"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 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.