Afternoon turns to evening in Tokyo’s plush Aoyama district. At Narisawa, one of the city’s finest contemporary French restaurants, the final preparations are being made for dinner service. There is both tension and anticipation in the air as the first customers arrive.
It’s a scene that has played out five nights a week on average for the past 11 years. Tonight, however, on Thursday July 9, the atmosphere is very different.
Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa is nowhere to be seen, and the menu is nothing like the superbly polished, Japanese-inflected French cuisine that has won him two Michelin stars and recently propelled him into the top 10 of the annual World’s 50 Best list (he was ranked No. 8 — the top placing in Asia).
Instead, the man at the helm is David Kinch, whose modern-American restaurant, Manresa, in California, has earned similar reverence and Michelin stars. But this is not the usual celebrity guest-chef appearance. Until the moment dinner is served, nobody — not even the sold-out guest list — will know who is going to be cooking at Narisawa (or where Narisawa himself is).
It turns out Narisawa had been sent to Attica in Melbourne, Australia. He has taken the place of Ben Shewry, a chef who has created a name for himself by incorporating wild plants and native Australian produce into his cooking.
It’s all part of a remarkable event, in which 37 of the world’s top chefs swap kitchens simultaneously for one meal, with their destination restaurants kept secret until the last moment. None of them chose where they were going and only the organizers knew who was headed where. Customers booked their tables sight unseen.
Think of it as a culinary version of musical chairs — a transcontinental Magical Mystery Tour. Rene Redzepi from Noma in Copenhagen parachuted in to Bangkok to take over the reins at Nahm, whose chef, David Thompson, found himself stepping into the hallowed portals of Plaza Athenee in Paris, the flagship of French master Alain Ducasse. And so on.
Called the Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle and dreamed up by maverick Italian gastronome Andrea Petrini, the idea sounds like a recipe for chaos, with a high potential for spectacular failure. But it may turn out to have been the culinary event of the year.
At Narisawa, the evening unfolds with great success and nary a hiccup — Kinch is a perfect fit. As a longtime and frequent visitor to Tokyo, he understands the way things work here. He also cooks daily with Japanese fish and seasonings, which are sent to his restaurant every week. So after some early morning visits to Tsukiji Market to check the seasonal fish and vegetables, he was easily able to hone his eight-course menu.
Down in Melbourne, Narisawa finds himself in a much more challenging situation: working in a strange kitchen with unfamiliar ingredients and major cultural and language differences. But, as he said himself before departure, that is why he chose to participate.
“Each of the 37 places is different,” Narisawa tells The Japan Times. “But, as modern, international restaurants, we all have so much in common. I’m looking forward not just to the challenge, but this opportunity to really see behind the scenes how another restaurant functions.”
For Narisawa, this event is also evidence of how the culinary world is changing. “These days, nothing is hidden. In the old days, recipes were jealously guarded secrets, but now everything is out in the open. Even 11-12 years ago when I opened, it wasn’t like this. Now there is a shared inspiration and philosophy, a shared concern for ingredients and the environment.”
For details about the Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle, visit www.shuffle.gelinaz.com.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.