Preparation for S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 contest ramps up in Tokyo


Special To The Japan Times

The search is on for the next generation of aspiring culinary stars. Over the next year, up-and-coming chefs around the world will be sharpening their knives and their kitchen skills in the hope of making it to the Grand Finale of the Young Chef 2018 competition in Italy.

This will be the third edition of the global contest sponsored by the Italian beverage brand S.Pellegrino. And while the final cook-off in Milan will not take place until June next year, the process of selecting and screening the candidates is already under way.

One thing is for sure: There will be a Japan representative among the 21 finalists — and that young chef will not go unprepared. He or she will be chosen and supported by four of Tokyo’s most dynamic culinary professionals. The panel of judges was introduced at a news conference held April 10 at the Italian Embassy in Tokyo.

Leading the roster is Luca Fantin, whose modern Italian restaurant in Ginza, il Ristorante Luca Fantin, has held a Michelin star since 2011. Besides being the only Italian chef in Japan to hold a star, he was also named in 2014 by an Italian culinary guide as the Best Italian Chef in the World.

Fantin has been on the judging panel for this competition twice already. This time, though, he will also act as the official mentor for the young Japanese chef who will be heading to Milan. Still in his 30s himself, he offers a valuable blend of experience in the kitchen and also on the international stage, thanks to his frequent travels abroad as a guest chef or for collaboration dinners.

The other judges bring similar expertise to the proceedings. Chef Yoshiaki Takazawa’s exquisite cuisine blends Japanese, French and modernist influences, and his eponymous restaurant in Akasaka is an essential stop for visiting gastronomes. He is also intensely focused on the provenance and quality of his ingredients.

Thomas Angerer, executive chef of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, boasts a global perspective thanks to his peripatetic career at hotels in India, the U.S., Turkey and now Japan. But he was keen to stress that the most formative influences on his cooking came from growing up in a small village in Austria, where just about everything his family ate came from local farmers.

The fourth judge is Zaiyu Hasegawa, the ever-creative chef of Den, a modern-Japanese restaurant that earlier this month made its debut on the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He spelled out his philosophy succinctly: It is imperative to honor and appreciate Japan’s traditional cuisine, but one should never to be afraid to innovate on the basis of that tradition.

The online registration of candidates will continue through the end of this month. From those initial applicants, a shortlist of 10 will be chosen as semi-finalists, who will then enter a local competition to be held before the end of this year.

Once the judges have determined who will represent Japan, there will still be a roughly six-month period for that chef to develop his or her signature dish, working side-by-side with Fantin to develop confidence as well as technical skills.

The new Italian ambassador to Japan, Georgio Starace, summed up the session: “In Italy,” he said, “cooking is deeply rooted in the family and locality. I hope Japan’s young chef will carry a similar message representing his country and philosophy.”

But the most inspirational words came from Hasegawa: “Technique and innovation are essential. But don’t forget the most important thing: Enjoy yourself!”

For more information on the contest, visit