Reimagining Kaiseki Through the Lens of Three Award-Winning La Chefs

L.A. is buzzing with kaiseki right now—the tradition of serving multi-course meals to celebrate the seasons with exacting technique and local ingredients. By definition, this could describe about half the menus around town, characterized as Italian, French, or “Los Angeles” cuisine. But in Japan, kaiseki is a true art form: everything from how a chef prepares a piece of fish to when it’s served and even how it’s served, is a precise decision. In fact, in its truest form, kaiseki might be too stuffy for our free-wheeling, relaxed way of dining out. That’s not stopping some of the city’s best chefs, like Brandon Go, Niki Nakayama, and David Schlosser, from borrowing the tenets of kaiseki to create a winning formula at their restaurants.

At Hayato, a diminutive seven-seat restaurant hidden in the concrete maze of ROW DTLA, Go utilizes five basic techniques of Japanese cooking—sashimi, grilling, steaming, frying, and simmering—for his 10-course menus. Featuring mostly Japanese seafood and locally grown vegetables, each dish is a study in minimalism. But dishes like tender abalone with a dollop of liver sauce, and seared spot prawn served cold with vinegar jelly, show the depth and complexity behind each preparation; It takes a lot of effort to get something quite complicated to taste that simple.

“So much work goes into each dish,” says the chef. “It’s like learning about really special wines. You know it’s not just about the flavor—you have to know why Chablis is the way it is. You have to know terroir and technique.”

Owan at Hayato. Owan is the Japanese word for lidded bowl, an essential component of a kaiseki or Japanese tasting menu. Photo Credit: Dylan + Jeni.

Growing up working in his father’s sushi restaurant and training under some of Japan’s best kaiseki chefs in Tokyo, Go knew he wanted Hayato to be a meaningful dining experience. The chef began by offering lunchtime-only bento boxes; now, with a full-service restaurant, the elaborate bentos are only available on Fridays and Saturdays. For his dinner menus, Go searches for unique ingredients— things he fell in love with in Japan, like blackthroat seaperch, or produce local farmers grow in small quantities.

“As much as I’d like to use local seafood, we import almost all of the fish. I’ll use local crab, abalone, and spot prawns, but blackthroat sea perch, or nodoguro, is considered by many to be the best fish for grilling in Japan.” Go adds: “It’s always on my menu—my favorite fish to use. We get most of our produce from a farm in Oxnard.”

With some omakase menus, a server or chef might simply deliver a dish and quietly recite a few ingredients. At Hayato, Go presents that night’s offerings with as much detail as you and the other diners in the room desire—from where the ingredients were sourced, to the techniques used to prepare them. It must be working: Hayato was awarded one star by Michelin, a feat for a restaurant that’s only one year old.

“The first year at Hayato has been an incredible ride,” he says of the designation. “More than anything, we’re just happy to be able to make our living making food that we are proud of.”