Patrick Summers of the Houston Grand Opera

Shannon Smith
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Patrick HS.jpgMy greatest culinary experience was made all the more so by being in a completely unexpected time and place. 

In 1991 I was conducting a production of Bizet's Carmen that was touring from San Francisco Opera touring to three different Japanese cities, Nagaoka, Sendai, and Tokyo. I was in Japan in advance of the rest of the cast rehearsing an amateur chorus in lovely Nagaoka, and near the end of my few days there I was told by my hosts that they would be taking me to lunch from 11am until around 4. Since 5 hours had been allotted, I assumed we were traveling some distance but actually we traveled only to nearby Niigata, on the northwest coast of Japan, where I was taken up the hill on a snowy morning to a restaurant called The Three Cranes. 

It feels perfunctory to call it is restaurant, for it was aesthetically unlike anything one might associate with the word. The large property sloped up quite a steep hill and was an immaculate Japanese garden interspersed with small shoji-screen and glass houses, each of which was a 'table'. We climbed to a distant part of the hill and entered our little house, removed our shoes and were each escorted to a changing room where we exchanged our clothes for warm and comfortable robes. Inside the dining area, we all sat together on the floor around the table, and I was surprised to find an open area below, unseen, where my legs could dangle as though we were seated on chairs. The area below the table was warmed by a small underground fireplace, and as we sipped the first course of the lunch, a ginseng tea, it began to snow. There surely can have been no more peaceful and delicate place. 

Then the food courses began: each of them quite small and exquisitely prepared and fresh. The courses alternated between cold and hot. Each, mostly fish and vegetables, was accompanied by a different tea or small amount of sake. A great deal of time stretched between the courses so that one never felt either rushed or hungry. I cannot imagine the depth of the preparation required for a meal that was over 30 courses, each on its own set of perfectly-chosen porcelain. Never has the experience of a meal been so perfectly balanced and understated. 

That gorgeous hillside is no longer a restaurant, the land having been developed for real estate. But I treasure the pristine perfection of each of those dishes, sitting in what felt like another world and time, blanketed by the silently falling snow. 

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