top of page
  • utsuwany

Vol. 1: Chef Hiroki Odo, HALL/odo

"I strive to create a dish without canceling the beauty of the utsuwa.... I think that way I can show respect for the artisans who created the utsuwa."

Nestled in the back of the Japanese café and bar HALL is odo, a kaiseki restaurant spearheaded by Chef Hiroki Odo. (He is known to have helped the restaurant Kajitsu receive one Michelin star when he was at the helm.) As a kaiseki cuisine specialist, he is aware of the important role utsuwa (tableware and more) plays in perfecting the experience. He talks about his approach to utsuwa and his culinary philosophy.

How would you describe the relationship of utsuwa and food in kaiseki cuisine? 

I think it’s all about the aesthetic sense. Japanese people tend to be particular about tiny details, and that embodies who they are. And that tradition lives in the kaiseki food culture, too.

In kaiseki, each course has its own meaning.

Yes. I think the spirit behind it is not only to eat the course, but also to enjoy it.

How did you learn and polish your aesthetic sense that you infuse into your cuisine? Did your mentors teach you how to choose utsuwa?

There are chefs who are really conscious of the importance of utsuwa, and there are those who just focus on the food. Each chef has a different taste and approach. In my case, I love utsuwa, interiors, and food––the balance of all the aspects. So I was thinking about them all the time during my apprenticeships. But to answer to your question, it can’t be said that all chefs acquire an aesthetic sense.

You worked in kaiseki restaurants in both Kyoto and Tokyo. Did the two cities have any differences?

Very much so. In Kyoto, traditions are everywhere. For example, during the time of the Gion Matsuri [an ancient festival of Kyoto's Yasaka Shrine during the month of July], restaurants are filled with the Gion Matsuri atmosphere. Both food and utsuwa are accented with Gion Matsuri motifs. The same happens during the season of Aoi Matsuri [an ancient festival in Kyoto that takes place in May].

On the other hand, I didn’t find the same sensibility in the restaurants in Tokyo while I was working there. I did notice, however, that both traditional and modern styles are blended together well in Tokyo. I remember I saw a lot of utsuwa that incorporated contemporary and traditional features.

At HALL, original custom-made utsuwa are used for serving food, while odo uses artisanal utsuwa for each dish. Are these special utsuwa from Japan?

At this moment, yes. But my goal is to serve kaiseki made by using locally sourced ingredients and locally made utsuwa. So I keep looking for local utsuwa artists, too.

How do you pair your creations to each utsuwa? Which comes first?

It varies. Sometimes utsuwa inspires me to create a dish. Other times, I create a dish first, then think about the utsuwa for serving it. In extreme cases, my idea flies directly from ingredient to utsuwa, making me think, “What kind of cooking method should I use to make this ingredient alive in this utsuwa?” 

Do you change your utsuwa every month?

Yes. Currently, I have 50 or so kinds, including both modern and antique pieces from Japan, most of which I selected myself. But I really want to add more, especially ones made on American soil.

What styles of utsuwa do you like?

I like ceramics/porcelain with sometsuke [blue and white patterns]. There are various type of sometsuke, but I like simple ones rather than elaborate ones.

To arrange food on an utsuwa with patterns might be difficult because the pattern and food may clash with each other.

That’s very true. So I strive to create a dish without canceling the beauty of the utsuwa. Many of my creations are simple––it’s case by case, but I tend to make a dish that complements the utsuwa rather than having the food take centerstage. I think that way I can show respect for the artisans who created the utsuwa.

Does your inspiration of pairing food and utsuwa go well all the time? Or do you struggle to find the perfect match?

Often, I find that my idea does not work as I thought it would.

That encourages you to order custom-made utsuwa, doesn’t it?

Right. I have requested ceramic artists to make original utsuwa for my cuisine, but what I want to have most right now is a small utsuwa perfect for chawanmushi [Japanese savory egg custard]. It is surprisingly hard to find one that is small and right for the dish. 

Would you tell us about the custom-made utsuwa used at Hall?

The concept of Hall is to revive outdated things, and I really like shedding light on something that is on the verge of extinction. Currently, I have a project to make plates using reclaimed wood. We plan to use the plates for serving soba noodles at dinner every Monday at Hall.

Your cuisine is acclaimed for its minimal seasoning of ingredients to maximize their subtle tastes. Do you think about choosing utsuwa that effectively express the flavor of a dish rather than just complementing it visually?

I do. There are types of utsuwa that appeal just because of their beauty, and I know there are people who love those kinds. But those are not my taste. For both utsuwa and cuisine, I like those that are less obtrusive––in a way, natural.

The utsuwa for your Yuzu Ramen represents your aesthetic, I think. The pale blue color is modest, and if we take a close look at it, we find subtle patterns behind the glaze. The shallow bowl creates a wonderful visual rapport with the clear ramen soup and thin noodles. And from a tactile standpoint, the edge of the bowl is round and gentle enough to help the light soup naturally flow into one's mouth.

Thank you for your commendation. I am attracted to types of utsuwa whose “intention” is invisible. Utsuwa crafted with an intention to make it look great can be wonderful, of course. But it would be really difficult to make a great utsuwa that has the artisan’s intention hidden deep inside. That is actually the ideal utsuwa for me.


17 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011


bottom of page