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Noted Japan restaurateur Kiyomi Mikuni plans 'graduate school' for fellow chefs

Kiyomi Mikuni's school in Japan is to offer chefs a chance to expand their repertoire or gain skills, such as learning the business side of running a restaurant. The first class may start in the fall.

January 16, 2011|By Kenji Hall, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tokyo — It was just another lunch by chef Kiyomi Mikuni: an umami consomme from scallops and shiitake mushrooms, a codfish and burdock risotto, pot-au-feu beef stew, and chocolate and saffron ice cream with a kumquat elixir.

Mikuni's flair for fusing classical French cooking and fresh Japanese ingredients marked him as a pioneer from the first day 25 years ago that diners sat down in his Hotel de Mikuni restaurant in Tokyo. And, in the course of opening six more restaurants, he became one of Japan's most celebrated chefs.

But the 56-year-old barrel-chested man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a booming laugh has even bigger ambitions. Mikuni is planning to open a "graduate school" in Japan for experienced chefs, the first of its kind in the nation, modeled after the mid-career programs at the Culinary Institute of America, a top U.S. cooking school.

Mikuni's school would offer chefs a chance to expand their repertoire or acquire skills, such as learning the business side of running a restaurant. If all goes as planned, the first class will start in the fall.

Japan would seem to have no shortage of talented chefs. When the prestigious French-based Michelin Guide released its first restaurant guide for Tokyo in 2007, it awarded 191 stars to 150 restaurants, more stars than for any other city at the time. Eight restaurants received Michelin's highest rating of three stars. The 2011 guide features 240 restaurants in Tokyo, including 14 with three-star ratings.

Michelin's imprimatur signaled Japan's rise as a world-class dining destination. In November, the Culinary Institute of America devoted its annual Worlds of Flavor conference in California entirely to Japanese cuisine. Mikuni was among the 39 chefs from Japan.

Although high-end restaurants have benefited from the publicity, many restaurateurs in Japan are struggling. After two decades of economic stagnation, people are eating out less. Last year, restaurant revenue in Japan was about $280 billion, well off the peak of $350 billion in the late 1980s.

"Plenty of young chefs have no clue what to do to attract customers," Mikuni said.

Mikuni is an unlikely booster for formal culinary education. His own classrooms were mainly kitchens at hotels, restaurants and an embassy. In the early 1970s, Mikuni was a 20-year-old junior chef at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo when he was chosen as head chef for the Japanese diplomatic mission in Geneva.

From there, he traveled across Switzerland and France, where he trained with the best: Fredy Girardet, Paul Haeberlin, Alain Chapel and Pierre and Jean Troisgros. In the early 1980s he returned to Japan to start his own business.

Mikuni's idea for a school sprang from his visits to the Culinary Institute of America. Although his own restaurants have been training grounds for young talent, he realized how much more a school could accomplish after leading small seminars at the institute.

For one thing, he said, a school brings together chefs from many different backgrounds.

"In Japan, a sushi chef would never mingle on a professional level with a tempura chef or a ramen chef," he said. "But the fact is, they can learn from each other."

Yasuji Morizumi, a chef who runs Chabuya and Mist noodle bars in Tokyo and Hong Kong, agrees that a culinary school would be a good idea.

"I had to teach myself the most basic things, the science of salt dissolving in a liquid, for instance," he said. "A school is the right place for that kind of training because most chefs don't have the time or energy."

Mikuni still has to hire teachers and administrators and complete a curriculum covering items varying from menus to management. He said his startup capital will come from private investors and public subsidies.

He recently met with government officials in Shizuoka, about 90 miles southwest of Tokyo, and Sapporo, on the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, to discuss funding, logistics and sites for a main campus in one location and a branch in the other. Mikuni predicts that the school's inaugural class will be small, perhaps as few as 10 students.

But, as with his restaurants, he expects to expand.

"In two or three years, I hope we will have more than 100 chefs," he said.

Hall is a special correspondent based in Tokyo.

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