All you need to know about monk
Read about this evocative chef monograph and evocative meditation on wood-fired cooking from an exciting Japanese chef
The Philosopher’s Walk is a tree-lined path beside a waterway on the eastern side of the ancient city of Kyoto in Japan. The path takes its name from the prominent 20th century philosophy professor Nishida Kitaro, who walked along the path daily while meditating on the problems involved in reconciling Japanese and Western schools of thought.
In 2015 the 38-year-old chef and restaurateur Yoshihiro Imai opened his 14-seat restaurant, monk, between the city’s Ginkakuji and Honen-in temples. “It’s a beautiful area undisturbed by cars and full of tourist foot traffic during the day, but at night, it empties out completely,” writes fellow patron chef Hisao Nakahigashi in the introduction to our new book, monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher's Path.
Just like that 20th century philosopher, chef Imai finds deep meaning in simple, daily routine. “My work at monk is a direct reflection of how I live everyday life,” he writes in his book. “How I work; what I experience when I visit the farms in the sun, wind, and rain; how I spend my time with my family and friends; the kind of music I listen to or books I read; how I care for my body and soul. I believe all these things have an effect on the service each night, and can be felt by the guests. How I spend each day is a part of my artistic practice, and will continue to have an influence on my plates far into the future.”
All these elements are captured in monk, a hugely evocative culinary monograph that captures the refined simplicity of Imai, his restaurant and his food. The book includes the chef’s own personal reflections and essays; his recollections of foraging for flowers, herbs and vegetables, as well as his profiles of monk’s suppliers, from its cheese maker to his fishmonger, the ceramiciststhat supplies its simple plates, to the forester who supplies the wood for monk’s pizza oven.
Yes, pizza; just as that old Kyoto philosopher brought Western thought together with Japanese Zen, so Imai takes this Italian staple to new heights, with a deeply oriental take on the dish. “I’ve heard that one way Zen monks who reach enlightenment express that state is by drawing a circle on a piece of paper,” he writes in his new book. “I move the pizza dough from the proving box to the counter. Closing my eyes for a moment, I bring all my attention to my fingertips, sensing the condition of the soft dough. The process of stretching the dough into a circle and standing face-to-face with the fire is very much like a meditation.”
Of course, there’s more to monk than pizzas; the book also features Imai delicate, thoughtful, wood-fired dishes, such as grape, sorrel and fennel flowers; or peach, milk, and sudachi (that last ingredient is a Japanese citrus fruit).
monk’s recipes aren’t overly difficult to recreate; Imai has very little in the way of high-tech equipment in his restaurant. Yet the chef’s deep commitment to his food is hard to match.
“There’s a mystical quality to making dough from scratch and watching it rise,” he writes. “After years of taking care of it and touching it on a daily basis, you start to notice even the smallest changes. I might find myself saying things like: ‘Not feeling like yourself today?’ Or: ‘Hey, calm down!’ The dough has become like a family member I see every day.”
Buy and read monk and you may well start chatting to your sourdough starter in the same sort of way. The book is a delight for anyone who believes in simple cookery, using local ingredients. Lovers of Japanese culture will appreciate the way the restaurant serves remarkable dishes with zen-like precision and simplicity. Pizza fans may not look at the dish in the same way, after topping a base with fiddlehead fern and wild koshiabura greens. And anyone who truly knows that great things come from a little dedication, creativity and hard work, will appreciate the delicious monastic devotion in Imai. To find out more and order your copy go here.