Most Japanese chefs who go to Italy stay just long enough to learn new skills before returning home. Very few stay and set up their own restaurants. Yoji Tokuyoshi not only did that, he became the first to win a Michelin star there.
The 38-year-old chef has been in Italy over a decade now. For most of that time he worked at the innovative Osteria Francescana in Modena, which recently won top place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant rankings. Last year he struck out on his own, setting up Ristorante Tokuyoshi in Milan.
Still little known in his homeland, Tokuyoshi will return this month aiming to rectify that with a series of high-profile dinners at the New Otani hotels in Osaka and Tokyo. Ahead of his visit, he spoke with The Japan Times about his own distinctive, radical take on Italian cooking, a style he calls “cucina contaminata” — “contaminated cuisine.”
How did you get into Italian cooking?
I come from a family of pharmacists, but I had no interest in that so I quit before my university exams. I liked cooking and I thought the TV program “Ryori no Tetsujin” (“Iron Chef”) was really cool. So I went to Tokyo to study cooking. By chance, I got part-time work at some Italian restaurants. I knew I liked pasta and pizza — but it was purely fate that I entered Italian cuisine.
When did you go to Italy?
In 2004, when I was 26. I stayed with an Italian contact and he helped me look for work. We called all the top 50 restaurants in Italy but I got no offers. After three weeks, I had just €50 left, so I gave up. But as I was waiting for a bus at Milan station to take me to the airport, I spotted a food magazine I hadn’t seen before. I checked the restaurants in (nearby) Emilia-Romagna region and found one called Osteria Francescana. I thought, I’ll try one last phone call. And they told me: “OK. Get here tomorrow.” I ended up staying nine years, until the end of 2014.
What was your impression arriving in Modena?
The first thing that struck me was the food — it was nothing like the Italian cuisine I knew in Japan. I was shocked! I thought I’d learned quite a lot (about Italian cooking), but that kind of food just didn’t exist in Modena. So I had to start from zero. I threw away everything I’d learned up to that point.
What was Osteria Francescana like in those days?
It was a small provincial restaurant. It had a Michelin star, but it was empty at lunchtime and we often just played frisbee in the piazza outside. At the weekend, if there were 20 customers it was like, “Woah, busy!”
While you were there, the cuisine evolved a lot.
The cuisine was all created by Massimo Bottura (owner-chef of Osteria Francescana). Did I have any influence? Maybe, through my Japanese kitchen technique, or perhaps a little wabi-sabi aesthetic. The cuisine evolved as Massimo embraced ideas from many directions. And that was when I first thought of the concept of cucina contaminata.
What is your cucina contaminata?
First, it’s not the same as “fusion.” I’m not trying to mix flavors such as miso or spices into Italian recipes. My cooking is Italian, done in the Italian way, based on traditional flavors — but as expressed by someone who is not from Italy. I’m using Italian ingredients to make something absolutely different.
What do you like about traditional Italian cuisine?
Tradition is fundamental in Italy and the regional cooking in Emilia-Romagna is really delicious. It was a wonderful place to discover the local foods: prosciutto, Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, fresh pasta … you could say my cooking is born out of the Emilia-Romagna region.
You now have your own restaurant. Why did you choose Milan?
It’s a city I really like, one I’d always imagined living in. It could have been anywhere. But by chance, I found premises in Milan. There’s only one thing: Milan is Italy’s fashion center and people in that world are always on diets. They always ask for vegetables. When I pass the menu it’s, “Where’s the salad?”
And you already have a Michelin star.
I opened in February (2015) and the stars were announced in December. There aren’t so many Milan restaurants in the Michelin Guide, so straight away customers started coming in. People told me, I had no idea you were here!
Do you have a signature dish?
Last year I came up with 219 recipes, and 40 to 50 of them I’ve kept in my repertoire. One that always gets a strong reaction is the dish I call gyotaku (fish print). It’s based on the traditional Japanese practice of making rubbings on paper by painting fish with sumi ink. I’ll be serving it at my upcoming events.
Your New Otani events will be the first time you’ve served your cuisine in Japan in full. What is the idea behind them?
The idea is not, “Because this is Japan and I’m Japanese, I’ve been picked to present Italian food.” It is, “I’m over there in Italy, and this is what one Japanese chef is doing there.” It’s a subtle distinction but very important.
This year is the 150th anniversary of relations between Japan and Italy. And the New Otani’s motto has always been “Look to the future, create the new.” That’s my philosophy, too: Learn from the past; live in the present; and imagine the future.
Yoji Tokuyoshi will be at the Hotel New Otani in Osaka from Aug. 12-14 (06-6494-3246; bit.ly/2az6hNq); and the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo from Aug. 19-21 (03-3238-0020; bit.ly/2awVLZL) The seven-course lunch costs ¥15,000 and the 13-course dinner costs ¥26,000.