Weisshorn, a restaurant facing the peak of Mount Asama that sits among a green mountain range, is located on the top floor of the 297-bed Maruko Central Hospital in Ueda, Nagano Prefecture.
The restaurant, which is also open to the public, offers well-balanced lunches. On the day this reporter visited, the main dish was white fish with a tomato-based sauce. Meals for the hospital staff and those who come for the "ningen dokku," a complete medical checkup, are also made in the same kitchen. The dishes are prepared by the 52-year-old chef, Koji Yamada.
Yamada is a native of Nagano Prefecture, and his family has run a mountain hut on Mount Jonen in the Northern Alps. Yamada grew up watching his father taking care of the climbers, and he had yearned to be a "kokku-san," or a cook, since he was small.
Although he enrolled in a university in Tokyo, he could not give up his dream and dropped out. For 26 years, he honed his skills at top restaurants in the Tokyo area as well as France.
A turning point came six years ago. The Maruko Central Hospital, which is run by his relative, asked Yamada to "help improve the hospital meals." Coincidentally, he was thinking about making a social contribution through food and decided to return home.
At the hospital, he reviewed the menu and cooking procedures with the nutritionists. When the hospital moved to the current location in 2013, Yamada was asked to run the restaurant as the exclusive chef.
Once back in Nagano, Yamada discovered the charm of the local agricultural produce. Ginseng, the root of the Korean ginseng, among others, is one such item. Its cultivation began around Ueda city in the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The ginseng and ordinary carrots belong to different species, and the former carries a good amount of saponin with antioxidant effects.
Yamada first introduces a soup featuring the ginseng. It is a highly nutritious dish that is included in a special dinner served to the patients once a month.
After it is simmered for about 40 minutes, the texture of ginseng becomes like a potato. Its subtle bitterness eliminates the smell of the chicken. Together with the umami of the konbu kelp, garlic and mushrooms, it creates a multilayered flavor even though very little seasoning is used. Free-range chicken is used to draw good stock.
"Mochi mugi," a type of hulless barley, is an ingredient that is also produced in Nagano Prefecture. It is rich in water-soluble dietary fiber that increases the amount of beneficial bacteria in the intestines.
In the summer, the soup may be chilled in the fridge and served as cold soup or as an aspic-like dish.
Born in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1966, Koji Yamada trained at the French restaurant Queen Alice and eventually served as the head chef at its main restaurant. He also trained at restaurants around France.
The restaurant Weisshorn seats 30 people. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays. It serves only one type of lunch menu that changes daily. Visitors may enjoy Yamada’s sweets between 2 and 4 p.m. when the restaurant becomes a cafe.
Ingredient A (3 each of chicken tip and chicken drumette, 60 grams ginseng, 4-cm square dried kelp to draw stock (dashi konbu), 2 to 3 garlic cloves, a piece of ginger half the size of thumb, 6 tsp chicken soup stock powder, 1.2 liter water)
200 grams winter gourd (togan)
50 grams mochi mugi barley
90 grams mushrooms (shimeji, maitake, etc.)
※Ginseng is available at Korean foodstuff shops.
Peel winter gourd, remove pith and cut into pieces that are slightly bigger than bite-size. Peel garlic and ginger. Remove hard end of mushrooms and separate.
Place Ingredient A in pot 18 to 20 cm in diameter, bring to a boil over medium heat. Skim off foam, add winter gourd and lower heat so content continues to simmer. Place lid slightly ajar to prevent water from evaporating and cook for about 20 minutes.
Add mochi mugi and mushrooms and cook for another 20 minutes. When reduced too much, check taste and add hot water.
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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column