In the days after he closed the doors to Noma Japan, Redzepi, often considered the best chef in the world, takes his staff to a traditional Buddhist lunch in Kyoto.

By Scott Haas
May 12, 2015
Rene Redzepi
Credit: Jake Chessum

In mid February, Chef René Redzepi wrapped up his hotly-anticipated pop-up at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo. Fifty-seven thousand people were on the waitlist to try the Japanese version of Copenhagen’s esteemed Noma. It was so successful, that, when it came time to pack it all up, the General Manager of the Mandarin Oriental playfully lay down in the driveway, pretending he wasn’t going to let Redzepi leave.

But Redzepi has plans for his team in the days following their stint in Tokyo. To reward everyone for the stress and toil of the previous few weeks, he's organized a three-day “Rest and Relaxation” stay at Hyatt Regency in Kyoto. No more media attention, no more cooking, just a brief celebration. I was the only writer present.

Included in the itinerary: one of Japan’s most famous temple sites, Tenryu-ji. Located in the Arashiyama district, about an hour west of central Kyoto, the compound is a World Heritage site, and even though most of the original structures were destroyed in fires, the gardens, which were designed in 1340 by Muso Kokushi, a Zen priest, have largely stayed the same.

Redzepi leads his team up a narrow path to the top of a small hill, through swaying bamboo. On the other side, there’s a surprise: Lunch at Shigetsu, a shojin ryori restaurant, which serves vegetarian fare based on old Buddhist principles.

In many ways shojin ryori is the epitome of Kyoto dining, the food Buddhist monks enjoyed at festivals inside their compounds.

We’re asked to take places in a small, enclosed tatami room: Three long rows with about a dozen place settings are lined up, and we find places to sit and kneel. Two of Redzepi’s daughters climb on top of him.

What we’re served is typical in style, taste, and presentation, with strict adherence to the ancient Zen Buddhist way of formal eating.

There are five flavors: Kan (sweet), ka (bitter), kan (salty), san (sour), and shin (spicy).

There are five colors: aka (red), ao (green), ki (yellow), shiro (white), and kuro (black).

There are five ways to cook: niru (simmer), mus (steam), ageru (fry), yaku (grill), and nama (raw).

The first lacquer tray has a tiny bowl filled with soy milk beneath which a small flame heats up the liquid.

“Please wait until it gets hot,” a server tells us.

As it warms, a skin forms—yuba. We skim this off and eat it with a little soy, and the flavor is delicate and powerful at the same time.

So many dishes arrive: Sesame paste with boiled root vegetables. Pickled vegetables. Wild mushrooms. Fried gluten. Ferns! Yuzu! Wild onions!

For each dish, Redzepi asks the chef, Takuo Kotani, about each dish: “I wonder how you make this?”

Redzepi asks about the fried lotus root.

“How did you make it taste like meat?”

Kotani-san explains, through an interpreter, that he grinds it and then fries it.

“How did you make the broth?” asks Redzepi.

“I use mizu to start,” Kotani-san explains, “and add kombu.” Kombu is dried seaweed.

“What kind of miso?” asks Redzepi.

“No, not miso, but mizu,” explains the chef, with a laugh. Mizu is the Japanese word for water.

Roasted white sesame. Preserved orange skin. Dried seaweed. The chef tells us that he has only three cooks helping him, and that they start prep at dawn.

“See that guys?” says Redzepi to his crew, with a big grin. “Only three people made all this wonderful food for thirty-two of us!”

Shigetsu is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations are recommended. A lunch costs 5000 Yen (about $42), including tax and service.