If you ask David Schlosser what's the most complex dish he serves at his restaurant, Shibumi, he'll proudly say it's the Japanese delicacy karasumi. The fermented caviar is made from the prized eggs of grey mullet, which are harvested only two months a year. The 41-year-old chef cures the eggs in various percentages of saltwater baths before setting them out to dry. When his pièce de résistance is complete after a month's time, he serves it sliced and paired simply with sake.
It's this kind of patience, simplicity and complexity that sums up the experience at Schlosser's downtown L.A. kappo restaurant, which feels like a dark and moody Tokyo eatery. It's rare to find kappo cuisine in L.A., and Schlosser's goal is to present “a different side of Japan that [diners] can't [normally] get here,” he says.
Think of kappo as the more relaxed sibling to the elegant, multicourse experience of kaiseki: still refined, but set in a more casual environment where you can watch the chefs behind the counter work with fresh and seasonal ingredients, and employ similar techniques of grilling, boiling and stewing. At Shibumi, shiso flowers and caviar top a giant Iwagaki oyster, and grilled slices of Holstein beef are served alongside fresh wasabi and narazuke pickles.
Although Schlosser's passion is Japanese cuisine, he got his start in French fine dining and, most notably, staged at the three-Michelin-star Georges Blanc in France. “It really helped me set the standard for my whole career when I got into Georges Blanc, because I realized when we're young, we're sponges — we take in information,” Schlosser says. “The standards were so high there.”
It wasn't until he was on a three-day layover in Japan that he became smitten with the country. When Schlosser returned to L.A., his friend helped get him a gig at Beverly Hills' Ginza Sushi-Ko, and he became the first non-Japanese employee to work under renowned chef Masayoshi Takayama. He later worked with Takayama's protege at Urasawa, one of the most expensive sushi restaurants in the country.
“It's about restraining what you create
But Schlosser grew tired of sushi. “I wanted to learn pre-sushi, everything in Edo period and before — what makes Japan, Japan,” he says. “Sushi doesn't make Japan, Japan. Sushi is so new, but when you start studying and looking into the culture of Japan, it's intense. There's a lot going on.”
He figured the only way he could learn more was to move to Japan. Schlosser became the chef to the U.S. ambassador to Japan and then diligently spent the next four years learning how to cook at lauded kaiseki restaurants, studying the language and poring over Japanese cookbooks.
Schlosser reluctantly came to the conclusion that opening a kappo restaurant in the midst of hundreds of other kappo eateries in Japan didn't do anyone any good. He decided it would be better to introduce the cuisine to Americans, and give Japanese people living stateside a chance to taste their home country's delicacies again. Schlosser says leaving Japan was “one of the hardest things I've ever done.”
Nowadays, you can find Schlosser behind the counter at Shibumi six days a week. He fondly thinks about how last December he served a delicious persimmon by just cutting it open, placing it on a plate and serving it with Riesling.
“That's the basis of Shibumi,” Schlosser says. “It's about restraining what you create, to express confidence and mastery of what you do. The older I'm getting, the more I feel that this whole three Michelin [stars] and this whole fancy [thing], it's very ego-driven and it has to do with, 'I'm the best.' I don't want to do that anymore. I thought I wanted to be the best, but now it's about transferring traditions and passing that along.”