LA Chef David Schlosser’s ceramic ware for Shibumi in DTLA

(Originally published September 10, 2015 on Examiner.com).

Opening soon [now open] in downtown Los Angeles is a diminutive Japanese kapporestaurant called Shibumi. Though common in Japan, kappo style of cuisine is not common in the United States. This kappo style of cuisine is midway between informal izakaya and very formal kaiseki cuisine with most of the food being served at a dining counter where patrons will directly interact with the chef David Schlosser and his chef de cuisine.

The chef’s story is a very interesting one that will be detailed in a forthcoming profile. David’s knowledge of Japanese cuisine is quite impressive and was obtained by working under Masa, when Masa was still in LA at Ginza Sushi Ko, and then next under Urasawa before David moved to Japan where he furthered his knowledge even more at three of the most famous kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto all with three Michelin stars: Kitcho Honten, Kikunoi Honten and Miyamaso.

Shibumi means creative restraint in an artistic sense. Thus David’s intent at his forthcoming restaurant is not to wow his guests with all of his technical and creative culinary skills. Rather David’s intent is provide a genuine Japanese dining experience that is reverent to Japan’s culinary traditions. The ingredients, preparations, plating and sequencing of courses all pay homage to these traditions.

Three styles of ceramic ware are going to be used for the plating: Imari,Shigaraki-yari, and Bizen. These three styles are from three different regions of Japan within a few hours of Kyoto. David purchased all of ceramic ware through a dealer, and his mentor, Robert Yellin in Kyoto, who made the connections with different artisans whose ceramic pieces David could afford. Some pieces by certain artists can be quite expensive and thus not practical for a restaurant.

Yellin advised David, to get several styles of ceramics since having all one style wouldn’t be appropriate. Yellin advised David that he needed bothwabi-sabi (natural state items) and some porcelain pieces in order to show the proper respect for the history of the ceramics in Japan. Plus the porcelain Imari style is more feminine while the other two styles (Shigaraki-yari and Bizen), that are more wabi-sabi, are more masculine. Yellin told David that with anything masculine you have to add some feminine touches.

Thus for David, Yellin obtained this more feminine blue and white porcelainImari style of ceramics from ten different artists in the Kyushu region of Japan. This classic blue and white style of porcelain was invented in China. Kyushu is the southernmost portion of Japan closest to Korea and mainland China. All the ceramics in Japan were started in Kyushu in by Korean and Chinese artists. At this time ceramics were far more advanced in both Korea and China. The Chinese and Korean artists came to and found porcelain rock in Kyushu. So the material was there and the artisans who soon followed built kilns to make these porcelain ceramics. Before the Koreans came, ceramics in Japan were at a really peasant level of ceramics. The Koreans really showed the Japanese the techniques on how to build and fire kilns. Imari is very intricate work. It is also the opposite of wabi-sabi. Meaning this style doesn’t reflect the natural state of the item. Instead all the blue and white porcelain pieces had to be hand painted. That’s a really technical task. Imari takes a lot of time to make. With these porcelain dishes chef David noted that one uses these plates more for delicate feminine items like sashimi or really light tempura or dessert like rose ice cream, that is mainly food that’s soft and delicate.

In direct contrast to the refined feminine Imari porcelain ceramics, Yellin obtained for David masculine green Shigaraki-yari ceramic ware which is very wabi-sabi. These plates came from a single artist in Shiga about two hours south of Kyoto. What makes this style of ceramics very interesting is the glazing. There is no glaze on these pieces. The artist first makes the piece whatever shape he wants. He then collects piles of ash from a fire he builds using local wood every night at his house. After months of collecting this ash, he loads up the kiln with ceramics, gets a glove and just throws ash in the kiln. That’s it. The artesian closes and fires the kiln. The glaze is just melted ash. So the ashes from the wood in that region when melted turns green. This is unique to that area. Being one of the six oldest pottery centers in Japan, this style of ceramics goes back to around the end of the twelfth century. Green looks great with meat and grilled fish plus is very versatile.

The third kind of plates that Yellin acquired from two different artists for David are extremely important. This type of ceramics is called Bizen. Ceramic connoisseurs say the Bizen style of ceramics is basically the best type of ceramics in Japan. There is nothing more pure Japanese than Bizen. These ceramics are from the Okayama prefecture which is about three to four hours south of Kyoto. What makes Bizen so special is that there is no glaze period on any of the pieces plus it is one hundred percent wood fire.Bizen is god made. The artisans make the form, and put these pieces in the wood fired kiln. The kiln has louvers that are adjusted to control the airflow. The look of the ceramics depends upon how the louvers are adjusted to control the airflow. If the wind is hitting harder one day, the patterns on the ceramics look different. Also being one of the six oldest pottery centers in Japan, this style of ceramics goes back to the beginning of the twelfth century.

Historically before the Edo Period, 1880, all the kilns were communal. More specifically all kilns were owned by a proprietor who let artists share his kiln. The artisans would share the kiln because these were peasants that didn’t have their own money to build their own kilns. To fill these large kilns, twenty thousand pieces were required. So the proprietor would wait until he had twenty thousand pieces. Firing a half filled kiln was expensive because the wood was very expensive to cut. Thus firing the kiln happened only once a year or, at most, twice a year. Firing was a big deal, because then the artists had all their work and the proprietor got paid.

David, his restaurant GM and designer all brought backed pieces of ceramics packed in their luggage since shipping costs from Japan are so expensive and would have doubled the cost of all his plates. David believes he has enough dishware for everything he needs for right now at his forthcoming restaurant but, if not, he has sources to get more item. Plus David somewhat jocularly noted that his dishwasher is going to be very well paid. Again David’s sorted of joked that he and the dishwasher will have to have a very deep long conversation about the plates and the importance of the dishwasher’s job.

So unlike a typical American commercial kitchen where the dishwasher is often treated with little respect, the dishwasher at Shibumi is going to be extremely valuable to the operation because of these plates. The back of house will include a hand washing station and a small dishwasher rather than a large one, since these pieces are just going to get soaked and washed then dipped in warm water before getting dried. There is going to be a whole process. Shibumi is also going to have rubber floors installed in the kitchen to help reduce or minimize breakage.

Chef David Schlosser hasn’t created a new restaurant to express who he is and what his cooking is about. Instead David used the restaurant’s menu, style of service and cuisine plated on the three different aforementioned style of ceramics to respect Japanese culture and tradition. In doing this David exercised restraint or shibumi at his new restaurant named Shibumiopening soon at 815 South Hill Street just south of 8th Street in downtown Los Angeles.

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