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The art of Kappo

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 11 min read
The art of Kappo
Chef Akane Eno of Kappo restaurant Ichigo Ichie marries her background in art and love for cooking with beautifully-plated dishes that taste just as good as they look PHOTO: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore
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Dining at Ichigo Ichie feels almost like a spiritual awakening. Everything you see — from the purposefully-placed art that adorns the shelves, to the homogeneous all-wood interiors, and structured calmness in the kitchen — is deeply symbolic and philosophical, just like its chef, Akane Eno.

One of very few female Japanese chefs in the world – and the only one in Singapore — Eno may appear diminutive and soft-spoken, but there is great strength and wisdom in her placid disposition after you get to know her. She will be the first to tell you that although very few Japanese women end up becoming chefs, given the gruelling hours and laborious work, gender has very little to do with one’s success in the kitchen.

“I do not think about myself as a female chef. To me, being female is just one of many characteristics and it is not directly impacting my choice of career. It is more important to focus on the cuisine that I serve and that guests enjoy their dining experience,” insists the 44-year-old.

Her views of the world and ethos towards her cooking revolve wholeheartedly around philosophy, culture and art — a subject very close to her heart. Before she became a chef, Eno was a Western art history major who wrote her thesis on Surikov, Vasilij Ivanovic (1848- 1916) and his paintings. Her original ambition was to become an art curator, but somehow food would always capture her attention in a way that art could not, whenever she dined out with her parents, sampling everything from steaks to French food.

Her background in art made her curious about how ingredients were sculpted into her favourite dishes. “I feel that I am a hands-on person. I still like fine arts very much, but I notice that I prefer to be close to the crafts. I like to feel how the items are made, and the thoughts put into creating them,” she explains.

After earning her art degree at 21, she enrolled at the renowned Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, and later trained for over eight years under master chef Masaru Furusawa in the art of Kappo in Tokyo.

See also: Japanese flavour secrets revealed

In 2015, a restaurant in Singapore had an opening for the position of a new head chef, and Furusawa recommended Eno for the role. She spent two years there and was later poached by master chef Tomoo Kimura of Sushi Kimura to join his team of sushi chefs. She became part of the team which achieved one Michelin star in 2018 and 2019.

Kimura allowed Eno to pursue her love for Kappo with weekly pop-ups at his restaurant. Her menu was so successful that Eno was given her own restaurant to manage. In February 2020, Ichigo Ichie was born, presenting a contemporary take on Kappo where Eno’s dual passions for art and food are melded together. Here, she cooks what she enjoys eating, drawing from her 20 years of experience, and making a painstaking effort to ensure that every diner’s experience is as tailored to the individual as possible.

An ancient Japanese proverb loosely translated as “one life, one moment", Ichigo Ichie applies to an unforgettable experience that one cherishes for a lifetime. It romanticises traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, where total devotion and sincerity from both guest and host is required in every aspect of the ritual. “When guests dine at Ichigo Ichie, I wish for them to immerse themselves fully in the dining experience too, just like a tea ceremony,” she expresses.

See also: Local chefs who creatively blend European cooking techniques with flavours drawn from their Chinese heritage

When you enter the cosy 16-seater space at Intercontinental Robertson Quay, you get immediate ryokan vibes. Neutral colours and warm wood are used in the dining area, contrasting with polished dark stone, steel and glass in the modern kitchen beyond the bar counter.

The restaurant draws parallels to an art gallery, with Eno’s love for art shared through her food. Next to the entrance, the walls feature a self-curated miniature art gallery which comprises beloved pieces from her personal collection, as well as fine Japanese crafts from HULS Gallery that are available for purchase. They include ceramic tableware, lacquerware, sake accessories, vases and other lifestyle items.

“I enjoy more practical fine crafts that I can touch and use. In my collection, there are a few items from famous Japanese pottery masters. I like them not because they are famous, but because of how these pieces elevate the dining experience by complementing the ingredients, or how the beauty of the crafts influences one’s appreciation of tea,” she shares.

One of her favourite pieces of art is a watercolour painting called Ryōbō that hangs in the dining hall of the restaurant. It is by Japanese calligraphy artist Kazue Kurihara and was on display in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, in 2019 as part of an exhibit inspired by modern tea ceremonies. She bought it because it bears similar meaning to Ichigo Ichie and shares ideologies on ritualistic intimate personal celebrations.

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Eno’s background in art history adds depth and value to her work through the study and understanding of ingredients and traditional techniques. Each dish, driven by the seasons, becomes a painting in which she applies inspired strokes to flavour pairings grounded in Japanese traditions, yet original. It is not uncommon to find her using curry, cream cheese and tea in her cooking. “Teas can add special aromas and flavours without overpowering the natural flavour of other ingredients. In this sense, I feel that it’s a perfect complement for food,” she shares.

Her artistic sensibilities also extend to the plating of her dishes which are delicate and balanced but generously portioned. Speaking from experience, there will never be a time you leave this restaurant unfulfilled.

Tasting menus will vary from day to day (and price) depending on what ingredients are available, but each seating will always feature a myriad of different cooking techniques. A premium dinner menu will typically include amuse bouche, appetisers, sashimi, a soupy dish, cooked meats, donabe and desserts.

Eno is also a practitioner of sanpo yoshi — a “three-way satisfaction” principle that business should benefit all people and not just seller and client — which emphasises relationships, prizing trust and “giving back”, especially through acts of reciprocity. Last October, she curated a menu to support Azumano Fumoto Sake Brewery from the Yamagata Prefecture. Proceeds were used to purchase rice from rice farmers in Yamagata so that the brewery could make a private label batch of sake exclusive for Ichigo Ichie. Students from the Tōhoku University of Art & Design were later engaged to design a new label for the bottles – another way to give back to the local community.

Eno says: “This aligns with my personal philosophy as I have always prized relationships. I believe that demonstrating respect and kindness for the people we work with daily will create a virtuous cycle. This is what I truly believe in.”

In this interview with Options, Eno shares more about her love for art and Kappo cooking.

Name some artists you love.

I enjoy the works of Jakuchū, Itō (1716-1800). Jakuchū used colour pigments made using natural materials and applied them on silk. He often featured traditional Japanese subjects and birds such as hens, roosters, and phoenixes.

In 2007, I travelled to Kyoto just to view an art exhibition at the Shokoku-ji Temple. It was a commemorative exhibition of Jakuchū’s Doshoku Sai-e (Colourful Realm of Living Beings), a set of hanging scrolls considered one of his most famous works. This is my favourite too.

Where are your favourite art galleries?

I like the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, which offers a permanent exhibition of modern Japanese works.

When I was studying art history in university in the 1990s, I also had the chance to visit the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, Russia. There was an artwork by Surikov which I wanted to view. It’s an extremely large piece of art that is difficult to loan to other museums due to its size, so I was glad and thankful that I had the opportunity to see it in person.

In Singapore, I enjoy visiting the National Gallery Singapore. The former Supreme Court building is an impressive location with many years of history behind it. I appreciate that there is a good curation of exhibits as well. I also like the Singapore Art Museum and I am looking forward to exploring it again after its reopening.

I personally appreciate artworks that reflect social habits in various cultures or offer storytelling on people’s living rhythms. There are not many galleries or exhibits that I always return to. There are always many inspiring and interesting exhibitions and projects happening across Japan, ranging from smaller-scale ones which focus on talented local artists to bigger events by celebrity artists.

When searching for exhibitions, my key focus is on the theme. The exhibition content is curated through the perspective of the artist. Appreciating art pieces in the artist’s gallery and seeing the same art piece on display at a curated exhibition can be very different experiences, and I find this interesting. It is a wonderful experience exploring these exciting projects.

Looking back, do you think you made the right decision going into F&B?

I honestly cannot imagine a life as an art curator. Culinary arts are my life now. I have never thought that choosing a career in F&B was a mistake. I believe that everything that happens in my life is meaningful, and everything will work out. However, like most people, I was fearful of failure when I was younger. Changing my career path was definitely a challenge. At first, my parents were actually quite sceptical of my decision.

Although I am passionate about the culinary arts, I often have trouble expressing it – this was one of the hurdles I had to overcome. I did my best to be calm and steady, and to believe in myself throughout the long process. Looking back, some events which I had regarded as failures do not appear so now, as those were times when I had learned the most.

In all honesty, I just took it a day at a time. I didn’t stress out by forcing myself to continue down a path I didn’t enjoy. If I felt that I was ever unsatisfied or unhappy due to the subject of my career, I gave myself the option to switch back.

Joining the F&B industry has encouraged me to grow as a chef and as a person. During my training days, there were colleagues who could work faster than me or achieve a certain skill with a single try. For me, while I understood, I needed more time and practice, which resulted in greater precision. I learned to observe the positives and negatives of myself and others. With these personal experiences, I feel I can give better suggestions to my staff when they struggle.

Has this life affected your chances of having a social life?

No, not at all. Everything that happens in life is meaningful, so I just enjoy my life. In Singapore, I have friends who I enjoy catching up with on my days off. I am married and my husband lives in Osaka. I feel that my choice of career has not affected my marriage. Before the pandemic, I used to be able to fly back to Japan a few times each year. Now that the border restrictions have lifted, perhaps it will be easier to visit home more frequently.

What do you love about Kappo cuisine?
What I enjoy about Kappo is the freedom to explore. Kappo in Kanji means “to cut and to cook in a variety of ways”. I can create anything with my favourite seasonal ingredients in any way I choose. When I receive ingredients, I start to think what is the best to enjoy first: Sashimi? Grill? Fry? Or serve as donabe rice? And so on. Next, I think about the combination. Sometimes it could be a very traditional or simple one, while another time, it could incorporate pairings that are more unique and currently not commonly used in Japanese cuisine. There are so many possibilities. I really enjoy finding new elements during the discovery process and sharing them with my customers.

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