2012 - P1040873 - Chrysan_2012_-_P1040873.jpgAs for Chrysan’s City location, opening here is not the risk that many imagine, according to Howard. ‘We’re very confident in the City as a setting: it’s become the centre of London more than the West End. We’re seeing new hotels opening and high-end residential development. It might take five years, but eventually this area will be buzzing all the time.’

The group obviously has confidence in the City: December will see the opening of HKK, a 48-cover modern Cantonese restaurant serving a bespoke tasting menu of dishes that will then be available at Hakkasan. But for now, with Chrysan, Londoners have the opportunity to try something unique.

This feature was published in the autumn 2012 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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