Based in Toronto, Ontario, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Behind the Scenes: Brushstroke

TRIBECA—On a recent Saturday night at Brushstroke, a meditative calm holds sway in the spacious, open kitchen that spreads out beyond a polished oak counter. Chef Mitsuhiro Narita, preparing the raw-fish chapter of a nine-course kaiseki menu, passes his 13-inch sashimi knife effortlessly through chu-toro, gracefully as a swimmer’s arm slicing through water. Next, he turns his attention to the slow, ritual grating of fresh wasabi root.

In another corner of the kitchen, chef Hiroki Murashima arranges a special off-the-menu platter of Japanese delicacies: pickled amberjack, smoked salmon sushi wrapped in a bamboo leaf, and tofu-yo, “stinky” tofu that’s been fermented in Okinawan liquor and pressed until it acquires a salty, alcoholic funk and the thick, creamy texture of foie gras. Served in a saké-size cup and nestled in a pool of exquisite and decidedly non-Japanese olive oil, the dish hints at the restaurant’s hybrid origin as the joint passion project of an American chef and a Japanese epicurean, both steeped in classical European cuisine.

For over 25 years, David Bouley has been famous for cooking some of the best French food this side of the Atlantic, first at Montrachet, then at two versions of his fine-dining restaurant Bouley, where opulent, endless meals—roasted foie gras with pain d’épices and apricot puree; squab en cocotte with sassafras root and fava beans; raspberry, pistachio and walnut parfait with rosé sorbet—seem to rob diners of all sense of passing time.

But for over a decade, Bouley had been talking about opening a very different restaurant, and in 2011 he made good his promise with Brushstroke, where the kitchen speaks not French, but Japanese.

Hardly a spur-of-the-moment lark, Brushstroke is the result of a close friendship and culinary exchange Bouley developed over a dozen years with the head of a venerable Osaka-based culinary school and some of its most esteemed professors. The result confused some longtime Bouley followers but, as the chef sees it, kaiseki cuisine—the poetic processions of rarefied, intensely seasonal small plates that Brushstroke specializes in—is in keeping with the way he’d been cooking for decades: a no-expense-spared approach to procuring the very best ingredients and helping them find their highest expression in market-driven tasting menus.

It all started in the early ’90s when a loyal patron introduced Bouley to a man named Yoshiki Tsuji. Tsuji’s father, Shizuo Tsuji, founded the largest cooking school in Japan, the Tsuji Culinary Institute, and is best known in the west for his seminal 1980 cookbook Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art, for which M. F. K. Fisher wrote the introduction. A former journalist with a degree in French literature, the elder Tsuji taught French cooking to the Japanese and dined regularly at Fernand Point’s La Pyramide, near Lyon, until one day the staff informed him, “Today you’re not eating with us. We reserved for you at a new restaurant that just opened. The chef’s name is Paul Bocuse.”

Today Yoshiki Tsuji, who left a career in banking to take over his father’s culinary school in 1994, presides over an Osaka-based empire that comprises 3,500 students, and branches in both Tokyo and France. Educated in Europe and America and a cosmopolite like Bouley, Tsuji found common ground with the New Yorker, and sparks flew.

After their fateful first meeting, Tsuji and Bouley slowly established what became a TriBeCa-Osaka axis of culinary experimentation. Shortly after closing the original, trailblazing restaurant Bouley in 1996, Bouley flew to Japan at Tsuji’s invitation to see what his school was all about. Bouley, who had trained under French masters including Paul Bocuse and Joël Robuchon, was a blank culinary slate in Japan.

“I showed up at 7 a.m. and we cooked for two weeks,” he recalls of that first visit.” I was completely shocked. I didn’t know anything about Japanese cooking.” He recalls spending three days just mastering konbu (dried kelp) and bonito, both used in making a basic building block of Japanese cuisine: dashi, or stock. “It’s what the French would call the ‘trunk’ of Japanese cooking,” explains Bouley.

To his surprise, Bouley discovered that kaiseki bears a striking resemblance to the way he had long cooked: Every aspect of the kaiseki experience is artfully composed, from the visitor’s entrance through a garden and foyer, the meticulous attention to technique and high-quality ingredients, and the exquisite handcrafted ceramics that show off each course.

“When I opened Bouley in 1987, I was originally doing nine-, 12-, 15-course menus,” notes the chef, whose foyer at Bouley has always been redolent with the perfume of freshly picked apples. “We had Limoges plates made for certain dishes.” Yet as seasonally driven as French cooking is, Bouley admits, it can’t hold a culinary candle to kaiseki, where as many as 20 seasons are celebrated.

Soon, Tsuji began sending his chefs on periodic visits to the Bouley Test Kitchen on West Broadway—a large space set up for classes, demonstrations and as kitchen-away-from-home for visiting chefs—for freewheeling cooking sessions, and a vital collaboration blossomed.

“We’d all just have fun,” Bouley recalls. “There was a generosity of spirit. He’d send three or four professors for a week, then I’d go there.” In Japan he was tutored in everything from tofu and yuba (the thin sheets that are peeled off tofu before it has set) to Okinawan cooking, and was treated to guided jaunts through the countryside, exploring mushroom farms and hot springs. “In their [Osaka] test kitchens,” says Bouley, “we would make 80 dishes a week.”

The American and Japanese chefs’ explorations led to 5,000 new recipes. It also led to Bouley’s first meeting with the chef with whom he would eventually open Brushstroke, Isao Yamada. Yamada had fallen in love with kaiseki as a young business student when he read a book called The Flowering Spirit of Kitcho Cuisine, by Kitcho founder Teiichi Yuki, which told the story of one of Japan’s most esteemed kaiseki restaurants. He was knocked flat, he recalls, by the gorgeous food, the beautiful ceramics, the seasonal touches such as cherry blossoms and leaves—everything.

“I was totally captivated,” he recalls. So much so that, without telling his parents, he quit college and enrolled at Tsuji. In 1995, at age 20, Yamada was among the select few to be hired at Kitcho, the storied establishment that first lured him into the profession, entering the 50-person kitchen at the lowest rung. It was grueling: 20-hour days of washing dishes and scouring the floor; it took six months before he could even touch the food. At the end of a year, only four of the 20 entry-level employees he had started with remained.

On one of his trips to Osaka, Bouley met Yamada, who by then was running his own restaurant; his reputation was impressive enough for Bouley to invite him to New York. In 2006 Yamada came to TriBeCa, where his first job was at the Euro-Japanese Upstairs at Bouley, which earned glowing reviews for food that chef Tadao Mikami and Yamada created on a few camp-style burners. There, Yamada could observe American tastes up close, and over time, developed East-informed recipes for the Western hemisphere. For example, he noticed that Americans don’t like the salted, grilled fish beloved in Japan for both strong flavor and chewy texture. To create a supernally moist fish, Yamada devised a sea bass dish marinated for 24 hours in sun-dried tomatoes and grapeseed oil, then baked and garnished with roasted tomatoes and pink peppercorns.

The recipe was just one of the huge trove of original dishes resulting from the Bouley-Tsuji collaboration, the lead-up to a more ambitious venture. When high-quality artisanal Japanese ingredients began to appear in New York, Bouley knew that Brushstroke’s time had come. “One day,” he recounts, “I said, ‘Why don’t we just do a restaurant?”

In the quiet kitchen, Narita and Murashima, two professors on loan from the Tsuji Culinary Institute, wear hands-free two-way radio earpieces—adopted, says service director Jamie Graves, to “cut down on noise and confusion,” and one secret to the kitchen’s silent calm. The entire beautifully lit restaurant feels a like a glowing Scandinavian-style ski lodge dropped amid the snowbound peaks of Nagano, where guests can come off the slopes for an earthenware pot (donabe) of steamed organic rice with dashi, crab and ginger and garnished with salmon roe, or a luxurious cup of chawan mushi, silky egg custard studded with sea urchin, or perhaps bluefoot and oyster mushrooms, and infused with black truffle.

While New Yorkers are conversant in the language of sushi, kaiseki is another matter altogether, a pricy, rarefied experience and not necessarily an easy sell to guests seeking a few California rolls and a bottle of Sapporo. There is a sashimi course on the kaiseki menu, but so many guests asked, “Can’t I order sushi?” that the restaurant’s cocktail bar has been turned into a dedicated eight-seat sushi bar, with skilled sushi chef Eiji Ichimura at the helm. There, the sunshiney walls are actually stacks of paperback books, their yellowed pages facing out and arranged in a checkerboard pattern.

Though it is sushi-free, here’s where kaiseki is in perfect sync with the tastes of upscale American urbanites: Local, seasonal ingredients are its bedrock, part of a tradition that dates back to the 16th century, when it evolved from the frugal meal that accompanied the tea ceremony.

The two cultures also share the phenomenon of the tasting menu, au courant here, but in Japan, an ancient kaiseki concept. “Before the French went to Japan,” Bouley explains, “there was only prix fixe. French chefs learned the tasting menu, the degustation, from Japan.” As someone who was present in France during the heady early days of nouvelle cuisine (he was a disciple of nouvelle pioneers Roger Vergé and Frédy Girardet), Bouley understands how those French masters were inspired by the purity and simplicity of Japanese cuisine. Shizuo Tsuji himself trained with several French chefs in the nouvelle cuisine movement, another Franco-Japanese link that makes Brushstroke seem like the natural evolution of a conversation that has been happening for over 30 years.

Here’s an example of that dialog: Bouley has fallen for kuzu, a fine powder made from the climbing vine known in America as kudzu and prized in Japan for its use as a thickening agent as well as for numerous health benefits ranging from hangover cure to anti-inflammatory. At Brushstroke, Yamada uses it to thicken tomato water, which he pools around whipped mountain yam mousse and dots with junsai, an early-summer slippery fresh water plant, or later in the summer, local heirloom tomatoes. The tomato water is a Western conceit, beloved by both Bouley and Yamada as a substitute for dashi, and a way to get a more refreshing, yet equally umami-laden broth by simply salting fresh-cut tomato chunks, blending and then straining it.

It’s this melding of traditional and modern techniques that Yamada finds so exciting, and he credits Bouley with a kind of rule-breaking creativity that is unthinkable in Japan. “In Japanese cooking, there are limits,” he explains, “certain ways things are done. But [Bouley] busts through those.” Another example: the way Bouley will make a fish sauce composed of white miso, yuzu juice, yogurt and olive oil, a melding of miso, fat and dairy that would be unthinkable in a traditional kaiseki kitchen. Then there are purees, another Bouley twist, which Brushstroke makes with no fat or dairy, merely thickened with a little kuzu to allow the flavors of, say, summer corn, to shine through. At bottom, Brushstroke is a Bouley-inflected version of kaiseki, one that hews to many of the ancient Japanese cuisine’s tenets, but has also injected a whiff of the West: red wine sauce on the Wagyu steak, heirloom tomato water with mountain yam mousse.

Although he tries to maintain the standards of the Kitcho kitchen, the teaching method at Brushstroke is different by necessity, says Yamada. In the Japanese way, entry-level employees are expected to observe and learn cooks’ tasks as they are performing backbreaking grunt work for the kitchen; there’s no overt teaching. But because of the language barrier, Yamada teaches by demonstration. Things can get heated and miscommunications occur. Evan Zagha, a top line chef who began working at Brushstroke straight after graduating from the CIA, says he learned “that you don’t put specific flavors and profiles after another; you won’t get two sweet dishes in a row, you’ll get sweet, salty, then savory, then back to sweet. That also goes for hot and cold. It keeps your palate fresh.”

Graves, Brushstroke’s service director who doubles as translator, recalls how distraught Yamada became when two desserts went to one table in the wrong order. The panna cotta with sweetened azuki beans, he had to explain to his cooks, will leave a residue in diners’ mouths that will make the kuzu-thickened honey tangerine juice dessert with Japanese saké sorbet taste off.

Cultural disconnect is a two-way street, though. Before arriving in America, Murashima and Yamada had heard stories of Americans who pour soy sauce over everything. They worried that the subtle flavors of kaiseki, where the taste of the ingredients are meant to shine through, would be too bland. Happily, they say, this has not been the case.

The Japanese chefs do miss certain Japanese ingredients. Some vegetables, such as the daikon they find here, are not nearly as flavorful as those back home, says Murashima. In Japan, they would normally peel the daikon, then parboil it in rice water to remove its bitter notes. Here, though, says Murashima, if they did that, there would be little flavor left. Instead Yamada showed the staff how to do the opposite: to fortify the broth with daikon peels to get an extra layer of flavor.

When it comes to local produce, though, Brushstroke chefs don’t just make do with domestic stand-ins, they’ve been genuinely captivated by many of their American discoveries. Yamada’s favorites include ramps, which he says are much sweeter than those in Japan, and local corn, which he uses to make one of the best dishes on the menu, a silky sweet corn soup with grilled pink shrimp and scallops. He’s flipped for microgreens, too, explaining, “They’ve started to appear in Japan, but until recently, we only had soy bean and daikon sprouts.” At Brushstroke, the many sightings of these miniature plants include shiso microgreens on the mountain yam mousse and mint licorice on the sweet corn soup. All the chefs have fallen in love with malanga, a shaggy brown Latin American root vegetable they use instead of taro for dumplings. Narita enthuses about softshell crabs, which he encountered for the first time in America, and loves the Canadian black cod he gets here because it’s fattier than what he cooked with in Japan.

The chefs’ excitement about new ingredients and novel combinations recalls that amazing stinky-tofu-and-olive oil pairing: All are new experiences and specific pleasures neither Bouley nor Tsuji could have foreseen 12 years ago.

Although Murashima is scheduled to return to the Tsuji Culinary Institute at the end of the year, Yamada has no plans to leave, and his fellow Tsuji professor, Narita, seems also to have been seduced by America. “It’s very stimulating,” says Narita.

Perhaps referring to the character of the curious, ambitious American chef who brought him to this country, and the culture of his modern kaiseki restaurant, Narita adds, “Initiative, creativity and drive are valued here.”

Brushstroke: 30 Hudson Street at Duane Street, 212.791.3771

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