In an article in the Spring 2021 issue of Gastronomica, John Broadway discussed what he termed the “hypocrisy of hyperlocality” and critiqued hyperlocal restaurants that cater exclusively to well-heeled, globe-trotting customers.
Hyperlocality facilitates an escalation of exclusivity for haute cuisine. The last big trend, molecular gastronomy, lost its luster among global tastemakers after its assimilation into the mainstream; immersion circulators are now available at Target. Something new had to be found, and what better way for elite consumers to showcase their worldliness than championing irreproducible food from geographically disparate areas?…The few with access get the added benefit of virtue, signaling that their conspicuous consumption is done in the service of promoting sustainability through rediscovering endangered ingredients and cuisines. The combination of chefs’ virtuous intent, consumers’ globe-trotting, and the experience’s inaccessibility for ordinary people is a potent one for generating social capital.1
Broadway raises important questions about not only “hyperlocality” but also the top restaurants’ chefs and diners. He suggests that we ask chefs who promote the hyperlocal why they are serving these foods at restaurants located in these places, what impact their sourcing has on local communities, and who dines at their restaurants. And, of course, he urges those who patronize these restaurants to reflect on the implications of their decisions to support the “hypocrisy of hyperlocality.”
After reading Broadway’s article, I tried to imagine what a restaurant that met his criteria and achieved what I would call an “ideal hyperlocality” would look like. Clearly, it would have to be a restaurant (1) whose chefs’ virtuous intentions are not undermined by their restaurant’s profile and global position, (2) whose chefs’ reliance on what is sourced locally does not adversely affect the communities that supply them, (3) whose chefs’ rediscovery and use of forgotten ingredients revitalize endangered cuisines, (4) whose overhead is not so high and its margins so narrow that customers are charged exorbitant amounts for a meal, and (5) whose customers are drawn chiefly from local communities. I wondered whether there were such chefs, restaurants, and customers.
What immediately came to mind was monk, Yoshihiro Imai’s tiny restaurant on the eastern edge of Kyoto, Japan. Indeed, if I had been in Japan, I would have rushed to Kyoto to interview Imai about his restaurant. But I was stuck in Los Angeles and constrained by the travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, I had bought Imai’s recently published cookbook—monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher’s Path—and I thought it might allow me to study his restaurant from a distance and determine whether it met my criteria for an ideal hyperlocal restaurant.2 I also was able to contact Imai by email, and he kindly answered all my questions about his restaurant.
monk: The Restaurant
Yoshihiro Imai’s culinary training began at enboca Karuizawa, a fashionable pizzeria in a resort town in the Japan Alps. Imai learned how to cook while working beside its chef/owner, who was self-trained, and he learned how to farm while tending a plot that grew much of what was served at the restaurant. Then, in his fourth year at enboca Karuizawa, Imai was asked to open a branch in Kyoto. “Thinking that living for two or three years in Kyoto would be a good experience,” he recalled, “I agreed to move there and be in charge of the menu and cooking” (Imai 2021: 21). Consequently, he moved to Kyoto in 2010 and was fully initiated into the “restaurant world” there.3
As a newcomer to one of Japan’s oldest cities, Imai had to learn “everything from the ground up” (Imai 2021: 21).4 First, he had to find producers who would supply the restaurant. He visited the nearby Ōhara district, famous for its “Kyoto vegetables,” and was reassured by the “quality of the vegetables.”5 Less confident about seafood, though, he apprenticed himself to a fishmonger (21). But he also studied. “Because I had never trained with a professional chef,” he admitted, “books and the internet were my teachers” (21). Opening and running enboca Kyoto was as instructive as it was demanding.
After running enboca Kyoto for four years, Imai decided to open his own restaurant. He searched for a suitable site and eventually found a single-family residence built during the Taishō era (1912–1925). It was located on the famous 1.2-mile (1.9 km) Philosopher’s Path in eastern Kyoto, which runs from the Nanzenji, a Zen Buddhist temple founded in 1291, to the Silver Pavilion, built for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436–1490). Created in 1890, the path is lined with cherry trees and is a favorite cherry-blossom viewing site when the trees bloom in the spring.
To transform the residence into a restaurant, the building had to be gutted. Imai hired a husband-and-wife design team for the project and worked closely with them to realize his vision of a restaurant. When the pizza oven he had ordered from Italy arrived, it was installed at the center of the restaurant, directly in front of six seats at a long counter where his diners would sit and watch him cook. There also were two tables that seated eight people (Imai 2021: 24).
When monk opened in December 2015, Imai was well prepared. He had acquired culinary skills and knowledge during his seven years at enboca Karuizawa and enboca Kyoto. His contacts in the restaurant world had given him access to nearly everything he would need, and his restaurant’s location put it within an easy drive or train or subway ride of not only Kyoto but also Osaka and Kobe. But most important was Imai’s commitment to practicing a culinary hyperlocalism that was evidence of his virtuous intentions, the first requirement of my ideal restaurant.
monk: The Cuisine and Ingredients
What does Imai serve at monk? A typical dinner consists of seven courses and follows the omakase, or tasting menu, format: the first course is “a simple seasonal vegetable potage and a pizza suyaki”;6 the second, third, and fourth courses offer protein and vegetable appetizers; the fifth course is “associated roasted vegetables”; the sixth course is a meat dish; and the seventh course is dessert and coffee or tea (Imai 2021: 26). All the dishes are grilled or roasted in Imai’s pizza oven.7
What is important for this discussion is that Imai practices an authentic hyperlocalism, sourcing nearly all his ingredients locally and in season. For example, he uses only domestic varieties of flour. “The main flour is from Hokkaido and is characterized by gluten (between 11.3 and 11.5 percent) that is not overpowering and yields a soft chewy texture” (Imai 2021: 192). For the mother yeast that is his fermentation starter, he “use[s] whole wheat flour made from an ancient wheat variety, spelt, that’s carefully milled by a farmer in Shiga Prefecture just east of Kyoto. The flour has a deep, nutty flavor that gives the dough a unique intensity” (192). Water is another crucial ingredient for Imai’s pizza, and here he is lucky. Kyoto’s water is well known for its softness and has long been used to make the dashi (stock) that is the foundation for all varieties of Japanese cuisine there. His water is “spring water drawn from a nearby shrine” (192).
Imai’s local sourcing ensures his ingredients’ freshness. Almost everything he serves is cooked on the day it was harvested, gathered, or caught. Each morning at around 8:30 a.m., he goes to the farmers market in Ōhara, six miles north of his restaurant (Imai 2021: 37, 147). He knows and trusts his producers, many of whom he has patronized since he opened enboca Kyoto in 2010. By now he even has special relationships with several farmers and, as an example, he mentioned what Junichirō and Misa Takada, farmers in Ōhara, allow him to do. Buying their produce for a decade has “deepened our working relationship and sense of trust,” and consequently they allow him to harvest only what he needs that day. “Being able to harvest in this way is a gift,” and he added, “On my daily walks on the farm, I learn about what they’re working on, what they’re planting, and what vegetables are nearing their peak” (37). Crucial here is that Imai himself selects what he will serve that evening. Were monk bigger, this would not be possible.
Imai’s seafood comes from a purveyor he also knows and trusts. Every morning at around nine o’clock, Tatsuma Yoshikawa, who has a shop in Kyoto called Sellfish, sends his customers a list of what he has bought from fishermen that morning at Tsuruga on Wakasa Bay on the Sea of Japan. They then respond with their selections, and the seafood is delivered in the early afternoon (Imai 2021: 83). Imai described his relationship with Yoshikawa:
Mr. Yoshikawa is someone I do business with daily, so I know what to expect to some extent, but there’s still a certain unpredictability about what he’ll have that day, and the process never ceases to quicken my pulse. I think this degree of unpredictability helps me make space for a sense of adventure and keep my own energy and that of the restaurant fresh. Unlike a large restaurant with a fixed menu, monk’s menu changes daily; working with someone like Mr. Yoshikawa, who can bring me the best possible options day to day, is ideal. The quality of his seafood, his ikijime technique, and his love for fish are topped by no other (83).
Of course, Yoshikawa himself buys from fishermen whom he trusts and from whom he has been buying for many years.
Not surprisingly, Imai has relationships with all his producers and not just the farmers and his fishmonger. His cheese, for example, is made by Zensaku Yoshida, who not only makes cheese but also raises the cows—a variety called Brown Swiss—that produce the milk he uses to make his cheese. Yoshida is a renowned cheesemaker who supplies many of Japan’s best restaurants. Imai uses his caciocavallo, Majiyakuri, and mozzarella (Imai 2021: 45).
Imai’s mushrooms come from Yu Sasaki, whose family has been foraging for more than a century for mushrooms, wild vegetables, and nuts in Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan. According to Imai, Sasaki is “committed to preserving a vanishing culture and way of life in harmony with the forest” that has existed for many generations. As Sasaki himself explained,
The mushrooms tend to grow in the same spots at the same time of the year. It feels almost like a planned meeting, a rendezvous, with specific mushrooms and also with the villagers from a time before me, who also lived and foraged for mushrooms here. The mushrooms are long-lived, and their mycelium stretches over the generations; they may also be watching us, quietly. On some dim, misty mornings, I sometimes have a strange feeling that my ancestors are close by. That’s when I feel the importance of continuing their work into the future.…My grandfather told me that in the native dialect, the expression for when a mushroom starts growing is that it has “descended.” Ancient people had a deep understanding that mushrooms were a gift from the heavens (Imai 2021: 121).
Imai is lucky to have this relationship with Sasaki because Iwate Prefecture is famous for its mushrooms, both the well-known and less well-known varieties.8
Imai even sources his firewood locally. He buys it from a forester named Hisaya Furuhara, who lives in Hanase, a small village in the mountains twenty miles north of Kyoto. Depending on the time of the year, Imai buys Japanese oak or cherry. Like his mushroom purveyor, Furuhara’s family have been expert foresters for many generations and have helped maintain the forests of famous temples, including Kiyomizu Temple on the east side of Kyoto.9 Furuhara, like his forebears, thinks in terms of centuries, routinely planting trees that will not be ready for harvesting for several centuries (Imai 2021: 161). By buying his mushrooms from Sasaki and his firewood from Furuhara, Imai affirms and supports their well-established and proven sustainability policies.
Finally, Imai buys every ingredient only when it is in season. In the spring, his menu features sea lettuce (J. aosa), bamboo, rape shoots (J. nanohana), squid, snap peas, wasabi blossoms, “mountain vegetables” (J. sansai), butterbur (J. fuki), and Kiyomi oranges (Imai 2021: 196, 198–200).10 His summer offerings include tomatoes, corn, eggplant, zucchini, oranges, peaches, horse mackerel, bonito, abalone, octopus, conger eel, pike conger (J. hamo), and sweetfish (J. ayu) (202, 204–207, 218). In the fall, his menu is filled with winter squash (J. kabocha), carrots, wild mushrooms, sweet potatoes, spikenard (J. udo), butternut squash, Jerusalem artichokes, trout, chub mackerel (J. saba), grapes, persimmons, and a variety of nuts (213–216, 221–222). And in the winter he makes dishes from lotus root, kintoki carrot, “shrimp potato” (J. ebi-imo), daikon, napa cabbage, winter cabbage, Kujo leeks, winter spinach, turnip, winter grapes, winter oysters, Spanish mackerel, milt (J. shirako), wild boar, and venison (225–230).
By buying almost exclusively from local producers, Imai supports regional cultural traditions and affirms those who maintain these traditions with sustainable practices. His commitment to buying from these producers contributes to the survival of their communities and satisfies a second feature of my ideal restaurant: its positive impact on local communities.
monk: The Culinary Techniques
As a chef, Imai uses an array of culinary techniques, some unmistakably Italian, others Japanese. His own words offer a key to how he prepares his locally and seasonally sourced fresh ingredients:
Pizza is sometimes compared with sushi. Both are simple pairings of carbohydrates and ingredients; the art to both depends on the minimal preparation that will best maximize the ingredients’ flavors. This simplicity also means that the outcome is as indicative of the quality of the ingredients as of the chef’s skills. The mixing and proving of the dough, the balance of the toppings, the conditions of the oven and firewood, the baking. Finding the right balance is challenging, and one’s state of mind also affects the flavors (Imai 2021: 129).
Imai begins with the obvious: pizza is the “simple pairing…of carbohydrates and ingredients.” Then he recognizes the importance of his ingredients’ “flavors,” insisting on a “minimal preparation” that reveals the “quality of the ingredients” and the “chef’s skills.” Of course, there also is the dough, the “balance of the toppings,” the “conditions of the oven and firewood,” and the “baking.” He admits it can be challenging to find the right balance and, as chef, he also strives to maintain a state of mind that positively affects the flavors (129).
Given the centrality of the oven at monk, it is hardly surprising that Imai’s chief culinary technique is roasting, but what he does with this simplest of cooking techniques is extraordinary. Consider his second, third, and fourth courses, which always are roasted vegetables and one of monk’s “signatures” (Imai 2021: 208). “Fresh vegetables gathered at the market the same morning,” he observed, are “roasted, and sprinkled with salt” (208). Kamo eggplants are a traditional Kyoto summer vegetable, and Imai likes to “grill them whole until the skin is charred and the inside achieves a soft melted texture.” He then puts Yoshida Farm’s caciocavallo on top of them (206). Fall brings a variety of carrots with “a soft texture and fresh flavor.” Imai roasts them, tops and all, douses them with tangerine (J. mikan) juice, and finishes them with a pesto made with green carrot tops, roasted walnuts, garlic, rice bran oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and salt (214). Clearly, Imai’s roasting techniques are designed to bring out his ingredients’ innate flavors, and with the exception of potatoes, which he roasts slowly for forty minutes, most of his vegetables are ready after only a few minutes in his oven.
For certain varieties of seafood, Imai prefers what might be called “quick roasting.” He spreads fresh sea lettuce, a type of nori, on the pizza, adds grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and mozzarella cheeses, and cooks the pizza for just a minute and a half (Imai 2021: 199). He uses this technique as well with the squid he gets in the spring, roasting each side for one minute (198). Imai also quick-roasts winter cabbages because “heating up the cabbage quickly using the heat of the oven cooks it without losing its fresh flavor” (226). He cooks certain wild mushrooms in this way as well, which “seals in the flavors and retains the juiciness of the mushrooms” (215).
To enrich his dishes’ flavor profiles, Imai relies on several Japanese traditional culinary techniques and condiments. Not surprisingly, all enhance his dishes’ umami. An example is his pickling vegetables with rice bran (J. nuka).11 Cucumbers pickled in this way go into a vinaigrette because “the fresh flavor of the cucumber and acidity from the lactic acid fermentation make a wonderfully balanced vinaigrette” (Imai 2021: 169). Imai also uses two fish sauces. The first is heshiko, which is made by aging mackerel in rice bran for a year and is “a wonderful local alternative to anchovies” (169). The other is shottsuru, a fish sauce from Akita Prefecture in northwestern Japan that is made with sandfish (J. hatahata). Imai found that brushing ingredients with these fish sauces adds umami and “deepens the flavors.”12 When chefs in the United States and Europe discovered such Japanese condiments as miso, soy sauce, and dashi in the 1980s, they too used them to enhance the umami of their dishes.13
Finally, Imai ferments some of what he serves using a salt starter (J. shio-koji) to increase their umami.14 For instance, he does this by marinating pork loin in shio-koji for three days, then roasting each side of the loin for three minutes before slow roasting it for twenty more minutes. He then serves the pork with a salsa made with red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and ginger that have been pickled in rice bran (Imai 2021: 209). Because of the popularity of fermentation among chefs in Europe and the United States, Imai is wary of “layering up too many umami notes, which exhausts the palate and cancels out the chance to enjoy any lingering, subtle flavors” (169).
Indeed, Imai recognizes the wisdom and experience represented by traditional Japanese fermentation techniques.
Born of necessity over generations as a way to survive extreme weather and environments, they carry the raw life force of those who made and ate them and are entirely different from trendy, mechanically fermented foods. They resonate on a deeper level because they embody the learned wisdom and lifestyles of the local cultures and climates, perfected over centuries. I have a high reverence for those who pass on these vibrant traditions and flavors, and I hope to play a part in sustaining them for future generations to enjoy and carry forward (Imai 2021: 169).
Imai is clearly drawing on regional Japanese culinary traditions that have been threatened in modern times by the Westernization of the Japanese diet.15 His use of these particular condiments and culinary techniques thus satisfies a third feature of my ideal restaurant: its revitalization of endangered cuisines.
monk: The Diners
Finally, monk meets the fourth feature of my ideal hyperlocalism: it is eminently affordable by Japanese standards. His seven-course dinner in the summer of 2021 cost $100 (U.S.) plus tax. At first glance, this may seem high, but it is comparable to what pizzerias in the Kyoto-Osaka area charge. Those worthy of mention as Bib Gourmand eateries in the most recent Michelin guide offer pizzas for $10 to $30 at lunch and $10 to $50 at dinner (Michelin 2019: 111–112, 285, 290–291). But note that this is the cost of a single course at these pizzerias, and monk is offering seven courses for $100. Perhaps monk’s omakase dinner should be compared with multi-course dinners at Michelin-starred Italian restaurants in the Kyoto-Osaka area, which typically run from $130 to $180 (Michelin 2019: 44, 113, 134, 211, 304). Another metric for assessing the affordability of a dinner at monk is the State Department’s per diem rate for a dinner in Kyoto, which is $60.16
Perhaps because of the price point of a dinner at monk, Imai reports that every night his restaurant is nearly full of Japanese diners. Most identify themselves in their online reviews as residents of Kyoto Prefecture or Osaka, and they drive to monk.17 Before COVID-19, there were many foreigners who dined at monk, including many Americans, some Europeans, and a few Asians. Unlike the “global 1 percent” who travel solely to dine at the restaurants that John Broadway discusses, nearly all of monk’s foreign diners did not come to Japan just to dine at his restaurant. We know this because many admit that they heard about monk from the staff at the hotels where they were staying and describe the restaurant as a pleasant surprise. Moreover, most foreign diners do not appear to be the type of high rollers that John Broadway discussed in his article. I feel sure that they were not avid followers of the San Pellegrino list of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” and actually would not have cared whether or not monk was on that list. In fact, both the foreigners and the Japanese who have dined at monk might be described as what Broadway termed “common food enthusiasts,” which suggests that Imai’s restaurant satisfies a final feature of my ideal restaurant—its democracy.
As I have shown, monk has all five features of my ideal hyperlocal restaurant. First, Yoshihiro Imai practices an authentic hyperlocalism, buying nearly everything he uses from local producers, most from nearby Ōhara and the rest from producers in other parts of Japan. Only his olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, wine, coffee beans, and some mozzarella cheese are imported. He knows his producers and trusts them to give him the freshest produce raised, caught, or gathered in sustainable ways. Several of them even practice forms of food production that have been passed down in their families for generations. In addition, Imai’s restaurant has not adversely affected his producers’ local communities, nor is it beyond the means of their members.
Using roasting, the simplest culinary technique, Imai demonstrates both mastery and creativity. He skillfully varies his techniques by ingredient, thus roasting meat slowly and vegetables and seafood quickly. To increase the umami quotient of his dishes, he uses several foundational Japanese cooking techniques, ranging from pickling some of his ingredients with rice bran and salt to finishing his dishes with regional fish sauces. By doing so, he helps sustain an increasingly endangered traditional Japanese cuisine.
Because monk is accessible, most of his Japanese diners are from Kyoto Prefecture and Osaka, and they drive to the restaurant. Those from Tokyo and other parts of Japan probably take trains. His foreign diners fly to Japan but appear not to have known about monk until they arrived and heard about it from locals. Although they are not part of Broadway’s “global 1 percent,” they are no less appreciative of what Imai serves at monk.
Finally, a dinner at monk is eminently affordable, and two things make this possible. The first is the restaurant’s low overhead: although Imai leases his property, he owns the restaurant and has no quotas to meet (Imai, monk, 24). The second is the restaurant’s size: monk seats just fourteen people and has only two seatings each night, which means that Imai can buy or order in the morning most of what he will serve that evening. This would not be possible if his restaurant were bigger and he had to worry about his profit margins.
In sum, Yoshihiro Imai’s monk reveals that hyperlocality need not be hypocritical.
However, monk is, of course, only one restaurant. How many other restaurants would meet the criteria for what I term an “ideal hyperlocalism”? I can think of several restaurants in Southern California that might meet all my criteria, and I feel sure there are many others elsewhere in the world.
Why is an authentic hyperlocalism important? For several reasons. First, it fosters a symbiotic relationship between chefs and their producers, creating deep bonds of friendship and trust. Second, it offers healthy meals made with ingredients sourced locally and in season. Third, such a meal is accessible to a variety of diners—locals as well as visitors from afar. Finally, it circumvents industrialized agriculture and global supply chains and offers an approach to sourcing that is friendlier to the environment.
John Broadway, “Around the World in 50 Restaurants: The Curious Irony of Hyperlocal Food,” Gastronomica 21.1: 65–67.
Yoshihiro Imai, monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher’s Path (London: Phaidon, 2021). I have slightly modified the translations cited here.
Sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson coined the term “restaurant world” and defined it as “the network of people whose cooperative activity…produces the kind of (culinary) works that the (restaurant) world is noted for.” Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 107–108.
Emperor Jitō (r. 686–697) created what became the city of Kyoto in 694, and it served as the home of the imperial family from 794 until 1868.
Imai 2021: 21. Greg de St. Maurice has written about “Kyoto vegetables” in “‘The Real of the Real’: Kyoto Vegetables and Articulations of Authenticity,” Digest, Fall 2012; in “Edible Authenticities: Heirloom Vegetables and Culinary Heritage in Kyoto, Japan,” in Ronda Brulotte and Michael A. Di Giovine, eds., Edible Identities: Food as Cultural Heritage (London: Routledge, 2016), 67–76; in “Kyoto Cuisine Gone Global,” Gastronomica 17.3: 36–48; and in “Everything but the Taste: Kyoto’s Shishigatani Squash as Culinary Heritage,” Food, Culture and Society 20.2: 281–301.
Imai’s suyaki is a slice of pizza brushed with olive oil and topped with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
The omakase, or tasting menu format, highlights fresh, locally sourced ingredients and respects their natural flavors.
Furusawa Fumio et al., Nihon no shoku seikatsu zenshū, 3 Kikigaki Iwate no shokuji (Tokyo: Nōsangyōsan bunka kyōkai, 1984), 304–310.
Kiyomizu Temple was founded in Kyoto in 778 and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“Mountain vegetables” (J. sansai) refer to an assortment of wild vegetables gathered in the spring and featured in Buddhist vegetarian cuisine (J. shōjin ryōri). They include bracken (J. warabi), mugwort (J. yomogi), butterbur (J. fuki), and many others.
For an account of this form of pickling and other techniques, see Aya Kimura, “Tsukemono (Japanese Pickles) and Their Traditional Vegetables,” Gastronomica 21.3: 13–19.
Imai, monk, 169. Shottsuru first appears in the historical record in 927 (in the Rites of Engi [Engishiki]) and is one of several types of fish sauce made in various parts of Japan. It is called inagojōyū in Kagawa Prefecture, ishiru in Ishikawa Prefecture, and kusaya on Hachijōjima. See Okada Tetsu, comp., Tabemono no kigen jiten (Tokyo: Tokyodō, 2003), 230.
For a discussion of the impact of Japanese condiments and culinary techniques on U. S. chefs, see Samuel H. Yamashita, “The ‘Japanese Turn’ in Fine Dining in the United States, 1980–2020,” Gastronomica 20.2: 45–54.
This traditional Japanese culinary technique was introduced from China via Korea in the classical period (794–1185) and is first mentioned in the Rites of Engi in 927.
On the diminished appeal of traditional Japanese cuisine, see Eric C. Rath, Japan’s Cuisine: Food, Place and Identity (London: Reaktion Books, 2016), 20–25.
U.S. Department of State, Office of Allowances. Foreign Per Diem Rates, Japan, Kyoto, M&IE rate, $ 149, Appendix B (dinner $ 60).
I relied on reviews of monk found on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and The Tablelog. The Tablelog reviews are written in Japanese, and the translations of the reviewers’ comments are my own.