An Aesthetic Look at Life, Beauty, and Japanese Cuisine…
Photos courtesy of LuxeGourmets.com
“Sensuality,” “aesthetics,” and “opulence”… these are some of the traits that gourmet home chefs and hosts who entertain guests with luxury dinner parties strive for. But creating an experience of “true luxury” for guests is an art that even the most cultured chef and host must work long and hard to master. True luxury should be sensual, yes, but not gaudy; aesthetic, yet not too perfect; opulent, yet with opulence that shows modesty.
With the concept of “balance” being so vital to the question of luxury, we can see how the “Art of Luxury” is more reminiscent of an Eastern art, rather than one of our more polarized Occidental modes of expression that favors extremes. I will go as far as to say this art reminisces on Zen Buddhism or Taoism. Although luxury and wealth have always walked hand in hand, few would argue that a Japanese tea ceremony exhibits less luxury than a night out in a very select and expensive discotheque in London or Dubai. Wealth goes unnoticed in a Japanese tea ceremony, although luxury is there.
The literal translation of the Japanese word sado, (which we call “the tea ceremony”), is “the way of tea.” This phrase, “the way of…” is how the Japanese describe all of their arts and disciplines, including cooking and entertaining guests. This is the concept of “Geido.”
Our Western phrase, “The Art of Luxury,” would be translated by the Japanese as “The Way of Luxury,” because it is central to the Japanese understanding of art and life that the way one does something is just as important as the end result. No Western thinker can deny the wisdom in this. After all, Japanese calligraphy (“the way of the brush”) is beautiful in the end only because the trained calligrapher made the proper strokes. Japan’s process-oriented culture cultivates a nation of highly disciplined masters. Is it then any doubt that they are recognized for having the world’s most aesthetic cuisine?
Photos courtesy of LuxeGourmets.com
The old sushi tradition says that sushi chefs must work as apprentices for ten years, undertaking menial jobs like cooking rice and scaling fish, before they are allowed to finally prepare sushi. Western sushi chefs overstep much of this education if they have natural talent and skill. As for amateur home chefs, I have seen many who approach Japanese cuisine with no experience and are able make beautiful and delicious sushi after very little practice. This is because they combine two things: creativity, and ingredients of the finest quality.
The Top 4 Reasons Why You should Serve Sushi at Your Next Dinner Party
One: Because you want to give the very best…
Had Michelangelo been born in the Orient, he would certainly have preferred rice to stone. Sushi is without a doubt, the most aesthetic food on earth, as well as the cuisine most universally-adored by connoisseurs of luxury. Visually, it is the gastronomy that comes closest to great architecture and interior design. As a host, you should be as proud of the appearance of the food you serve as you are of your home where you welcome your guests.
As for taste, sushi and sashimi prepared with the finest ingredients rivals (possibly surpasses) all other delicacies, no matter how rare or expensive. And our modern “American-style sushi” allows for so much creativity that a chef has virtually limitless freedom. You may even incorporate saffron and truffles in your sushi if you wish!
Two: Because in 2015 you can finally have the very best…
Before 2015, it was nearly impossible to find luxury-quality seafood in America that a chef could prepare in the home: Many gourmet home chefs still believe that the fish sold at their local markets is as good as it gets. Did you know that the top sushi restaurants would never dream of buying their tuna and salmon at a local fish market?
Top chefs and restaurateurs make sure to only purchase Grade #1+ fish (the best sashimi grade there is), from a source who has the expertise to know how to tell when a fish is perfect, and how to deliver it to a restaurant as fresh as the moment it was caught. The most celebrated chefs in America and restaurants with Michelin stars, including the renowned “Nobu,” buy their fish from a source that, until this year, sold exclusively to top restaurants.
Photos courtesy of LuxeGourmets.com
But in July of 2015, the supreme purveyor of luxury seafood, Luxe Gourmets, changed the future of luxury home cooking in America by offering its impeccable Grade #1+ seafood to the public through their new website: www.luxegourmets.com. For the first time ever, chefs and hosts can enjoy preparing, serving, (and, of course, tasting!) the same fish served at Nobu and other top Michelin-starred restaurants.
What has seafood connoisseurs especially raving about this website’s launch is that Luxe Gourmets not only features overnight delivery, but they ship to anywhere in America. For the first time ever: America has the best of the oceans, from sea to shining sea.
Three: Because you care. Your guests are your friends…
Being luxurious means being courteous: A true lady and a true gentleman understand the phrase: “luxury is above snobbery.” The United States is a nation of individuality—which, among other things, means that diet restrictions come up at every social event. With Japanese food, you don’t have to worry. No cuisine is a safer choice for a luxury dinner party than sushi. It is a perfect meal for the “pescatarian,” the lactose intolerant, as well as those allergic to wheat. Sushi is extremely healthy and low in calories, so all your guests who are watching their figures will love your party without any guilt. Plus, the seafood of Luxe Gourmets is truly amazing when it is cooked, so don’t forget to add a few hot seafood creations to your menu for those who don’t like raw fish. Lastly, remember to make plenty of vegetable-only sushi rolls and dishes for your guests who don’t eat fish, period.
Four: Because the Japanese will “teach you the way”…
Just as the tea ceremony has time-honored rules that create an ambience of luxury, without flaunting wealth, so do all disciplines in Japan. In America, and elsewhere in the West, we are not trained in disciplines that consider luxury an art, so we have to either train ourselves, or else act like the many people who think money can make a person luxurious. Consider this next section focusing on aesthetic principals to be “free help” in planning your next luxury dinner event. With sushi, you are not alone in the planning of your party, you have centuries of Japanese wisdom on your side.
As with other elements of Japanese thought, “The Way of the Luxury Dinner Party” has secrets that you can practice, learn, (and maybe someday master). Reflect on these “Nine Principles of Japanese Aesthetics” to help you show your guests that you understand what True Luxury is all about.
First Principle: Wabi-Sabi (Imperfection)
Would you want to be in a romantic relationship with someone who is perfect? You might think, “Definitely!” Yet without a doubt he or she would start to annoy you pretty soon. And you wouldn’t be able to find in that person any of those lovable little flaws that make a human being intriguing. The same goes for food. “Perfect” food would look machine-made, fresh out of a factory. An overly “perfect” dinner table arrangement would make guests feel uneasy, they would feel self-conscious; and they wouldn’t want to touch anything in your house if your interior design was too perfect. Wabi-sabi also refers to the temporality of nature. Sushi obeys Wabi-sabi naturally in this because it retains its ideal taste for only a short while after being prepared. Just like the too-short season of spring, sushi gives diners a feeling of fleetingness.
Photos courtesy of LuxeGourmets.com
Tip: Try giving your guests an experience of Wabi-sabi by serving a Bluefin tuna steak flambé. Your best choice is Luxe Gourmets’ Otoro, since its extra fatty meat will sizzle and spark in the flame for an extra dramatic flare.
Second Principle: Miyabi (Elegance)
Rather than meaning the “presence” of elegance, Miyabi moreover refers to something that is lacking, viz., “vulgarity” and “crudeness,” If you are a gourmet chef or a host of luxury get-togethers, it is doubtful that you need a lecture on manners, or on avoiding vulgarity in the way you decorate your home or table. Elegance probably comes as naturally to you as blinking your eyes. But try to take special note of the principle of Miyabe when preparing and presenting sushi. This is especially important in America where we celebrate individuality over adherence to rules, invention over tradition. Sushi chefs in America are not required the long years of disciplined training beneath a master who oversees that the traditions are upheld. We are seduced by the American Dream—“Do it different, and you will make a name for yourself!” And with our multi-cultural experiences today, it is not hard to come up with crazy ideas for new kinds of sushi. But beware of vulgarity and crudeness. Always remember that it should be pretty, but also edible. If you are wild by nature, and love the American-style “everything goes” sushi, feel free to experiment with unusual ingredients. Just make sure that any sauces you add are made from scratch. What isn’t good for raw oysters is even worse for Grade #1+ fish: Never douse a beautiful piece of Bluefin Toro with Tabasco sauce! Yes, cooking should be fun and creative; but when it comes to sushi, resist the temptation to shock your guests with an overdose of the “sushi mad scientist.”
Tip: The very best way to obey Miyabi is to always use the finest quality ingredients, from the fish down to the soy sauce. Unless you caught the fish yourself and are an expert in judging the freshness, grades, and species of fish, always buy seafood from LuxeGourmets.com. They are the only American supplier of guaranteed fresh, Grade #1+ fish that sells direct to home chefs and consumers. You may make sushi for yourself and your family with raw fish from the local fish market (taking precautions, of course), but if you are hosting a luxury dinner party, Luxe Gourmets is the only supplier you should trust—don’t put your guests (or your reputation) at risk.
Third Principle: Shibui (Subtlety)
Think simple. Think zen.
The principle of Shibui doesn’t mean that your dinner party should be “subtle.” Sometimes that word makes one think of something that has little effect on the senses, and is therefore: unmemorable. What we are talking about here with Shibui is perhaps the most important characteristic of luxury: understated quality and modest beauty. Shibui is the dignified woman who holds her head high and walks with elegance, while wearing little or no makeup. A household decoration that is Shibui contains subtle details and textures that don’t appear to the eye at first, yet for some reason, the object becomes more fascinating and more complex as time goes by.
How does Shibui apply to a luxury sushi dinner? Most people want to flaunt their wealth. They want people to know that their suit, or their dress, is Dior. They want to wear the biggest diamond ring, the gaudiest gold watch. And when their dinner guests arrive at their home, they need to take them on a tour to see their shiny new Aston Martin in the garage. Some of this can be laughed off as innocent childishness on their part. But when it’s time to dine, it’s time for the chef or host to remember that feeding friends and acquaintances is a selfless act. It is not about your wealth. It is about their enjoyment.
If you have prepared rolls of maki with king crab sprinkled with Petrossian caviar, it is not necessary to make a show of it, adding more caviar than is needed so that your guests will notice and comment—at which point you are delighted to tell everyone which brand of caviar it is. Of course, you are entitled to present your dish and name the ingredients, but a disciplined mind will not be thinking of one’s own fame, rather about his or her guests’ enjoyment. So if your Japanese recipe calls for fois gras, do not be excessive for pride’s sake. Add the amount of fois gras that will make it taste the best!
Photos courtesy of LuxeGourmets.com
Fourth Principle: Iki (Refined Uniqueness)
Iki, which can also be translated as “originality,” is by far the easiest of the Japanese aesthetic principals for Westerners to master. Individuality is not something that Eastern thought encourages. (There is actually no word in Sanskrit that means “individual” in the modern sense.) Education in the East was founded on the concept of the “guru,” while the Western teacher is considered a “mentor” (derived from the old wise man named Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey). The guru originally meant “the person the student shall become,” meaning that no individuality shall interfere; whereas the mentor stood as more of a role model, and it was expected that the Occidental student would stray slightly from the path to follow his or her own quest. While this brief explanation risks sounding ethnocentric, the dangers of Occidental teaching should be noted, as our quest for individuality often results in another word found in Homer’s Odyssey: The word “hubris”—or, “excessive pride in one’s self.”
American and European chefs and hosts usually have no trouble showing off their originality and uniqueness (hopefully it is “refined” uniqueness). But when you reflect on these Japanese principals of aesthetics, look inside yourself to see if you are not going too far in one direction or the other. The wisdom of the Orient is vast, so it would be worthwhile to meditate on the concept of Iki, as to decide what constitutes luxury, and what constitutes hubris.
Fifth Principle: Jo-ha-kyu (Slow… Faster… Bang! )
Westerners are familiar with the principal of Jo-ha-kyu from Hollywood movies. They usually follow a formula to make the suspense slowly building, then speeding up, and going until the dramatic final action (or drama) scene that—if it’s a good movie—takes the spectator’s breath away. On the Fourth of July, Americans witness Jo-ha-kyu at the end of the fireworks show when a surprising multitude of rockets explode in quick repetition, lighting up the sky with a multitude of color and loud blasts of gunpowder. After this finale… silence.
Sushi chefs should experiment with this technique. Instead of usual… letting guests finish the main course, then a slow linger over dessert, until finally they wind down lazily with tea, coffee, or a digestif; why not have the meal build up and up, saving the chef’s biggest culinary surprise for the very end? Your guests may be too satiated to eat it, but the spectacle would be impressive!
Sixth Principle: Yugen (The Inexplicable Awareness of Mystery)
Photos courtesy of LuxeGourmets.com
If, at your next dinner party, the conversation starts to drift towards petty, uninteresting subjects, all you would have to do to liven things up is start a discussion with your guests about the meaning of the Japanese principal of Yugen. You will be sure to see raised eyebrows as your guests begin to suspect that the grilled Japanese mushrooms you served were not the deliciously non-hallucinogenic “matsutake” variety that you told them they were.
Yugen can be described as the sudden and profound awareness of the universe and your ephemeral part in it. This awareness creates a feeling of “understanding everything”: The vastness of the world, the brevity of life; and the truth that even “awareness” itself is transient. Those who experience Yugen find it so mysterious that it eludes their ability to put it into words. The 14th Century aesthetician Zeami Motokiyo said of Yugen:
“It is to watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.”
…Just try to fit that into your next dinner party conversation. If you can, your guests will be talking about it, (or trying to), for a long time to come!
Seventh Principle: Geido (The Discipline, The Process, The Way)
Geido, as we learned, is neither “the art” nor “the artist,” nor “the artist’s tools.” Yet it is all of these. It is the discipline and the process. It is “the way.”
When your guests arrive at your dinner party, it won’t matter to them if you have studied under a sushi master in Japan for the last ten years, or if you are simply an amateur chef who has never traveled, never made sushi before; but rather, after reading this article you bought some dried seaweed and taught yourself to make decent sushi rice, ordered fresh fish from LuxeGourmets.com, and mailed your favorite friends invitations for an evening of gourmet luxury. To many upscale diners in the West, the only thing that counts is the taste and temperature of the food after it arrives on a room service tray in their five-star hotel rooms. But to you and your guests, the dinner party you host is a process of creation. Much of it is “culinary” creation, and this you do alone. Everything else, however, is a collective creation: The creation of an ambiance, of a small society; the orchestration of an evening where you are the guide and inspiration; yet is a gathering where all of you are on “the way.” The guests at your table, no matter how intimate or strange they are to you, they all have their own histories, their own private secrets; and your dinner party is but one stop on their way towards creating themselves. While whoever you conceive yourself to be: Chef, or artist, or simply someone who has yet to become, you too are on your way. You will entertain your guests, you will eat and drink, and each second that goes by during this evening of your orchestration will be its own work of art, as you, in your disciplined creativity, go the way of your own self-creation.
This is Geido.
Eighth Principle: Enso (The Circle)
This penultimate principal of Japanese aesthetics explains a lot, and it explains nothing. You can meditate on it forever and your mind will just go around in circles. The name of this principal (“Enso”) is the Zen-Buddhist word for “circle,” and its symbol is a common motif in Japanese calligraphy (“the way of the brush”). Remember that the way of sushi has a very short history compared to the ancient wisdom of these aesthetics.
The circle of Enso contains “everything.” It is the universe, the circle of life, the presence of all things. It is also the absence of all things. It is nothing. It is a void. Enso is both fullness and emptiness, the beginning of the world, as well as its end. In addition to Enso being “the end of the world,” it is likewise, “infinity.” If you were to ask a Japanese scholar if Enso is a contradiction, you would probably be told that no, it is not a contradiction, yet that it is a contradiction as well. Phew!
This frustrated circle might seem to you as though it suffers from an identity crisis, yet it does have one definition that is beautiful and clear: “Enso symbolizes a moment in time in the life of the artist when the mind is free to simply let the spirit create.”
I believe that chefs need to remember that above all, they are artists. And to be a great artist, one must devote all of one’s thoughts, energy, and actions to one’s art. Thus, Enso may fit with “the way of the luxury dinner party” by teaching the chef “humility.” The sushi chef is not a Zen master who can devote his or her life to contemplation. Neither is the chef the embodiment of luxury. If chefs start to identify themselves too much with concepts, like “luxury” and “enlightenment,” then they aren’t concentrating on their art—in which case, they cease to be artists.
Ninth Principle: Kawaii (Cuteness)
Now that we have “eternity” out of the way, we can move on to the final, and perhaps the most profound, principal of Japanese aesthetics…
“Cuteness.” …How nice!
The word in Japanese is “Kawaii” and it more literally translates as “loveable.” You are probably wondering how “cuteness” could be more profound than “eternity and the absence of eternity”—that terrifying concept of Enso. Enso, after all, means “everything and nothing.” But it also means “enlightenment.”
I remember listening to a famous poet and truth-seeker who travelled to Buddhist monasteries in Japan some years back. He spoke of his profound fascination while on the trip. I asked what, in particular, did he find fascinating; and the only anecdote he related to me was how he was greeted by an elder—one of the “Enlightened Ones”—a monk who was almost one hundred years old. The poet uttered to me the word “cuteness” as he spoke of the smile the elder monk gave him. The word struck me as funny then. He said that the monk’s smile had the cuteness of a child. (This may remind you of Hesse’s description of an elder monk from India in his novel Siddhartha. “Like a small child,” Hesse had written.)
Now small children, you must admit in all fairness, are a boisterous and ungrateful lot. They are ill-mannered, undisciplined, uneducated (many of them are even illiterate), unworldly, terribly selfish (at least according to our adult conception of selflessness), and they combine all of this savagery with a complete disregard for the cleanliness of their hands. If children didn’t outgrow these flaws as often as they do, I would wonder why we let their species flourish all over the world. In spite of this, one nice thing that children do have, which we do not, is “innocence.” One more thing they surpass us adults in is “cuteness.” It is these two things, “cuteness” and “innocence,” that poets and writers also see in the eyes of hundred year-old monks. It seems that when striving for Enso (“enlightenment”), we end up finding Kawaii. Thus, it is only fitting that the eighth principal of aesthetics be Enso, and the ninth and final principal be the result of enlightenment—that is: “being lovable.”
Kawaii is everywhere in modern-day Japan. Just think of Hello Kitty. Think of all those florescent smiling Japanese video game characters, and the playful billboards pasted on Tokyo’s skyscrapers that show candy-colored cartoon animals cheering people on to buy Pocky sticks, etc. Actually, Hello Kitty is proof enough that “cuteness” is a crucial part of the aesthetics of Japan.
So, when you’re planning your luxury sushi dinner party, it might be fun to look online and see what cute little Japanese party favors you can buy, or how you can make your food presentations more playful. Careful, though. You don’t want to go too far with this. A little childishness goes a very long way!
Socrates didn’t wear Dior… so what?!
Socrates scorned luxury fashion and those who wore it. However, based on archeological digs in Phoenicia and our knowledge of Phoenician trade routes, we know the ancient Greeks ate their fill of Bluefin tuna. Socrates probably enjoyed it both cooked and raw.
You might be thinking now, after reading through my treatment on the principals of Japanese aesthetics—ancient, sacred principals that have been contemplated by sages and scholars for centuries of time—that my title for this article, “The Way of the Luxury Dinner Party,” is a little cheeky (or just plain ridiculous). How, you ask, could I profane so many centuries of devotion to philosophical inquiry and make them groan under the weight of a title about silly luxury dinner parties?
My response to that would be: Of all that I wrote in this article, the least ridiculous thing was the title. Perhaps the only thing as ancient, sacred, and profound as “the way of…” (Geido) is the “luxury dinner party.” I’d better explain…
“Luxury” is simply excellence, beauty, and quality so fine that it enraptures the heart. It is what every man and woman should strive for. It is not “wealth.” It is simply “beauty.” The words “beauty” and “luxury” are synonymous. Keats found it in his Grecian urn and wrote about luxury:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Then there is “dinner.” Dining on food… that most primal human need and pleasure. Of all of the arts, which one surpasses the preparation of foods that please and nourish? Our language is filled with such phrases as: “Art feeds my soul.” Our civilization suggests that the eating of food is the passageway to the soul.
Photos courtesy of LuxeGourmets.com
Finally, there is the “party.” The gathering of friends, family, and new acquaintances… in other words, “society.” The Ancient Greeks placed society and association with fellow members of the polis as “the most important thing in life.” Aristotle declared that he who avoids society is a barbarian. The epics of Homer sing about the most evil person in the world being the man without a clan: “clanless, lawless, and hearthless is he.”
And so it is: Beauty, food, and friends. The body is nourished, the soul fed, and we have company to make our way through this otherwise lonely life. Our “luxury dinner parties” draw together the three elements that have kept scholars, sages, and poets busy for millennia. The elements that make us human, and that in our human poverty, make us most divine.