Turning Japanese, part 1: A conversation with Drew Maykuth, Brian Canipelli and Alex Bryanton

Photo by Justin Belleme

On Sunday, Jan. 22, the Blind Pig — a not-for-profit dinner club held in various “secret” locations around Asheville — hosted the Rising Sun dinner, a 12-course Japanese meal prepared by chefs from the Admiral and Cucina 24. The event raised funds for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. This blogpost covers the preliminary discussion of the dinner menu between the cooks, and first appeared in a newsletter emailed to ticket holders of the Rising Sun dinner.

Photo by Justin Belleme

The three chefs charged with creating the Blind Pig’s first washoku dinner are reluctant to cop to the fact that they’re cooking traditional Japanese food. Though that’s precisely what the word “washoku” means, the trio will not — cannot — Drew Maykuth insists repeatedly, make traditional Japanese cuisine.
“The three of us that are doing this Japanese dinner, we love Japanese food, but I think we don’t [presume to] know a whole lot about Japanese food,” says the co-chef of the Admiral. “I think we have an idea that it’s based on super-fresh ingredients and simplicity,” Maykuth says, tapping a pencil on a list of Japanese ingredients he’s scrawled helter-skelter on a sheet of printer paper.

When pressed to explain the concepts he’s toying with, he peers down at the bar at the piece of paper and shrugs noncommittally. “I wrote down a bunch of jibber-jabber. Ingredients, not necessarily concepts. Things that I’m really excited about.” A cloud of words — chirashi, ramen, oysters — sprawls across the page, hinting at the plates to be served at the Jan. 22 dinner.

Kombu, pickles, kobe — the page is more forthcoming than Maykuth.

Why the reticence from the normally outspoken chef? Perhaps it’s because mastery of the art of Japanese cuisine, despite its inherent simplicity, eludes chefs, even those well-trained in the genre. Standards are high, the traditional methods exacting. The effort toward perfection in Japanese cuisine is one of the reasons that the vaunted Michelin Guide, sometimes accused of bias toward Francophilia, has awarded Japan more stars than any other region of the world — by far. Japanese food has been refined over the past 2,000 years to a state of balance, simplicity and precision. It’s had an enormous impact on worldwide dining habits and is the great-grandfather of consciously, emphatically seasonal cooking. It is, in short, damn intimidating to try to reproduce.
Brian Canipelli, the affable chef and owner of Cucina 24 is equally reluctant to own up to any measure of proficiency with Japanese food. Canipelli, an accomplished Italian chef who turns out a menu more likely to be considered robust than subtle, is looking forward to allowing the clean flavors of the washoku dinner to shine through by exercising restraint.

“Understand that none of us are Japanese and [thus] don’t have the culture behind us,” he laughs. “But we’re researching and reading about it — and getting excited about not screwing it up and keeping things simple.”

Maykuth, Canipelli and third chef Alex Bryanton, a rising star in Asheville’s culinary scene who also cooks at the Admiral, do not suffer from lack of experience or meekness in the kitchen. The trio of (early) 30-somethings can boast, at the very least, four decades of professional cooking experience between them. But for this dinner, the food — and its thousands of years of history — is the center of attention. It’s no coincidence that, even with all those Michelin stars, Japanese celebrity chefs bear only a passing resemblance to their ego-driven American counterparts.
But once the chefs get rolling, really begin talking about those ingredients — dashi, pickles, quail egg — it becomes clear that they’re veering awfully close to sounding like they know what the hell they’re talking about, like it or not.

“I guess it’s sort of a cliché, but we’ll let the ingredients speak for themselves and not mess with them too much,” Maykuth says.

Simplicity, letting ingredients speak for themselves — that’s pretty much the cornerstone of washoku, right? Maykuth considers the question.

“Philosophically, yeah,” he allows. “There’s people who have been making noodles for 500 years. And for me to be this white boy, to come in there and try to say that I’m going to make authentic, traditional Japanese ramen noodles is a lie. I don’t want that pressure, so I’m reluctant to call it an authentic, traditional Japanese dinner.”

“But I think there’s a difference between authenticity and tradition,” interjects Bryanton, adding that the ramen that Maykuth turns out is pretty damn good, white-boy heritage notwithstanding. “You’re basing what you’re making now upon the traditions of what’s been made before. You’re adding your own style to it.”

“Right, but I don’t want it to be billed as: This is Japan, brought to you by Asheville,” says Maykuth, weary of the Americanized Asian food prevalent in WNC.

“If we take it from an honest perspective and do it in our own way, I think that’s a good start,” says Canipelli.

“That’s the word: ‘Honesty,’” says Bryanton. “With Japanese food being simple, you let it speak for itself. The truth of the food will come out, and I think that’s what we like about Japanese food and what we like about cooking in general will come through.”

With the food pure and unadorned, naked of butter, cream, excess fat and any of the other usual crutches, there’s really nothing for a chef to hide behind. The truth, as Bryanton says, shines through.

Talk returns to ingredients again. Persimmons, sake, unagi, matsutake. Raw fish galore. Maykuth begins to perk up. “We’re getting amazing seafood from Honolulu Seafood,” he says. “I’m super-excited about showcasing a lot of awesome raw fish,” he says. “We all three have some things that we’re excited about.”

For Bryanton, being in the driver’s seat of a washoku meal for the first time is the biggest draw. “Japan, as a culture has fascinated me for a long time,” he says. “In Japan, with the Zen mindset, things have been brought to perfection over millenia. Japanese food, I probably eat it more than anything else. It’s always simple, basic and healthy. Our ability to have the reins in our own hands for what we order [and cook] is intriguing and exciting. To bring it to the table with our garnish, with our love for the food and our experience is exciting. [The Blind Pig] has created something so all of us can come together, like-mind to like-mind, share our passion for cooking and, in this case, for Japanese food. It’s an enormous opportunity for all of us.”


Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.