Always composed and smiling any conversation with him offers an insight into how he perceives his work as one of Japan’s trailblazing chefs. We last met in Melbourne, Australia and prior to that had a very interesting conversation in the sun dappled lounge of the Maria Cristina hotel in San Sebastián.
The following conversation was published on The Daily Meal:
Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa of Tokyo: Edible Haiku’s Worthy of Michelin Stars
by Geeta Bansal
Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa exudes serenity of a man who has found the equilibrium between passion, which in his case is cuisine, and a Zen attitude to life. Coupling Japanese culture and seasonality with French sensibility acquired through his time in Europe with chefs like Bocuse and Joel Robuchon, chef Yoshihiro Narisawa has developed his own distinctive “Satoyama” cuisine. This unique cuisine is an ode to his Japanese culture and ancestors bridging centuries old traditions to contemporaneity. As one of Japan’s trailblazing chefs, his Narisawa restaurant in Minami Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo has garnered international attention for his artistic depiction of natural landscapes on his plates. A visit to his table evokes the earthy aromas of nature and the harmony of seasons realized as combustible poetry. Subdued seasonings may include herbs, flowers or even charred vegetables meant to enhance his contemplative creations.
One of his iconic dishes “Essence of The Forest and Satoyama Scenery” is most representative of his edible landscapes on plates with a soil of matcha, soy pulp, black tea, and bamboo representing the forest floor while edible branches are made using ten different ingredients. The ‘Bread of The Forest’ baked at the table with butter disguised as a moss-covered rock precedes courses highlighting Japanese ingredients like sea snake, seasonal ayu fish, snow crab, fugu or when in season cherry blossoms of course. Narisawa’s imaginative cuisine is literally hands on as surprised diners at this two Michelin star restaurant are instructed to use their fingers or spear food with twigs at the draped white tables. Japanese wines and unique sakes are optional pairings with the tasting menu while teetotalers have the option of tea pairings curated by a tea expert.
The usually quiet, reserved chef is vocal when it comes to Japanese products and the topic of sustainability. As one of the first Japanese chefs to speak out about the use of pesticides in Japanese agriculture he has paved the way for conservation and a renewed connection to nature. He was the first recipient of the Sustainable Restaurant award by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 for his mindful cuisine. Since 1996 he has owned and operated first the La Napoule restaurant while the present restaurant opened in 2003 as first as Les Creations de Narisawa and now simply Narisawa. Over the course of this time his style and cuisine has moved from a very French perspective towards his Japanese roots. His passion also extends to wine and consequently the restaurant uniquely showcases the finest wines produced in Japan. The two Michelin-starred restaurant has been in the top ten of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for many years and was voted #18 in 2017. On Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list it holds the #6 spot, making it the top restaurant in Japan according to the same list.
Narisawa’s familiarity with kitchens goes back to his childhood in the Aichi peninsula south of Tokyo exposing him to Japanese food culture in his grandfather’s sweet shop and the western culture in his father’s shop that relied on local dairy and eggs for its confections. Reminiscing about those days he shared: “My grandfather used to pound steamed rice to into rice cake (Mochi) at home during the new year days, so I was always looking forward to fresh rice cake. I also liked my father’s fresh baked bread every morning and from the spring until summer I loved the Japanese sweet with Japanese mugwort (known as Yomogi in Japan, it belongs to the chrysanthemum family) picked by my father.” The Japanese sensibility of beauty and emotion ‘ mono no aware’ or pathos of things, in the case of his cuisine the transience of nature, is beautifully encapsulated in his work. The serene dining room that allows glimpses of the kitchen team in action through sliding glass doors is accompanied by seamless and attentive service.
Narisawa sits on the International Culinary Council of the Basque Culinary center in San Sebastián, Spain with the likes of celebrated chefs like Ferran Adria, Massimo Bottura, Alex Atala, Rene Redzepi, Dan Barber, Gaston Acurio, Heston Blumenthal, Enrique Olvera and others. It is worth noting that in an industry climate where transient celebrity status turns chefs into egoistical rock stars of the moment, Chef Narisawa is an example of a man with his feet on the ground, unaffected by the media hyperbole. At home in Japan or speaking or cooking at international food events he stands out for his dignified manner and humility. When not on foraging trips into the Japanese hinterland he can be found surfing the waves at Amami Ooshima Island so it’s not surprising that the surfing centric San Sebastián is one of his favorite places to visit.
How do you bridge tradition with modernity in your kitchen?
Tradition was formed over a long period of time and is actually a kind of style that was necessary for each period in history. Modernity on the other hand is a reflection of actual society and the natural environment. The style always exists so I make use of the part of the style that is necessary while at the same time I use the current technique by thinking of the future. Therefore in the kitchen tradition and modernity always coexist. Nowadays, it’s necessary to understand the tradition and its influence on the society and natural environment for the future.
What brought you into the fold of the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián all the way from Tokyo?
I became part of it because I believe proper education is very important for people coming into the industry. They must prepare well before going to work in a kitchen. I believe that San Sebastián is one of the most influential towns in the world in terms of Gastronomy. Anyway, I don’t think of it as very far and I have a lot of friends in that part of the world.
Your restaurant was the first to win the most sustainable restaurant award by The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants List. Is the concept of sustainability new for the Japanese culture or is respect for ingredients also ingrained in the Japanese kitchen?
I think using the use of the term sustainable is new to Gastronomy in Japan even if the concept has always been around. The respect for ingredients and the way products like Wagyu are raised for example with a lot of care is part of our culture. Wagyu along with Sushi is one of the most recognized elements of Japanese cuisine around the world. It is however questionable if the Sushi chefs working in Japan are aware if that they are using sustainable fish or not wasting products. I think we are still missing a lot of information and not paying attention to these aspects in Japan. We need to get more involved in these issues.
After the Fukushima disaster in Japan, is there concern about the quality of products especially GMOs?
Not only because of Fukushima but I feel these days in our modern society we are more concerned with quality and effects on our body of products we consume. Using color or preservatives I feel have a far worse effect on health than anything else.
Japan has a very big program regarding the GMO’s. In this process, small producers become slaves of big corporations which is unfair and must be rectified. It happens everywhere else in the world too and is a very big and complex problem that is difficult to understand or resolve. The market is controlled just like nuclear matter in a war. It is important to understand it even though it is a huge problematic issue and we need to work on it.
Since chefs cook and work with products everyday are they more intimately connected with the products? How can chefs become more involved with these issues?
I think every chef should use proper ingredients using their relationships with suppliers. In reality supply and demand should be equally balanced otherwise the producers especially small producers will disappear. From my perspective, large corporations and companies are the biggest negative influencers and chefs should send a message to these kinds of entities by the way they work and while choosing products to work with.
Chefs should also participate in educating children to recognize the differences in products and their health benefits. Products like chips, fast food as well as convenience foods sold by big companies in supermarkets are what children often consume. It is our obligation as chefs to children to educate them so that the next generation can imbibe the proper values.
Do chefs with one restaurant and those multiple operations view these issues from a different angle?
I don’t think it matters much how many restaurants a chef has. For me what is more important is that the chef is cooking every day. The concept of each chef may be different but cooking is what is the basis of our work. It is also important for the chef to teach their staff their concept and values and in my case what is more important to me is to learn to use the proper ingredients. Restaurants I believe should send a message out to society which is an important part of a chef’s work. Teaching is crucial to imparting values and concepts but more importantly techniques must be shared and taught.
In your case, does having a tasting menu give you an advantage in working with seasonal ingredients?
Yes it does, but of course at the same time we adapt to the client’s requirements or allergies or dietary restrictions, so it’s not the same thing for everyone dining in the restaurant.
Social media makes it easy for ideas to be replicated in other kitchens. Does it have a positive impact?
Social media does enable pictures of dishes to go all over in a moment. I feel it is very dangerous because it is just a picture that contains no message or the philosophy of the creator. I hope that a picture of my dish sends something more than an image.
Do well-known chefs like you help make a product trendy when they choose to work with a certain ingredient?
It’s all a way of thinking about products. I feel using an ingredient from say Peru in Italy or Japan is ridiculous. I feel we should use ingredients that are local and around you wherever you are.
How important is animal protein in Japanese cuisine? With scarcity of products looming ahead will this result in a more vegetable based or alternative protein diet?
Earlier Japanese diets did not incorporate a lot of animal protein and during those times the average life span was shorter. When animal proteins were introduced in larger quantities people started living longer. Vegetarian people are believed to have shorter lifespan I think. As for the scarcity in the future I don’t feel it is going to shift towards a vegetable based diets or menus in restaurants.
Alternate proteins like insects were customary in Japan at one time during very poor conditions. I am now focusing on ingredients like sea snake, turtles because they taste good for one thing and can be used to implement change in ingredients. I demonstrated a sea snake dish at the San Sebastián Gastronomika last year though I couldn’t use a turtle as it is prohibited in Spain. Both are on the menu at Narisawa.
Is Japanese kitchen frugal and mindful regarding food waste? Do you use every part of a product?
Of course in Narisawa we don’t waste anything and every day I tell my staff that we should maximize the use of each product. In Japan, especially in Sushi restaurants, there is a lot of food wastage as they throw away the parts of fish or vegetable that they do not use. Such food waste is a recognizable problem in Japan. In our case if a product has edible parts that cannot be served to guests we use in our staff meals.
When you travel, cook and dine all over the world do you find inspiration or new ideas to bring back to Japan?
At the moment when I travel I am interested in learning and finding new things in the countries I visit. I like to learn something that we can emulate in Japan to exert a positive change. I am very interested now in carrying back this message to the Japanese chefs so we can all progress. For example in Sushi restaurants they stress the use of “wild fish” but they do not comprehend the dangerous situation with regard to our natural resources. They are still living with the concepts from a 100 years ago.
Are there any new concepts or ingredients you are working on for your next seasons menu?
My concept hasn’t changed for a long time. It’s safeness, sustainability and using delicious ingredients. When I cook I am always thinking about how I can make good use of the ingredients. I like to pursue the Japanese food culture while thinking about Japanese geographic environment and culture.
What are the qualities a creative cook must have and is it possible to learn to be creative or is does it have to come naturally?
Knowledge of ingredients and basic techniques of cooking are essential qualities for a cook according to me. With these two qualities, one creates dishes with imagination which is unique to each individual. As for learning we can learn to be creative by observing nature, talking with other professionals, appreciating the art and listening to music traveling and learning about new cuisines.
What do you like about having guest chefs your kitchen or cooking in their kitchens during collaborative dinners?
Having guest chefs in our kitchen stimulates our young staff members and we learn a lot by observing how another chef works. The collaborate dinners in another kitchen are very meaningful to me because I can learn about the ingredients of different places and I really enjoy communicating with staff at these restaurants. In each restaurant, I can feel the passion of young trainees from all over the world and I enjoy answering their questions and talking with them about cooking.
What is your favorite place to travel to in Japan? Do natural landscapes interest you more?
I like going in to nature especially mountains and the sea and not so much to a big city. If there are fantastic ingredients where ever I travel to then it is more interesting to me as a chef. Nature provides inspiration for a lot of my cooking and especially Japanese forests because there are still many natural and wild plants that I like to discover and cook something delicious with.
Is the Japanese kitchen influenced by French cuisine or vice versa? Is your style influenced by your French training?
I think so but what I myself am doing now is the opposite of this idea. I am going towards the Japanese roots. I feel it is not only just French cuisine and culture but there is a connection with other countries including Italy and China. My style, of course is influenced by France but also Italy and Spain where I have spent time. Recently I am more influenced by South American cuisine. When I initially started my career as a chef, I was influenced so many people in countries like France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Japan, so it’s a continuing process.
How important are awards like Michelin or 50 Best to you?
The awards encourage the producers and staffs who are working with us. If we can get a good result, it’s a fantastic reward.