Book review: Monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher's Path, by Yoshihiro Imai

06 May 2021 by
Book review: Monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher's Path, by Yoshihiro Imai

Monk tells the story of the 14-cover restaurant in Kyoto of the same name – the building and city in which it's located, its suppliers, the journey that led owner Yoshihiro Imai to becoming a chef, and the food he serves.

The book is arranged seasonally, with the 75 recipes contained in their own chapter at the back of the book, along with credits to the artisans behind the crockery. This allows you to appreciate the beautifully written essays and stunning dish, landscape and portrait photography illustrating each season.

Monk's tasting menu is all cooked in a wood-fired oven and, as one guest puts it, "starts and ends with pizza". But why pizza? "There's something about pizza that simply makes people happy," Imai says. "It's warm, it's round, and it fills the soul with a sense of wellbeing. That feels like a good enough reason to dedicate my life's work to it."

The self-taught chef fell into working at a pizzeria in his student days and spent holidays interning at restaurants including Noma (of course) before opening Monk alongside Kyoto's tree-lined Philosopher's Path in 2015.

His cooking is simple and rustic, at all times approached with a great respect for nature and ingredients, some of which may not be so readily available in the UK, at least not without incurring significant food mileage. Imai acknowledges this in writing about being unable to recreate all the flavours he has encountered during his travels, but "the most important thing is to bring back the different approaches to work and life and to share this experience with my guests", he writes.

It also tells the story of owning a restaurant which, despite being many miles away, endures issues all too familiar here in the UK – finding a work-life balance, staffing problems, the cost of rent and sustainability and, as of the last year, having to pivot to survive in the face of Covid-19.

Monk is a refreshing reminder of the importance of finding and creating beauty in everything we do: our work, food and environment.

Monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher's Path, by Yoshihiro Imai (Phaidon, £29.95)

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