Food & Drink

Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa presents creative takes on dishes that a mother would be proud of

by Hengtee Lim

Special To The Japan Times

Zaiyu Hasegawa pauses for a moment when I comment on the diversity of the clientele at Den, his restaurant in Tokyo’s Jinbocho neighborhood.

“It’s by word of mouth, I think. People come and they tell their friends, ‘You should go here. It’s fun!’ ” he says, explaining the variety of people. He pauses again and laughs. “I don’t really get told it’s delicious, but people always say Den is fun.”

The simple, offhand way in which he expresses his answer might seem odd coming from the owner of a restaurant recently ranked at No. 37 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, but it’s also telling. Though the 37-year-old chef’s talent is a major draw, it’s the Den experience that impresses his customers.

Hasegawa says his love for the dining experience came early in life. His mother was a geisha, and she worked evenings at ryōtei (traditional Japanese restaurants). He rarely saw her at night, but she’d bring home food from the establishments where she performed, and it was those flavors that defined the chef’s early tastes.

This made breakfast the most important meal of the day for the young Hasegawa, because it brought his family together. He recalls that his mother used to cook dishes based on his mood.

“She made a variety of dishes, and sometimes we made things together,” he says. “She thought of us when she cooked and I really liked that. Even now, when I’m cooking, what matters is not that I’m cooking what I’m good at. If it’s cold outside then I want to make something warm for people. On birthdays I want to make something special. The basis for it is motherly.”

Nights at Den, which features an interior of neat wooden tables and chairs under warm lighting, therefore feel like a family affair. Hasegawa’s simple desire to bring joy to the people he cooks for is expressed through his carefully crafted kaiseki ryōri (traditional multicourse cuisine), which is served with a creative flair. Sometimes the creativity is obvious, as in the chef’s trademark Dentucky Fried Chicken served in a comical faux-Kentucky Fried Chicken box. But at other times the motherly aspects are subtle, like a smiley face carved into a slice of carrot hidden in a colorful salad.

With all his recent critical success, it’s surprising to hear that Den didn’t start out this way. Hasegawa was more than a little apprehensive about breaking with traditional models of what a restaurant should be. He says that when he started, his creative impulses only came in slight twists on familiar dishes. Finding his culinary voice was a gradual process.

Customers embraced the changes, with many becoming loyal regulars — even friends. It was a shared experience and that began to define the establishment, as well as the man who ran it.

Even now, Den revolves around Hasegawa’s openness to new ideas and techniques, which include experimentation and collaborations. He jokes that when other chefs visit to study his methods, he ends up learning more from them than they do from him.

“I talk with people — customers and friends — and I think up ideas with the staff,” he says. “I couldn’t come up with all of this on my own, by myself I can’t do anything. It’s a combination of everyone’s ideas that becomes what we do.”

This concept is in the name of the restaurant, the kanji of which means to convey or express. Hasegawa says it represents the idea that each dish arrives on a single plate, but what’s on that plate expresses the work of many: from the ingredients and preparation to the presentation and even the plate itself.

Earlier Hasegawa had mentioned his customers referring to the experience as “fun” rather than “delicious,” but he points out that “delicious” is essentially the same in every language — “When you eat good food, everyone smiles.”

It’s hard not to see Den as an extension of Hasegawa and his philosophy. It encapsulates his view on craftsmanship, and where he fits into the picture.

“The craftsperson, of course, is someone with great skill in their field, and there are a variety of types,” he says. “But for me, it’s like I want people, by coming to Den, to be happy, and to have a really nice time. I want to create those feelings, and the environment in which they can occur. That’s the type of craftsperson I want to be.

“The technique will come if you keep at it for years, but it’s more about making people smile in the moment.”

Den is open 5-11:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 5-11:30 p.m. (11 p.m. LO) on Sat. & hols. See City Guide for more information.