Food & Drink

Luca Fantin: Italian creativity blooms in the heart of Ginza

by Robbie Swinnerton

Chef Luca Fantin’s cooking is far from most people’s idea of typical Italian fare. The softly spoken 37-year-old native of Treviso serves elaborate multicourse tasting menus that are as creative, contemporary and cutting edge as anywhere else in Tokyo. This has won him plaudits, a Michelin star — he’s the only Italian chef in Japan to hold one — and a growing reputation around the world.

The sole way to get to know his cuisine is to dine at his eponymous restaurant, Il Ristorante Luca Fantin, in Tokyo’s swish Bulgari Tower. But to understand his influences and his deep appreciation for Japan, feast your eyes on his new book, “La Cucina di Luca Fantin,” published in September.

A lavish, large-format tome luxuriously illustrated with gorgeous photography, it is both a visual record of the many ingredients Fantin uses in his kitchen and a celebration of the inescapable grip of Japan’s changing seasons. It also introduces many of the ingredients he uses and the farmers and fishermen who produce them. Fantin spoke with The Japan Times about how his book came about.

Why did you make this book?

My aim is to help people understand that you can make contemporary Italian cuisine in Japan using local ingredients, just as I would in Italy. I’m an Italian chef and this country is my second home. I also want to show my appreciation for the hard work of my suppliers, day in day out.

How long did it take to complete?

Two-and-a-half years in all: six months planning; one year on the photography, shooting around Japan; and another year in production. Everything had to be shot in the right season. We made eight trips altogether, from the north to the south, including Hokkaido, Aomori, Nagano, Mie, Nara and Miyazaki.

We visited producers that I’m working with, but some of them I’d never met. Like the farmers who grow their carrots under the snow in winter. It took five hours for us to get there. But if I don’t see (the way they’re produced) myself, I can’t fully understand this ingredient. Before visiting, all I knew was that they are left under the snow. But when I drank the juice from those carrots — it was the best you can ever have!

Do you have a favorite region in Japan?

We had a good time at Mount Fuji. It was very relaxed — and I love mushrooms! The people there, they don’t keep much to schedules, but they were very nice and hospitable. Tokyo is always so busy. When you go to the countryside, people are busy but they’re more friendly, more relaxed. You find people are different there.

Did you try the regional dishes when you traveled outside Tokyo?

Always. One time we went to a restaurant in the middle of the mountains where a very old woman made an amazing multicourse lunch with wild vegetables, mushrooms and herbs that I’d never seen in my life — all cooked over a wood fire. It was so good.

Also, I’ve learned more about sushi: I know the style of sushi in Tokyo very well, but I didn’t know it in places like Shizuoka or Fukuoka. It’s totally different. Sometimes the rice may be cooked more or the soy sauce is less salty or there’s more acidity, and so on.

Do you use Japanese seasonings at all? Soy sauce, miso?

No. Because this kind of ingredient doesn’t exist in Italian cuisine. Basically, I use 90 percent local ingredients and 10 percent is imported. The olive oil is mostly Italian, although some is from Japan, and same with the cheese. But all the wine and coffee is Italian. And so is the dry pasta — we work with one of the best suppliers, Felicetti, from the north of Italy.

You arrived in Japan in 2009. How has it influenced your cuisine?

When you’re young, you want to show off your technical skills. But Japan makes you think more about each ingredient: Where does it come from, which season, and how best to cook it to preserve all its flavors and characteristics? I’m an Italian chef, so I must study each ingredient and work it to match my cuisine and preserve all its flavor and characteristics.

How long did it take you to feel comfortable here?

Three-and-a-half years. (At first,) I was not fully satisfied with my cooking. What was in my brain was not on the plate. I’m 37 and it’s been more than 24 years that I’ve been in the kitchen, 14 or 15 hours a day. For a chef, it was very frustrating.

Has your cooking changed over the past seven years?

Every day I’m in the kitchen, and every day is a development. This is the beautiful part of my job. Every time you make something, then the next time you can make it a little bit better. This is what makes a restaurant improve. We like to push ourselves to do better. We never feel like there’s nothing more to do.

For more than a year you have had your name on the restaurant — Il Ristorante Luca Fantin. Did this change add any pressure to your work?

No, the pressure is always the same. In our profession, it’s very easy to make a mistake. But no pressure, no results.

Il Ristorante Luca Fantin, Bulgari Ginza Tower 9F, 2-7-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-6362-0555. For more information, visit www.bulgarihotels.com.