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Join me as we delve into the essence of dedication and the profound beauty found in the fleeting moments of connection shared over a meal. Through the lens of a humble chef, we’ll explore the intricate tapestry of tradition, craftsmanship, and humility that defines the soul of the culinary world. Let us embark together on a journey of discovery, guided by the timeless wisdom found in Japanese kitchens, where the ephemeral nature of existence intertwines with the enduring legacy of culinary artistry.


Makanai, a crudible of dedication


Eight years have passed since I took my first steps into the embrace of a professional kitchen. I still recall the tingling excitement that surged through me when I purchased my very first chef’s knife, earned with the sweat and toil of my own hands. Those nights post-service, where we indulged in the art of « sampling » wine, the echoes of shouts, the clatter of pans angrily meeting the sink’s cold floor, the sting of missed orders, the chorus of customers’ complaints, the abrupt departure of staff mid-service, the haunting specter of hangovers, the relentless strains of financial hardship, and yet amidst it all, the forging of remarkable friendships.

Vivid as the morning sun, I remember my initiation into the realm of makanai – that sacred staff lunch, akin to a familial communion. The terribleness of my own cooking struck me like a blow, a humbling reminder of the long journey ahead. I can still feel the shame and anguish that enveloped me, dining in silence as I felt the weight of disappointment coming from my peers, amidst conversations in a tongue foreign to my ears.

Returning home that fateful night, I made a silent vow to myself: « I’ll show them. » Thus began months filled with a relentless pursuit of culinary perfection, as I cooked and devoured enough pasta to satisfy even the most discerning Italian regiment. I recall the wearied look upon my girlfriend’s face, her silent protest against the monotony of past. Yet, it feels like just yesterday when I presented that same pasta dish at the makanai months later to my peers, unaware that it bore the fruits of five months of labor.

Young chef cooking

Les Deux Garcons Cafe. Kyoto, 2022.

The sommelier and chefs, once the architects of my self-doubt, now unwittingly savored the product of my work. I remember the heart-wrenching anticipation as I awaited their judgment, a cacophony of doubts swirling within my mind. « If they don’t appreciate it after all the pasta I’ve had cook, » I muttered to myself, bracing for the verdict. Yet, their responses, though simple, held immeasurable weight – a casual « Yeah, it’s good » from the sommelier, discreet nods from the chefs. Those four words, uttered so casually, washed away months of tension and self-doubt, leaving behind a profound sense of fulfillment that words struggle to capture.

For the first time, I tasted the sweetness of accomplishment, something worthy of the time and dedication invested. It was as though I had finally discovered a means of reciprocating the countless hours and years others had invested in me. In hindsight, my prior naivety becomes apparent – the notion that anything of true worth could be obtained without arduous effort. Yet, it was a lesson uniquely my own, marking the initial stride along a lifelong journey of self-discovery.

This, above all, was a revelation unlike any other – a poignant reminder amidst a world where accolades often overshadow effort. Within the confines of a kitchen lies a singular truth: it serves as both an equalizer and a fair judge of character. Here, we strive relentlessly for perfection, refusing to settle for anything less than excellence.

In the fast-paced world of food, it’s all too easy to overlook the individuals who toil tirelessly behind each plate. Yet, every mouthwatering dish is a testament to the dedication and passion of those who labor in the kitchen. Great food doesn’t stem from contentment; it’s the product of relentless pursuit, born from the crucible of hardship and years of self-doubt.

So, if you find yourself savoring a delightful meal, let it be known. Your appreciation is the fuel that ignites the fires of creativity in the hearts of chefs and cooks alike. It’s the reason why we spend endless hours perfecting our craft, striving to exceed expectations with each culinary creation.

Your enjoyment is our ultimate reward, a validation of our efforts and a reminder of why we choose to wield the knife and pan. So, whether it’s a simple thank you, a heartfelt compliment, or a glowing review, know that your acknowledgment means the world to us. After all, we cook not just to feed, but to delight and inspire.


Omakase, a celebration of change


You might wonder why I indulge in such self-reflection. It’s understandable if you perceive this narrative as self-aggrandizing. But, if you permit me, let’s journey together to something far more profound. Consider this a gentle nudge to recall a lesson often overlooked: food is fundamentally about people. While chefs refine their craft through years of painstaking practice, savoring a meal requires a different kind of mastery – one of understanding and appreciation.

Allow me to humbly guide you on this delectable expedition, paved with dedication, reverence, and, above all, love for the art of pleasing.

Omakase, a cornerstone of Japanese tradition. It embodies a dining experience where patrons entrust their culinary destiny to the chef, for a price agreed upon. Though familiar, the essence of omakase extends beyond the interaction between chef and diner. It encompasses the intricate bond between the chef and their suppliers.

I’ve had the privilege of working in establishments where the chef grants carte blanche to their fishmonger, allowing them to procure the finest catches available. Many a morning, as an apprentice in a sushi restaurant, I’d arrive to discover exotic fish, never before featured on our menu, being meticulously prepared for the day’s omakase offerings.

Mastering the fundamentals of culinary expertise is an arduous feat in itself. Yet, adapting to unforeseen circumstances and seamlessly altering a menu demands an entirely different level of skill and knowledge.

As I was panickily learning the necessary techniques day after day, I vividly recall a moment with my chef, his voice laced with frustration as he caught me jotting down notes while he imparted his wisdom. In my naivety, I bristled at his reproach, feeling unfairly accused of not paying attention. It wasn’t until much later that I grasped the profound truth embedded in his words.

With a mixture of humility and patience, he offered me a valuable lesson: life’s lessons are rarely etched in stone. Instead, they’re whispered in the subtleties of the moment, waiting to be felt rather than merely heard. He urged me to observe, to listen, and above all, to trust my instincts.

In his eyes, the true artistry of cooking lies not in the rigidity of recipes, but in the fluidity of intuition. No amount of written instructions can capture the delicate dance of flavors, textures, and aromas that define a truly exceptional dish. It’s a journey of discovery, one that requires us to quiet the mind and open ourselves to the ever-shifting currents of inspiration.

So, as I look back on that moment of admonishment, I’m filled not with resentment, but with gratitude. For it was in that seemingly harsh rebuke that I unearthed a nugget of wisdom that has guided me ever since: to watch, to listen, to feel, and to trust in the ever-evolving alchemy of culinary creation.

He continued to enlighten me, drawing parallels between his teachings and the art of omakase. With a gentle nod to the uniqueness of each diner, he emphasized that no two patrons are alike. A chef’s duty extends beyond mere culinary prowess; it’s about crafting an extraordinary experience tailored to each individual.

He spoke of the subtle nuances that elevate a meal from memorable to unforgettable. Whether it’s adjusting the plating for a left-handed diner or scaling back the sushi rice for someone reaching satiety mid-course, excellence lies in these meticulous details. It’s an intuitive dance, an intricate balancing act guided not by rigid recipes, but by a deep sense of compassion.

In the realm of omakase, perfection isn’t etched on paper, but woven into the ephemeral tapestry of connection shared among chef, supplier, and diner. It’s a harmonious symphony of tales, flavors, textures, and gestures, meticulously orchestrated with a delicate touch and unwavering dedication. Each dish emerges as a singular masterpiece, a testament to the artistry and soul poured into its creation.

As his words sank in, I realized that true culinary mastery transcends technique; it’s about cultivating a profound sense of empathy and intuition. And it’s this ethos that continues to inspire me as I navigate the ever-evolving landscape of gastronomy.


Yūgen, a humbling reminder of the ephemeral nature of existence


Yūgen, that elusive essence of depth and beauty, lingers gracefully in the wake of an exceptional dining experience, serving as a cornerstone of culinary artistry. Like the movements of a symphony, it orchestrates the sequence of courses, each dish harmonizing with the next in a sublime arrangement that transcends mere sustenance.

In my years spent honing my craft amidst the ancient streets of Kyoto, a city steeped in imperial grandeur and timeless tradition, I’ve borne witness to the profound reverence for what remains after the diners depart. Here, time flows with a cadence all its own, echoing with the whispers of restaurants that have withstood the test of centuries, predating even the dawn of modern nations.

While bustling cities like Tokyo and Osaka pulsate with culinary dynamism, Kyoto’s cuisine remains rooted in the sanctity of its legacies and the meticulous craftsmanship passed down through generations. Here, chefs are not merely cooks but guardians of a sacred heritage, entrusted with the solemn duty of preserving knowledge and passing it down to those who will follow.

Amidst the clamor of celebrity chefs and their adoring followers, my mentor’s voice rings clear: he, as an individual, is but a vessel for the legacy he upholds. He identifies not as a cook, but as a shokunin—a craftsman whose sole purpose is to protect and perpetuate the wisdom of his predecessors.

As a young and ambitious apprentice, I struggled to grasp the gravity of this responsibility, the weight of tradition pressing heavily upon my shoulders. Yet, with time and reflection, I’ve come to understand the immeasurable sacrifice demanded of those who choose this path—the subjugation of the self to the greater good, the humility to recognize that tradition transcends individual ambition.

Chef Fukagawa serving a piece of tune sushi

Kama toro, served by chef Fukagawa, Kyoto.

For in the world of the shokunin, where the « I » matters little and tradition reigns supreme, one must tread lightly, mindful of the legacy entrusted to their care. My mentor’s words echo in my mind, a solemn reminder that the honor of the craft rests not in personal glory, but in the enduring legacy passed down through the ages.

Just as yūgen serves as a cornerstone in the creation of a remarkable culinary masterpiece, so too does it stand as a pillar in the philosophy of a chef. Its significance transcends the ephemeral beauty that lingers after a meal, extending to the profound ethos of dedication and self-sacrifice embodied by those who craft it.

In the hands of a master chef, it becomes a transformative force, infusing every dish with a sense of depth and meaning that transcends mere sustenance. It is a testament to the power of culinary artistry to touch the soul, leaving an indelible impression that resonates long after the last bite has been savored.

Thus, as chefs labor tirelessly in the kitchen, they do so not only in pursuit of culinary perfection but also in homage to the timeless beauty of yūgen—a beauty that transcends the boundaries of time and space, weaving its magic into the fabric of the culinary experience.


These invaluable lessons have become the guiding stars of my culinary journey, illuminating each day as I step into the kitchen and gather around the table to dine. To stray from these principles would be to lose the very essence of Japan itself—a land steeped in beauty, dedication, and boundless passion.

For me, these teachings transcend mere cooking techniques; they are a profound reminder of the intrinsic connection between food and culture. It is through honoring the traditions of a nation that we truly understand its soul.

As I continue to navigate the intricate dance of flavors and textures, I remain a humble student, forever eager to learn and grow. May my humble experiences serve as a beacon of inspiration for others embarking on their own heartwarming culinary odyssey. After all, in the vast tapestry of gastronomy, it is the shared journey that enriches us all.

Chef Fukagawa Ryuji and Julien Doukhan

Chef Fukagawa and myself

Photography by Sagar Patel


Julien Doukhan

Founder of Makasete

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