Weaving Local History and Culture into Cuisine,
an Approach Nurtured by ICU's Liberal Arts Education
Courtes of Jiyujin Inc.
More to Reality Than Meets the Eye
I am currently in charge of culinary operations for a group of inns operated by Jiyujin Inc., including Satoyama Jujo and Matsumoto Jujo. In 2014, after working as a chef in Kyoto and Kanazawa, I started at Satoyama Jujo in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture. A few years later, with the company expanding, they decided to hire separate head chefs for each location, and I became executive chef, with the job of providing guidance and maintaining cohesion among the inns. We also established the title of "food creator," someone whose role is not just to cook but to understand, communicate, and express the local culture and character.
Our cuisine is shaped not just by local ingredients but also by the region's climate, geography, history, and culture. All those things combine to create an area's food culture, and my goal is to translate my respect and enthusiasm for that tradition into something new. In preparing for the opening of Matsumoto Jujo in 2020, for example, we consulted with the locals to learn all we could about the visible aspects of the area's culture and cuisine. But there are also aspects that aren't visible to people who have always lived there. The challenge was to craft a cuisine that incorporated our own outsiders' perspective.
Another thing I emphasize is the fact that we chefs come at the very end of a long process of creation. How good something tastes is decided long before we get hold of it, in the growing environment that nurtured that fish or vegetable. I want an awareness of those invisible, behind-the-scenes factors to enrich our customers' enjoyment of the food when they taste it. That's one of the aspects of cooking I personally find most rewarding.
In the course of studying various subjects at ICU, and especially while working on my senior thesis in history of Japanese Art, I became interested in the invisible versus the visible aspects of culture. The invisible elements of art include things like techniques and ideas. Some people rely on language to illuminate those aspects, but I realized I preferred to explore them by working with my hands. I originally intended to pursue ceramic arts, but since the vessels I would be creating would be used for food, I thought I should study cooking first to get at the essence of the craft.
After graduating from ICU, I trained at a kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto. It was an extremely demanding environment, so much so that most new trainees quit after just a few days. The reason that I managed to stick it out to the end, despite having no previous experience in the industry, is that I had learned at ICU that there's more to life than what you see happening in the present moment. I was able to surmount the harsh reality confronting me by grasping that it was just one passing moment in the course of an entire lifetime. After that, I began to love cooking for its own sake, and here I am today.
Building a Personal Philosophy From The Liberal Arts
As a high school student, I became interested in ICU when I read a pamphlet given me by a former member of my school activity club, someone who had graduated and gone on to ICU. The very name, starting with "international," appealed to me right away, and the idea of a liberal arts education that allows one to study widely, instead of choosing between humanities and science, struck me as a revelation. For some time I had wondered how a high school student was supposed to choose one faculty over another without any detailed knowledge of the different disciplines, and for that reason I found ICU's educational approach very appealing.
Upon embarking on my studies at ICU, I found that the learning environment was everything I had hoped for. The English curriculum was particularly strong, and I was impressed by the culture of self-directed learning, strongly supported by the faculty and the school as a whole. In terms of values, I gained my appreciation for the role of the invisible by exploring a variety of subjects and letting my thoughts range freely, there in the semi-secluded, wooded environment of ICU. Everything I learned contributed to the thinking that defines my basic outlook.
For example, I took a course in readings in Shakespeare, and I learned that the usage of certain words has changed dramatically since earlier times. That hinted at a whole world that that's hidden from sight unless we make a special effort to see it. In a course on the history of science, I learned that it's very common in the world of science for something that's accepted as fact to be rejected a few decades later, and that also helped me appreciate that there is more to reality than what can be seen at the present moment.
Nowadays the term "sustainable development" is on everyone's lips, but I remember hearing it for the first time in a course I took at ICU. What I learned in that class about pesticides and chemicals comes up in my work today, in discussions with farmers, and I realize that everything I learned at ICU is relevant to what I'm doing now.
Following One's Vocation
In the years since I graduated, I've become more and more conscious of the way I've been shaped by my liberal arts education at ICU. Every so often I'm struck anew by how the things I learned, just by following my own curiosity and interests, coalesced inside me and formed the basis of who I am.
It has had a huge influence on my thinking as a chef. Nowadays, it seems to me, it's not enough for a chef to be able to cook. At one time, any chef who had trained overseas was assumed to know more than everyone else, but information access is so advanced nowadays that our customers are often more knowledgeable than we are. That being the case, it seems to me that the important thing is to have a range of interests, to express one's viewpoint on a plate, and to be able to talk about it with customers--the invisible aspects included. Of course, cooking is a profession predicated on technique, and one has to keep refining one's skills. But once you can cook at a certain level, it becomes more about your philosophy. That's why even a chef needs the sort of wide-ranging, multifaceted perspective cultivated by the liberal arts.
My choice of a culinary career is a bit unusual for an ICU graduate, but if you look at other alumni, you'll find many people following their own vocation in a wide range of fields. Perhaps that has to do with the diversity of ICU's student body and the atmosphere of respect for all, from international and returnee students to people like me, born and raised in other parts of Japan. I think that fostered an attitude of self-affirmation and helped everyone choose their own career paths accordingly.
My message to prospective students is this. You'll never have as much time to get in touch with your own feelings and with what you want to do with your life as you will while you're an undergraduate. Once you're out in the world, you can accumulate experience and hone your expertise, but you'll never have as much time to examine the world critically or to stop and just ponder things. I would urge you to spend your four undergraduate years becoming acquainted with a wide range of subjects and people and hammering out your own core beliefs. You will find the perfect environment for that at ICU.
Executive Chef and Food Creator,
Culinary Operations, Jiyujin Inc.
1996 B.A., Arts and Sciences (Humanities)
After graduating from ICU, Yutaka Kitazawa trained at the famed kaiseki restaurant Kichisen in Kyoto before taking a job as head chef at one of the Giro Giro kappo restaurants. He later opened his own restaurant near his hometown in Ishikawa Prefecture. In 2014, he joined Jiyujin Inc., where he currently works as executive chef and food creator, dividing his time between Satoyama Jujo in Niigata Prefecture and Matsumoto Jujo in Nagano Prefecture.