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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Fazzari

"I am not typically Japanese."

Did you grow up in Tokyo?

I was born in Nagoya. I went to Lyon, France, after high school to learn French for five months. Then I came back to Tokyo to work at Hotel Seiyo Ginza, the first small luxury hotel in Tokyo and the most costly. I worked as a garde-manger in the restaurant, Pastorale, under Chef Akio Kamata. I spent a year there, then moved to the pastry section within the hotel, under Shozo Inamura, for two years. After Seiyo I returned to Nagoya to work with my dad. My father is a restaurateur, and I helped him with the reopening of his restaurant (which used to belong to my grandfather). Then I went on a month long vacation to Paris. My dad knew a woman in Paris who was a friend of a friend of Joël Robuchon. She thought it would be great if I met this man, a friend of hers, who was like a brother to Joël Robuchon, so I did. He asked me if I would be interested in working with Joël. He said he couldn’t just introduce anyone to Robuchon, that first he had to taste my food when he visited Japan. So I cooked for him in Nagoya, and he liked what I made.

Why did you want to leave Japan?

So I could have an expanded culinary and life experience. At twenty-one years old, I was still young. I knew I had a lot to learn. I could get complacent without a master. I wanted to go to France because I am romantic, like many chefs who cook French food. The nuances in Japanese culture are very different than those in France or Italy. People here dream of living in France and Italy. I was realistic but romantic and wanted to go to France to be different; I wanted to discover real French cuisine in France with Robuchon at his small laboratory. Only two or three chefs worked for him. I had a special opportunity.

My grandfather cooked yōshoku [Western food adapted to Japanese taste] with a bit of French influence. That was many years ago, at the time when products like foie gras were not available here yet. At the time, it was impossible to do real French food, but he did and was avant-garde at the time. It was the Belle Époque—the time of Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller. They were actually guests on the luxury ship line that he worked on from Kobe to San Francisco. He cooked for them.

Why do you cook?

So I can express myself. I like to express my savoir faire. I like restaurants, they’re not only about food. They’re to make people feel pleasure. Everything I do now is so I can find something to do that is exciting. Life is only lived once, I don’t want it to be boring.

Also, the memory of my grandfather motivates me. I think my family is the most important thing in my life. I like to bring pleasure to my guests, but originally, all of this was to bring pleasure to my family. An homage to my grandfather brings pleasure to my father. I don’t have a lot of memories of my grandfather—I didn’t have his food when he was alive, cooked by him. But I have lots of memories in my father’s restaurant where they cooked my grandfather’s recipes.

I was on a boat last week, my grandfather worked for the same cruise company as a chef. I had always dreamed of cooking on this cruise ship because of my grandfather. I knew my father would be proud of me. My parents came with me; it was beautiful. There are some chefs who showcase their talent for pride, or to be highly rated. I am not interested in being rated. It’s not my goal. My colleagues, guests, friends, and family are more important to me.

Tell me about Joël Robuchon, your longtime mentor.

I started working with him when I was twenty-one years old. He was considered one of the very best chefs in the world. Even chef of the century. At age forty-nine, he had already retired and closed his fine dining restaurant, Joël Robuchon, in the 16th arrondissement in Paris to open his laboratory, a place where chefs could experiment and devise new recipes. I worked for him at his laboratory. I also worked behind the scenes doing prep on his French television show, which Robuchon did for ten years. I met many famous chefs who came to do his show. Every week, we would do six specialty dishes with six guest chefs. One menu with six courses. All six recipes were filmed in one day but televised over the course of one week, from Monday to Saturday, as thirty-minute episodes, each featuring one recipe. It was very successful; everyone was proud to do this work. It was me, Mr. Robuchon, and one other French chef. I had to calculate everything and plan recipes; I learned so much. Then, at age sixty, Robuchon decided to open restaurants again, starting with L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in various cities. The Ateliers had a huge counter, tapas style, with the look of a sushi counter and an open kitchen, which is rare in Europe but popular in Japan. I came to Roppongi Hills by myself at twenty-four to open Tokyo’s L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. I was with him until I was thirty-seven years old.

How are you different from the other chefs?

I am a bit more independent and direct. I have a different vision of what a restaurant should be and the possibilities of food and restaurants. Stars and rankings are not the most important thing, they are not my goal. I don’t like being classified or branded by others. I think it’s important to be independent and respected, and to have my own approach to my branding. I am also not typically Japanese.

What motivates you?

The motivation for my life is to bring pleasure to others. I must always do new things of quality. I also like to give challenges to my staff.

What is your earliest food memory?

My grandfather’s restaurant, Kobe-ya. He was already gone, but my dad kept the restaurant, and my mother was in charge of it. My dad also was the owner of his own formal French restaurant where he spent a lot of time.

I was little, and was always in the corner at Kobe-ya, keeping busy with a little stuffed animal. I remember having sautéed pork with ginger sauce and beef stroganoff. I remember those tastes. I grew up in Kobe-ya, not my Dad’s French restaurant.

How is your identity reflected in your food?

The ingredients, most of which are from Japan. In Japanese culture, if you use Japanese ingredients that are seasonal, from this geography, all this means cooking more and more deeply in the style of Japanese cuisine.

Sea bass, for example, is different in each country. Just as good, but different. When you cook it here, the sea bass texture is different. You have to think about and consider the products and how they react and behave. Then it becomes less French and more Japanese. You must understand local ingredients. Here I use more Japanese techniques which is better for Japanese ingredients.

Do you have a specific goal for the future?

Right now, I do not think there is anyone in the culinary world who translates and presents Japanese food culture abroad, outside Japan, as it should be presented. One day I would like to be a kind of ambassador bringing foreigners, and also Japanese, to the many regions of Japan. So many young people live in the big cities exclusively. I would like to bring more people to small villages and farms to discover the traditions of Japanese food culture.

If you could share a meal with anyone, who would it be?

My grandfather. He was already very old when I was little.

My father.

My son one day.

What cause or charity is most important to you?

The Japanese economy. This is why I travel, to do public relations. The producers—the farmers and fisherman—have difficulty promoting themselves and connecting to others. The problem of Japan now is that everyone is going to live in the big cities, and the provinces are losing people. The young people don’t want to be farmers or fishermen, although there are many possibilities, many business opportunities which would feed the economy. Japanese don’t travel too much within Japan. In Europe, they travel more, even on the weekends. More and more people aren’t leaving their regions. It’s important to circulate money.

What is one of your favorite films?

The Sting is one of my favorites, I like the story and excitement, and Redford and Newman at their prime.

Sugalabo is a private restaurant, by invitation or referral only.

Yosuke Sugo also owns Le Sprout Café, Couteau Daikanyama and Le Cafe V Ginza.

  • Writer's pictureAndrea Fazzari

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

"I really can’t stand cooking the same dishes all the time."

Why do you cook?

My grandfather was a chef in Shinbashi; he had his own kappo [traditional Japanese restaurant] there. I really, really loved my grandfather, especially when he was cooking. He passed away when I was seven. I wasn’t interested in the food because I was too young, but I just remember how fascinated I was watching him in the kitchen. When I was a high school student, I decided to be a chef. I was always interested because my mom is a nutritionist, so I grew up around food. And when I had to decide what to do for the future, I decided it would be cooking. In the second year of high school, I decided to go to culinary school instead of university. Another reason is that because most of my high school friends when to university, I wanted to do something different.

Tell me a bit about how you formulate dishes.

I notice many small things in my daily life. Like when I’m having tea, I’ll suddenly think what would it be like to make consommé with tea. And like now, I’m looking at your tea and thinking about making consommé and drinking it like tea. I like red wine and bonito, blue cheese and red wine; they all go together well, so this will be a new dish. Bonito is in season right now. I made blue cheese powder, grilled the bonito, added some walnuts and raisins.I change my dishes depending on the season. I change little by little over time. I really can’t stand cooking the same dishes all the time.

Why a seafood-only restaurant?

The first reason is because I wanted to do something that no one was doing. And I love fish; I’m good at cooking fish.

What motivates you to keep moving forward?

Other chefs really, like Hiroyasu Kawate and Shuzo Kishida who I used to work for. I feel that if I focus on fish, perhaps I can become better than they are one day. I am eager to improve and advance in my career. I can see what I am going to become, and that my food is getting better and better.

What is your earliest food memory?

I loved karaage [fried chicken], especially from my grandfather. I can still remember the taste of it. I was about four or five years old. My grandfather really liked to drink, so my family often went to a favorite izakaya to eat. The karaage was from this izakaya. I would always sit next to my grandfather, and he would share his karaage with me.

Who do you admire in the food world?

Hiroyasu Kawate is really intense about food and enjoys it so much. Shuzo Kishida, my former boss, of course, at Quintessence - I am always only thinking about food, just like him.

What was one of your most valuable experiences living in Marseilles?

I wanted to work in a Michelin-three-star restaurant in France. I wrote to them all—forty of them—and Le Petit Nice-Passedat replied. Some others did, too, but I accepted the first one that replied. I stayed in Marseilles for one year. Le Petit Nice-Passedat focused on fish, so working at this restaurant helped me decide to focus on seafood when I came back to Japan.

For you, what does it mean to be Japanese?

Our attention to detail. Everything we create is so detailed, and I am proud of this. I bring this into the kitchen.

What do you like most about Tokyo, and what do you think makes it different from other cities around the world?

I can do anything I want here. There are so many possibilities in Tokyo. If I do something unique, it’s okay here. Often in Japan, people are followers. People avoid being unique themselves, though they like unique people.

If you could share a meal with anyone, who would it be?

Ichiro, who now plays for the Miami Marlins.

Kazutoshi Sakurai, the lead vocalist of Mr. Children, a Japanese rock band.

Yutaka Take, a jockey. He’s very smart.

What cause or charity is most important to you?

I am not yet involved with a charity, but I care about food for children. I have two young children, so that’s important to me, that they eat quality food. We should be more focused on the quality of what we eat.

Abysse Ebisu Hills 1f, 1-30-12 Ebisunishi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

mail: +81368043846

Abysse has 1 Michelin Star and is listed as #38 on OAD Japan.

  • Writer's pictureAndrea Fazzari

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

"I think too much about food!"

Why do you cook?

My parents had a restaurant in Koenji, it was a casual diner called Maruyoshi. I grew up in their kitchen and had a number of responsibilities. When I was a toddler, I was a dishwasher.

I went to culinary school in Shinjuku for one year after high school. Japanese culinary school seemed like a joke at the time to me. It was like a club and not so serious. Many friends my age didn’t really want to be chefs, but it was considered an easy option. But I was serious from the beginning. In high school, I wanted to be a Japanese chef for my grandmother. My parents were very busy. Every day after elementary and junior high school, I would go home to my grandmother and she would cook for me. She would sometimes bring me to the park, like Jindai Botanical Park in Mitaka [western Tokyo]. To this day, whenever I see flowers I think of her. I loved her and loved being with her. When I was in elementary school, she was already about eighty. I wanted to cook for her. I knew her palate, so I wanted to cook her the things that she liked, such as nabe [hot pot dishes] and tsukemono [preserved vegetables].

There was one great culinary teacher at my school; he taught us French cooking, European cooking. I was really interested in the presentation of the dishes, which seemed to be more complicated. Traditional Japanese cooking is very simple, so this interested me.

What motivates you?

I just want to create something new for each customer. If I do make the same dishes, I try to improve on them every day. When I graduated from culinary school, I was at the top of the class. At graduation, I was to have gotten the best award, but the teachers didn’t like that I would correct them. Only one teacher liked me. They said I was a bit too blunt and honest. They told me I wouldn’t be a successful chef, but I wanted to prove them wrong.

What has the biggest influence on your cooking?

The ingredients, and the seasons for sure. Wine inspires me, French wine. I am also a sommelier. Wine takes me to heaven. I have created the Wine Tasting dessert, which is about ten or twelve little pieces of jelly made from wine. Half are made from white wines and half from reds, reflecting the essence and flavors of the wines. I also vary the ingredients in each, adding elements that complement the notes in wine, like fruit. Customers try to figure out what is inside. It is like an actual wine tasting.

What do you do on your day off?

I like to eat out. Basically, I like to eat sushi, sometimes unagi [eel]. I go to Harutaka in Ginza. On Sunday, I might go to Shimizu in Shinbashi. I think too much about food. With sushi, it’s simple. And if it’s my favorite place, it’s comfortable for me. I like shellfish, especially clam and abalone.

What are your earliest food memories?

When I was a kid, about four or five, I was playing with some cooking tools, like a veggie slicer, and I cut my finger. I was cutting a cucumber with a mandolin and didn’t realize I was cutting my finger. On my parents’ day off, we went to an unagi [eel] restaurant every Saturday. I liked it very much. Sometimes, I still go to this restaurant, it’s Adzumaya at Asagaya station not far from Koenji station where I grew up. My parents loved eel. If my parents found a restaurant and a food they really liked, they would always go back to that restaurant.

Who do you admire in the food world?

Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago, he overcame his illness. I can’t imagine. And his precision and skill are amazing.

Joshua Skenes of Saison in San Francisco. I visited his kitchen two years ago. He shared many ways of preserving food San Francisco style. He also only uses wood fire.

I respect Ferran Adrià and Juan Mari Arzak in San Sebastian; for all they have done for Spanish gastronomy.

What was one of your most valuable experiences traveling abroad?

When we opened this restaurant, we were interested in Spanish cuisine. We like the quality of the bright red gambas [prawns] at La Boqueria in Barcelona—a simple and very good product. Then when I visited Chicago and went to Alinea for the first time, I was impressed by Grant’s presentation and innovative ideas.

For you, what does it mean to be Japanese?

Nowadays I have many chances to go to other countries to meet many foreigners. After we travel and come back to Japan, I always feel that Japan is convenient, comfortable, and peaceful, with very tasty food as well.

Details are very important, and so is an interest in learning. In the restaurant industry in Japan, we are educated by older chefs who are very strict. Now, however, this is a changing a bit.

How do you think growing up in Japan informs your style and what are you trying to communicate?

We respect the seasons and ingredients. Because of my grandmother, I understand the seasons. I want the customer to understand where they are eating, what they are eating, and why they are eating it at that particular moment in time.For example, in Japan, we have Boys’ Day on May 5, represented by the carp-shaped flag. I express this annual event through my dish koi nobori [carp flag]. I want the customers to really know where they are, and what the season, in May, provides.

What do you like most about Tokyo, and what do you think makes it different from other cities and countries around the world?

I appreciate my suppliers in Tokyo, we can get anything easily. They can bring everything to us right away, even if it’s a difficult request. I don’t think that anywhere else in the world could be better than Tokyo for my restaurant.

If you could share a meal with anyone, who would it be?

I would like to invite my family: my grandmother, my parents, and my wife Akiko.

What is tough about your industry?

Working in the restaurant industry is very hard work, with long working hours. Chefs’ lives are shortened, once they become head chef. It’s a stressful life physically and mentally; head chefs are always busy. In other industries, you can work until old age. We are like athletes. But I would like to change this. I’d like staff to stay longer and stick with things longer; they are impatient. We need to change the dynamic in society, where now cooks get low pay for long hours. Maybe then, they will stop thinking it’s so hard. It’s very complicated.

What is one of your favorite films?

The Dark Knight Rises. I like this film because Batman never gives up. He is always hopeful and persistent.

Takazawa opened in 2005.

Sanyo Akasaka Bldg 2F, 3-5-2 Akasaka, Tokyo

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