Interview with Emmy Reis | monk
Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery By the Book with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Emmy Reis: My name is Emmy Reis. I am one of the translators along with Naomi Reis who translated Chef Yoshihiro Imai’s monk: Light and Shadow on The Philosopher’s Path.
Suzy Chase: Emmy, you live in Brooklyn, but you’re originally from Kyoto. How do you know Chef Imai, and how were you involved with this book?
Emmy Reis: Sure. It’s actually a funny story. Chef Imai and I met at a very random bar in the pub district in Kyoto. We were each meeting work clients and then they happened to be going to this very random hole-in-the-wall bar. We just happened to sit next to each other at this bar. We were both feeling very awkward, and then we got talking and he talked about his first book, Circle, which he was carrying in his bag. Right off the bat, I don’t know, we connected. So yeah, we’ve been good friends. He’s had this vision of this book for a really long time, and so yeah, I was really happy to be involved in the translation of it.
Suzy Chase: Monk is the story of your 14-seat, seasonally inspired restaurant. I want to kick things off talking about the word path.
Emmy Reis: I think the motif of a path is a really big theme for monk, and of course the book in many ways. It’s also in the subtitle, Light and Shadow on the Philosopher’s Path. The Philosopher’s Path is the actual name of the small path where monk is located. It’s such a perfect name because it’s named after the various philosophers and writers that are said to have walked on this path to ruminate about life, et cetera. The vibe of the path hasn’t changed much today. It’s still a quiet, tranquil pass along a small canal. It’s very calming and meditative to walk this path.
Emmy Reis: I think this image of philosopher walking on a path day after day connects to this idea in Chef Imai’s work, where each day is this meditation, repetition and accumulation of a communion with nature and the ingredients that it provides. It sums up to the larger picture, which is a journey and an exploration, as you said, and one that is ongoing.
Emmy Reis: His daily ritual of traveling up north, out of Kyoto city to the countryside of Ohara, where he gathers his vegetables, herbs, and flowers of the day. It’s definitely a practical ritual in the sense that he gets his ingredients, but it’s definitely much more than that. It’s about feeling the energy and the breath of the natural environment, and then bringing that back with the ingredients and keeping that intact in the dishes that he makes so that it can be shared and felt by the guests as well.
Emmy Reis: His approach is very much about being receptive to nature, and so going to the farms and fields where he can feel that is an essential part of his practice. That’s basically what guides his path.
Suzy Chase: Chef Imai seems to epitomize the definition of creativity, although he’s uncomfortable using the word, how come?
Emmy Reis: I think, well, he’s expressed that he’s always surprised and deeply moved by the beauty and wonder of nature, which is created by nature itself and the elements within that. We can’t create anything without that ourselves, or even exist. I think that in the course of his life, he felt and understood this idea in very visceral ways, both in specific moments and over time. You can get a sense of that through the essays and stories he tells in the book.
Emmy Reis: After that, once he have that realization, he says he almost felt ashamed to use that word, not because the word creative or using the word creative is inherently bad in any way, but because of the way it’s been used in certain contexts in a maybe entitled or capitalistic ways. I think it just doesn’t feel right to him within his relationship with nature, as a chef and as a person, to put it that way. He prefers just being with nature with deep respect, and that’s monk in a nutshell. This also means the dishes reflect seasonality and sense of space, sense of place, and the environment and the changes that come with each day and moment. That’s the most important thing, and the menu and dishes evolve each day because of that.
Suzy Chase: For those of us who don’t have a garden, we’re here in New York City, or we can’t forage, we go to the grocery store. Does he think there’s a way for us to tap into the awe and respect that bubbles up for him every morning on his commute to the farmer’s market?
Emmy Reis: Yeah, definitely, there’s still a way to tap into that. He suggests going to the grocery store or farmer’s market without deciding what you’re making beforehand. Just go there with a neutral mind and open your eyes and your heart to what they have and see what ingredients speak to you or seem most vital. Think about what’s in season right now. Even in a grocery store in the city, there should be a larger stock of seasonal things that are perhaps less expensive and are pure, fresh and vital. Once you have one or two, or maybe many ingredients if you’re lucky like that, from there, you can think about what you’re going to make. That’s kind of the same thing as what he does in the farmer’s market and out in the fields every morning.
Suzy Chase: Chef Imai’s primary aim is for his guests to enjoy a delicious and pleasurable time at monk. What is his deeper takeaway for his guests?
Emmy Reis: It’s a really huge pleasure for him to see the guests have a delicious and fun time, but he also hopes to resonate with someone’s heart on a really deep level, in a way that remains imprinted in their memory, not just in the mind, but of course, in a way that’s connected to the senses and the body. What he’s always thinking about and talking about with his staff is to imagine what type of feeling the guests would be taking home after dinner. If you have a clear sense of that, you can have a strong sense of what to do and how. Restaurants have many elements, like interior design, flowers, music, lighting, conversations that happen, and the food’s just one of those elements. He’s always thinking about what the guests might feel and the whole experience of the restaurant and how that might reverberate for them as they return back to their daily lives.
Suzy Chase: I’d love to hear about his search for the perfect spot for monk that’s situated on the Philosopher’s Path.
Emmy Reis: Yeah. it took him a long time to find the right place, I think he said almost eight months. He had a really clear vision of a location close to nature and ideally next to a river or stream, running water. He told some real estate companies, but they didn’t get his image really, or they just didn’t have anything like that. But he also didn’t want to settle, so he just kept trying. Finally, one company that got his vision got back to him four months after he brought this up and they told him about this place. It was right at the foot of the mountains, kind of away from the city, next to flowing water, so it was perfect. There was a really special energy. It feels very protected and secluded and closer to nature. But the building itself was super old, so he was a little unsure when he walked in, but something about the vibe just clicked so he went with it.
Suzy Chase: His work at Monk is a direct reflection of how he lives everyday life. I would love to hear about that.
Emmy Reis: Yeah. I think that when someone does this kind of work, daily life and work become almost seamless. First of all, you’re working very closely with your senses, your intuition, your philosophy, and you can’t turn that off. The two have to meet in sync. Then secondly, the work of a restaurant is around the clock. It starts very early in the morning and goes into late night, so definitely the condition of the body and soul is very important. He always says if that’s out of balance, you can’t move someone’s heart. He’s very dedicated to keeping himself healthy and happy and making sure he can spend time with his family doing some light yoga on his breaks and stuff like that. That’s part of his work as well. By the way, his wife, Ena, is a really amazing yoga instructor. They use the second floor above the restaurant as her studio.
Emmy Reis: The dishes come to life because of his routine of going to the farmer’s market and the farm, so it’s very important what he sees and feels there. He says it sometimes almost feels like the dishes are a diary that he’s writing.
Suzy Chase: I’m so interested to hear about the connection between music style and taste.
Emmy Reis: Yeah. He would say there’s definitely a connection between music style and taste in the ways they’re structured and also in the ways they might make you feel. Like maybe the rich and textured sounds of the symphony might compare to the atmosphere and labor-intensive techniques of classic old cuisine in a French restaurant, and then maybe the way pop music is embellished with different kinds of sounds or synthesized in certain ways can be compared to contemporary gastronomy.
Emmy Reis: Chef Imai himself enjoys a wide variety, both in music and in cooking. I know he listens to a lot of hip hop, Japanese hip hop, and jazz when he’s driving, but the type of music he really resonates with on a deeper level is pretty simple, like solo piano performances or minimalistic combinations of vocals and acoustic guitar. I think this really shows in his approach to cooking as well.
Suzy Chase: While attending university, Chef Imai would travel around alone on his breaks, like backpacking across Asia and Europe. One particular winter in Canada, he had a home stay experience where the mother of the family made pizza at home. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Emmy Reis: He talks about this memory as something that has been deeply imprinted in his mind and how, looking back, it’s one of the pivotal moments for sure that connects in this line with where he is now, because pizza was a chance meaning for him and this was definitely one of those things that pulled him in that direction.
Suzy Chase: Almost all the cooking at monk is done in a wood-fired oven, imported from Italy. That’s the heartbeat of the restaurant. First, I’d love for you to describe how the open flame takes to vegetables.
Emmy Reis: The infrared heat of the oven can gently cook the vegetables in a way that really encapsulates their essence and goodness. He really believes this is the best way to eat vegetables, and especially seasonal vegetables, and capture that umami. The assorted grilled vegetable dish is always part of the omakase course, and it’s a major highlight of the meal. It seems really simple, and it is simple, but because of that simplicity, it also involves a lot of craft and skill because the vegetables have to be cut, grilled and salted very precisely so that they really shine. It’s also about, I think, the experience of seeing the flames cook the ingredients right before your eyes and the way that connects with something very primal within us.
Suzy Chase: Then I’m so curious about the tasting menu that starts and ends with pizza.
Emmy Reis: The first course is a simple combination of a seasonal vegetable potage soup and grilled pizza crust, which Chef Imai calls suyaki, su meaning as is or natural, and yaki meaning grilled. It’s just grilled really quick in the oven and topped with olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The idea is to deliver the bare essence of the restaurant, and it’s inspired by traditional Cha-kaiseki cuisine, or also known as tea ceremony kaiseki, where the course starts with a simple soup and just small bite of cooked rice.
Emmy Reis: Then the meal moves on to series of small appetizer-sized dishes, using daily vegetables combined with dairy or seafood. These have a lot of freedom and really shift with the ingredients of the day. They’re often accentuated with fresh herbs or fermented foods. The fifth dish after that is one of the highlights, which we talked about, the assorted roasted vegetables, followed by a meat dish. Then the second highlight of course is a pizza that comes after the meat dish.
Emmy Reis: In Japanese cuisine, there’s a concept we call shūryō which means end or close, and it refers to a warm and filling very wholesome meal, most often carb-based, so it will probably be something like noodles or rice. So ending with pizza connects to this idea of shūryō. It made sense to Chef Imai to close the meal on this happy and wholesome way. Lastly, of course, is the dessert, which usually features herbs or grilled seasonal fruit, so the night can end on a really bright, light, uplifting and refreshing note.
Suzy Chase: Why pizza?
Emmy Reis: Yeah, this is a really great question and something that also comes up in the book, because of course everyone is so curious and asking him that all the time. In fact, there is a essay in the book with that exact title, Why Pizza? There are many reasons, which the book reveals more about as it unfolds, but this is something Chef Imai himself has thought about a lot, as would anyone who has dedicated so much of their life to a specific craft. I think there’s always a philosophical, maybe even existential, question of why am I doing this specific thing?
Emmy Reis: In the essay, Chef Imai talks about how maybe it could have been architecture or music or something else instead of pizza, but this idea of path comes up again. On the specific path he happened to be on, pizza was what showed up for him in a very profound way in his early twenties. This experience of eating it at that moment was a very visceral thing that spoke to the core of his being. In that moment, he just knew that he wanted to replicate that for others and that was kind of it. Pizza also just happens to be this wonderful template in which he can both play homage to traditional Japanese cuisine and local ingredients and the changing seasons, while also opening a space that is flexible, playful and experimental and not bound to conventions or certain expectations.
Suzy Chase: There are three pizzas in the book that I would love for you to describe. The first is the fresh nori pizza.
Emmy Reis: Yeah, the fresh nori pizza is a very simple combination of fresh nori, mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The nori here is not the sheet nori that you think about when you hear nori. It’s a raw variety of seaweed called aosa lettuce. It’s got a paste-like consistency, and it comes out in the very beginning of the spring. This is a dish to celebrate the arrival of spring. It has a really nice minerally, salty flavor, so it’s best to keep it simple in this way.
Suzy Chase: The next one is the eggplant pizza.
Emmy Reis: Ayu and Kamo-nasu eggplant pizza.
Suzy Chase: Yes.
Emmy Reis: Yep. This one is a half-and-half pizza with a traditional Kyoto variety eggplant called Kamo-nasu, it’s very meaty and juicy, and ayu, which is a summer freshwater river fish known for a very pleasant, bitter flavor. These are ingredients that signal the beginning of summer. The ayu is prepared as a confit and the liver is made into a sauce to add a deep accent to the flavor. The eggplant is roasted in the wood-fired oven and pureed.
Suzy Chase: God, that sounds great.
Emmy Reis: It is.
Suzy Chase: Then the next is the kōtake mushroom pizza.
Emmy Reis: This is a pizza that is very close conceptually to sushi. It’s the minimal combination of a carbohydrate and an ingredient, and this really allows the seasonal mushrooms to shine. The mushrooms are foraged by his forager friend, Mr. Sasaki, who lives up north in Iwate. They’re quite special and this is a really nice way to enjoy them.
Suzy Chase: Monk is housed in an old 100-year-old residence with traditional blue roof tiles. Would you please describe the interior? I am dying to go here, by the way.
Emmy Reis: Yeah. It’s a combination of Japanese and Scandinavian modern, simple but refined, and yet also very warm, inviting, and comfortable. It’s minimal in a way that isn’t uptight and it just soothes and relaxes your eyes and heart. The beams and pillars are the original wood and the dome-shaped window with cast iron frames looks out onto the tree-lined Philosopher’s Path.
Emmy Reis: The pizza oven and counter is the first thing you see when you come into the dining space. The floor is one level throughout and the kitchen counter, where all the food prep happens, is right there. That, and the warm lighting, make it feel very intimate. The vegetables and flowers picked fresh in the morning and the farms adorn the kitchen counter and stove top spaces, and that brings you a sense of the vital energy from nature that morning.
Suzy Chase: Chef Imai seems to approach everything in his life with an artist’s eye, even down to how the firewood is stacked. Could you please tell me the story of the cover and the physical design of this cookbook?
Emmy Reis: The photographer, Yuka Yanazume, who did all the photography is a high school friend of Chef Imai. They’ve worked on an independent book project together before this. Her photos are just stunning, so Chef Imai knew from the beginning he wanted to with her. She really did a fantastic job of capturing the vibrance of the dishes and the nature. The designer, Julia Hasting, also did such an amazing job. The design of the book really speaks to the aesthetics of the restaurant. It’s dynamic and tranquil all at the same time, in a way that evokes not just Monk, but also the vibe of Japan, and specifically Kyoto, but in a really refreshing and just genuine and natural way.
Emmy Reis: It was really important that the book didn’t cater to some kind of pre-existing or packaged idea of Japan or Kyoto and maybe conventional imagery or narrative within that. This book really needed to be its own thing, free to express what Monk embodies, and Julia really allowed that to come through, which is so amazing.
Emmy Reis: Another important thing is the theme of light and shadow, which is in the subtitle of this book. It’s definitely expressed in the design, layout and photos throughout the book, which is organized by the four seasons, beginning with spring. In terms of the theme of light and shadow in this book, there’s an ongoing play between smaller moments of tension and contrast between light and shadow, like in the individual photos, and then there’s a larger cycle that happens over the course of a year and the seasons, starting with this rising bright energy of spring that’s full of light and vibrant colors and then ending with a certain darkness or quietness, deeper tones of color, which gives the book closure, but also a sense of renewal and rebirth beyond that.
Emmy Reis: The cover was rendered from a photo taken by Yuka, in which the leaves from the trees on the Philosopher’s Path were casting these beautiful moving shadows on the Monk exterior wall. It gives a really tactile sense of that warmth and carries that theme of light and shadow. It was a really beautiful and perfect cover for this book. It also has this feeling that those shadows could move or change at any moment, and that’s also something that pulls you in deeper. So yeah.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find Monk on the web and social media?
Emmy Reis: You can find his website at restaurant-monk.com, and also on Instagram, his handle is yoshihiroimai. There’s also a recording of the online release event, I think you can find it on his Instagram. It’s one of the newest posts. That’s a really great way to get a sense of the book as well.
Suzy Chase: This cookbook is truly a work of art. Thank you so much, Emmy, for coming on Cookery by the Book Podcast for Chef Imai. This is certainly something I’ve never done before and I loved talking to you.
Emmy Reis: Thank you so much, Suzy. This was a total pleasure and I’m so excited to be talking with you.
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