In the closing days of 2018, there was one celebration in particular that stood out. No ordinary bōnenkai (year-end) party, this was an event held to congratulate one of Tokyo’s best-known chefs, Yoshihiro Narisawa, on the 15th anniversary of his eponymous restaurant.
These days, Narisawa and his groundbreaking, genre-crossing cuisine need no introduction. His iconic restaurant, tucked away in Tokyo’s plush, upmarket Aoyama district, has become an essential port of call for visiting gastronomes and is rightfully included in numerous lists of the world’s top dining spots.
Back in 2003, though, when he first opened his doors, things were rather different. Narisawa was little-known — an outsider, not just because this was his first restaurant in the city but because his creative approach to French cuisine was so far removed from the mainstream of what was expected in Japan.
But he brought a powerful resume with him. He had spent eight formative years in Europe. He counted three of the great chefs of the late 20th century among his teachers: Paul Bocuse, Fredy Girardet and Joel Robuchon. He also had a raft of left-field ideas that he’d developed at his first restaurant down on the coast of Kanagawa Prefecture, in Odawara.
Narisawa was not the first chef to meld classical French gastronomy with Japanese principles and local ingredients. But his use of modernist (so-called molecular cuisine) techniques helped put his name on the map. So did memorable dishes, such as his wagyu cooked in a crust of “charcoal,” with its powerful contrast of tender pink meat coated in jet-black carbonized leek.
Other recipes were more polarizing initially, none more so than his Soup of the Soil. Combining the deep, earthy flavor of burdock with actual soil from the pristine mountains of Nagano Prefecture, it is challenging, taking diners out of their comfort zone and reminding them of the basic truth that nourishing food cannot exist without safeguarding the health of the ground in which it grows.
Fifteen years later, both have become signature dishes that still feature regularly in Narisawa’s complex, extended omakase tasting menus. If they feel less confrontational now, that may be because people have more sophisticated tastes and are not so easily shocked. More significantly, though, his cuisine has continued to evolve.
He has pared away superfluous flourishes, such as the dessert trolley loaded with mignardises (bite-sized sweets) that used to bring every meal to a close of groaning repleteness. As well as simplifying his cuisine, he has given it greater coherence. It certainly feels far less French. Few deny it now tastes better than ever.
From the opening platter, an elaborate edible landscape evoking the forests and fields of rural Japan, to the “moss” butter and the campfire-style bread that is leavened and cooked right in front of you, Narisawa introduces his signature “Innovative Satoyama Cuisine.”
The term references the traditional way in which farmers once lived close to nature, farming the flatlands and foraging the forests. This same philosophy of sustainability underpins all Narisawa’s cooking. Whether he is using suppon turtle, Okinawan sea snake, Hokkaido crab, madai (red sea bream) from the Akashi Strait near Shikoku or akaza-ebi langoustines from Suruga Bay, he buys directly from farmers and fishermen around the country.
That deep connection with his producers was reflected at his anniversary party. A large number of those invited were longtime suppliers — Sanshu Mikawa Mirin from Aichi, Narisawa’s home prefecture; the natural sake brewery Terada Honke, in Chiba Prefecture; the seafood company in Shizuoka Prefecture that sources those beautiful pink langoustines; even the forager who provides the flowers and forest leaves for his intricate back-to-nature table arrangements. It was a rare chance for them to be acknowledged, and also to see how their products are put to such creative, superlative use.
The day after that party, Narisawa had further reason to celebrate.
A small ceremony was held at the restaurant to present him with a major award — the International Academy of Gastronomy’s prestigious Grand Prize of Culinary Arts (Grand Prix de l’Art de la Cuisine).
Past recipients include one of Narisawa’s mentors, Robuchon, as well as Spain’s Ferran Adria and Denmark’s Rene Redzepi. But this is the first time it has been awarded to a chef from Asia. As guests adjourned to Narisawa’s adjacent Bees Bar, there were many toasts to be raised.
Minamiaoyama 2-6-15, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0062; 03-5785-0799; narisawa-yoshihiro.com; open 12-3 p.m. (L.O. 1 p.m.) & 6-11 p.m. (L.O. 7 p.m.); closed Sun. & Mon.; lunch ¥27,000, dinner ¥32,400; nearest station Aoyama Itchome; nonsmoking; major credit cards; English menu; English spoken