Food & Drink

Japanese chefs defy expectations across Asia

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

The rainbow trout confit at Mezzaluna, an acclaimed fine-dining restaurant in Bangkok that overlooks the city from the top of the 65-story Lebua State Tower, is an impeccable example of contemporary French cuisine. As is the luxurious foie gras flan, which lies beneath a grilled morsel of red snapper in a broth of smoked duck — and the silky veloute sauce that accompanies a rectangle of breadcrumb-encrusted ayu (sweetfish) garnished with basil and cucumber. The techniques are classically French, but — like many of the dishes’ star ingredients — chef Ryuki Kawasaki finds his origins in Japan.

Born in the city of Niigata, Kawasaki is one of a handful of pioneering Japanese chefs who are making waves in Asia and confounding stereotypes with dazzling interpretations of European cuisine, executed with original flair. In thriving urban centers such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok, the rapidly developing fine-dining scene is opening up new opportunities for talented chefs seeking to distinguish themselves outside of Japan and the cuisine of their homeland.

Kawasaki, 39, has a youthful look and soft-spoken modesty that belies his nearly 20 years of experience around the globe. He grew up helping his mother in the kitchen and developed a love of food at an early age. After graduating from Ecole Tsuji cooking school in Tokyo, Kawasaki traveled to France to train in the kitchens of Paul Bocuse before returning to Japan to hone his skills at one of Tokyo’s citadels of French cuisine, Le Chateau de Joel Robuchon. Determined to find a way back to Europe, he landed a job at Sketch — Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant in London, where he ascended the ranks to sous-chef — and then relocated to Las Vegas to open Twist, another Gagnaire outpost. Although he had never considered living in Thailand before, he decided to take a chance when the offer came a few years later.

“In Las Vegas, I was not able to cook the way I really wanted to,” Kawasaki recalls. Mezzaluna has given him the freedom to explore his individuality.

While Japanese chefs run some of the most popular French restaurants in Paris today, the phenomenon is still rare in Asian cities outside of Tokyo, despite their relative proximity to Japan.

“Because there are so many Japanese chefs making French or Italian food in Japan and Europe, I had thought that it was nothing out of the ordinary, but in Asia it is still unusual,” says Hideaki Sato, whose modern French restaurant, Ta Vie, opened last year in Hong Kong. “I realized that it was a big challenge.”

“There is still a general assumption that if you are from Japan, you will make Japanese food,” observes Michael Ryan, patron-chef of The Provenance in Australia.

In Asia, such perceptions may stem from the fact that Japanese chefs working in other genres lack the visibility that their compatriots have established in Europe. Since the early 1990s, the Japanese have been traveling to France, Italy and Spain to train in top kitchens and absorb the culinary traditions of those regions, and many have stayed to start their own restaurants.

Japan has long been regarded as a gastronomic center, but the country’s non-Japanese restaurants have gained international renown only recently.

“People are just starting to discover the breadth of the creative cuisine in Japan, and chefs from all over the world are now traveling to Tokyo to eat at Western-style places,” Ryan says, adding that the next few years will likely see more Japanese chefs in the global industry.

The success of Sato’s Ta Vie, which ranked 48th on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list last February, demonstrates potential for genre-blurring emigres in markets such as Hong Kong. The chef infuses dishes — such as seared botan-ebi shrimp, nestled in sweet corn mousse with shrimp broth jelly — with the Japanese sensitivity that was his trademark as head chef of Tenku Ryugin, the Hong Kong sibling of Seiji Yamamoto’s modern kaiseki (traditional multicourse cuisine) restaurant in Tokyo.

“A lot of Japanese chefs have been going abroad to learn, but now we go to lead,” Sato says.

In Bangkok, Kawasaki leverages his position between the cultures of the East and the West to stunning effect.

“I am Japanese but my sensibilities are a little different,” he explains. “My varied experience is a strength that helps me communicate what I want to express.”

He incorporates rare Japanese ingredients — such as Hachimantai rainbow trout, sourced from pristine rivers in Iwate Prefecture; and caviar from Miyazaki Prefecture, served with seared tuna and watermelon gazpacho — in ways that highlight French technique while shining the spotlight on artisanal products that are little known outside of Japan. His signature dish — a buttery chunk of wagyū beef, cooked sous-vide (at low temperature) and then rolled in olive powder and grilled over Bincho charcoal embers — features difficult to source premium beef from the tiny town of Murakami in Niigata Prefecture.

“I aim to give people an experience that they can only have here, in this restaurant,” he says. A meal at Mezzaluna is like seeing Japan through a cultural kaleidoscope.

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