The Unique Japanese Restaurant Profiled In Chef's Table: Pizza

You can never go to monk, a pizza-focused restaurant near Kyoto, Japan, knowing exactly what you're going to eat. That's because chef Yoshihiro Imai isn't the one planning the menu — that's the job of "the environment, the climate, and nature," he told The Talks. One of six featured pizza experts on "Chef's Table: Pizza," set to premiere this week on Netflix, Imai never had formal culinary training. Instead, he fell in love with pizza as a 23 year old, when he ate at a pizzeria in the mountains of Japan. A week later, he decided to become a chef and got his first culinary job at that same restaurant.

In 2015, Imai opened monk, a 14-seat eatery known for its omakase menu that starts and ends with pizza. Though the Italian specialty might seem like an unconventional choice for a kaiseki menu, the chef said pizza felt like a "natural" thing to offer for its simplicity and craftsmanship. 

Imai's wood-fired pies aren't topped with Italian cured meats and cheeses. Every morning, the Ibaraki native finds his ingredients from Kyoto's markets and "farms tucked in the mountains of Ohara." Only then — after collecting things like chrysanthemums, wild venison, and a mountain vegetable called koshiabura — does he decide the day's menu. If you ever find yourself at monk, you're in for surprises not only from the menu, but also from the very place where the restaurant is situated.

monk's location was chosen for a significant reason

Translating for Imai while speaking to Bloomist, the chef's friend Emmy Reis said it took Imai about eight months to find the perfect location for monk. He wanted something quiet and tucked away from the city near running water. Finally, a real estate company tracked down a place near Ginkakuji that "just clicked:" a building on the Philosopher's Path, named after the 20th century thinker who walked its grounds every day, Nishida Kitaro (via Phaidon). Monk's building sits next to a creek and is shaded by trees whose colors change with every season, based on photos of the restaurant. Imai explains the concept further in his book called "Monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher's Path."

Reis said that paths are a "big theme for monk." She explained, "I think this image of a 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." Even though the chef's day-to-day tasks are the same — sourcing ingredients, preparing them in the kitchen, and serving them to customers — each day has its subtle differences based on what Imai experiences when he goes outside. In an interview with Fare Magazine, Imai said, "I believe that if I see a beautiful, foggy mountain in the morning, then I can bring back that feeling in my mind to my kitchen. I cook it, I serve it, I share it with the guests." Those interested in learning more about Imai's culinary philosophy can tune into "Chef's Table: Pizza" on September 7.