For someone whose life’s work has been bound up in preserving tradition, Yoshihiro Murata is not a natural conformist. Instead, he embraces change, seeking to shape the future by educating in the present and by challenging authority where necessary.
It is this individuality and determination that ensures the 68-year-old Japanese chef remains highly relevant and active in the elevated echelons of his country’s culinary hierarchy – and so deserving of the American Express Icon Award for Asia in 2020.
Born into the third generation of chef-restaurateurs in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, Murata-san famously travelled to France as a young man, where he was dismayed to discover that Westerners had a warped view of his home country’s culture and cooking. This formative experience shaped his initial outlook as a chef, prompting him not only to value his own food heritage and ingredients, but ultimately to become an international ambassador for a greater understanding of Japanese cuisine and flavours.
Some 25 years ago, he took full control of his family restaurant, Kikunoi, enhancing its reputation as one of the finest ryotei [high-end Japanese restaurant] in the land and earning a coveted three Michelin stars in the process. While Kikunoi serves a traditionally structured 12-course kaiseki menu finely attuned to the seasons, Murata’s menu is always evolving, fed by new techniques and experimentation within the broader parameters of authenticity.
Over recent decades, the revered chef has branched out with a marginally more casual counter-dining restaurant in Kyoto, as well as a Tokyo version called Akasaka Kikunoi. He has also consulted on a raft of international projects in his role as ambassador-in-chief for kaiseki classicism.
However, his most striking impacts have been felt beyond his own restaurants. First, he was instrumental in campaigning for, and securing, Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage status for Japanese cuisine. A key part of Murata’s activism was in challenging the Japanese government and elite to value food and its production more highly by investing in protecting artisanal skills and in educating young people about food and nutrition.
Second, his impact on many of the most successful international chefs of recent times is incalculable. In 2004, Murata founded the Japanese Culinary Academy in Kyoto to facilitate cross-cultural exchanges. The likes of Albert Adrià, René Redzepi, Heston Blumenthal and David Chang are just a few of those how have learnt at the master’s knife, so to speak, and his influence has been evident on their varied menus.
Despite approaching his eighth decade, Murata is still as active in his kitchen as he is in using his voice for change. Right now, this voice is currently focused on the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals and how the culinary community can forge a path towards a healthier future. If he pauses for breath, he can look back with pride at his achievement to date, including this prestigious title.
Watch the video with Chef Murata:
The American Express Icon Award is voted for by the 300-plus members of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy and honours culinary icons who have made an outstanding contribution to the restaurant industry.
Discover more about the previous award winners