There are many famous street foods and high-end dining experiences, but one style that is absolutely captivating is counter-capo ryori, wherein chefs exhibit passion for preparing a particular meal. The devotion, discipline, and zeal are especially evident at Nene, a beautiful little restaurant where chef Takumi Okumura has been mastering washoku, the traditional Japanese cuisine inspired by nature and given the designation of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. There is no website, no English menus. It's a word-of-mouth kind of place.
In the many years my wife Kumiko and I have been living in Osaka, we have witnessed firsthand Okumura's development as a master chef. The idea behind counter-capo ryori is at once simple and incredibly complicated: Everything is cooked to the customer's order, from the slicing and boning of the fish, to the making of tempura, to the delicate garnish and careful presentation. Everything is prepared in real time, just behind the counter, so that watching the meticulous preparation is a critical part of the experience. Nene is a tiny restaurant — ten people sit at the counter with room for six more in booths — and that is a lot of diners for one chef to keep an eye on at once.
Because of this challenge, Okumura is obsessed with timing. He watches all the customers as they eat, anticipating when they will finish one course while preparing the next. His dishes must continue arriving at the customer's seat in an unbroken chain. At the moment of completion, he hands the dish to the customer, ensuring it is as fresh and perfect as the moment it was created. A plate will never wait at the counter: It's anathema to Okumura's ethos. Customer comfort and ease is paramount. Okumura often modifies the pace and flavors of his courses depending on factors like the age of the patrons, or whether or not they are drinking alcohol.
He is so detail-oriented and focused. There's a deeply spiritual intensity to his process. The Japanese use the term kodawari to describe such levels of obsession in one's craft. It's a fixation, determination, and fastidiousness shown through every slice, dice, and plating technique.
Japanese chefs have various plating and garnishing techniques. Okumura's modifies classic presentations based on ingredients and seasons. He preps moriawase, a sashimi selection of his choice. Then he shapes momiji oroshi, a mixture of daikon, carrot, red pepper. Momiji is the name for Japanese maple trees, hence the color of the condiment.
Okumura pours tiny bits of batter into the oil before frying fish, a technique that renders the coating extremely light and crispy as it gently sticks to the skin. Five special knives make up the main arsenal of kitchen tools.
Sawara no saikyou yaki is Japanese Spanish mackerel, sliced raw and kept in Kyoto's own special concoction of sweet white miso, mirin, and sake, before being grilled to order. It's ridiculously good.
Dashi-maki tamago is a bonito broth mixed with egg and cooked in a special pan.
In the small and efficient kitchen, the chef prepares shrimp tempura as customers watch. The ratio of water to flour and temperature is exceptionally sensitive.
Most of the restaurant's ceramics are handmade. The paper absorbs oil and is folded beautifully. It looks refined on the plate.
A selection of lotus root, shrimp, fish, shishito pepper, and edamame. On the far left is a very tiny fish that the chef splits down the center and de-bones. The shrimp head is a particular delicacy.
A finisher, per a request for wasabi, which I love: rice with dashi-jiru, a bonito stock-soup; oba, perilla leaf; seaweed; heshiko, mackerel that is packed in salt, then in rice bran, and grilled quickly; and the thin, green slivers of raw, fragrant wasabi root. Bringing joy to customers is the driving force and inspiration behind Okumura's work.
Photography by Stirling Elmendorf.