Food & Drink

'Curry for salarymen': Top 'La Liste' chef recalls early days

by Natsuko Fukue

AFP-JIJI

Chef Seiji Yamamoto, whose restaurant, RyuGin, has been ranked one of the world’s top places to eat, recalls how he was once reduced to whipping up curry to attract diners to his empty tables.

Earlier this month, the famously innovative RyuGin in Tokyo topped the rankings of La Liste 2020, the “best global restaurant selection handpicked by discerning food critics and expert guides,” with a score of 99.5 out of 100.

La Liste, which launched in 2015, ranks the 1,000 best restaurants in the world by aggregating millions of reviews from sources such as the Michelin Guide to newspapers and websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.

But success did not come easy to Yamamoto, 49, who says he is “honored” to receive the accolade. Receiving it has led him to reflect on his struggles when he opened his first restaurant more than a decade ago.

“I was 33 and was told I was ‘young and green,'” Yamamoto says. “There were times when we had no customers. We even used to make curry, hoping salarymen would drop by.

“I would not have dreamed at that time that I would receive Michelin stars or a top place in international rankings,” he continues. RyuGin retained its three stars in the latest gourmet Michelin Guide Tokyo 2020.

Yamamoto’s journey to become a chef began at the tender age of 15, when he graduated from junior high school.

“I didn’t think about anything other than cooking. It’s my life. If I were not a chef now, I could be homeless lying outside the exit of Shinjuku Station,” he says, referencing the world’s busiest transport hub in central Tokyo.

RyuGin, whose ceilings are covered with wood and boasts rooms divided with traditional Japanese paper and screens, jumped 30 places to reach the joint top spot in this year’s France-based list.

Known as the “king of kaiseki” (the traditional multicourse Japanese meal), Yamamoto says he is constantly seeking answers to the question “What is Japanese cuisine?”

“Japanese cuisine isn’t just about fulfilling the stomach. It also fulfills the spirit,” he says. “Food isn’t just food. It’s also a sensation and a memory and we’re responsible for creating it.

“Each ingredient has the energy of life, when it was growing in the mountain or swimming in the sea. It’s meaningless if I cannot express this energy.”

Yamamoto feels he has an almost patriotic duty to carry on the tradition of Japanese cuisine, describing it as a “national job.”

“I express the richness of Japanese nature through food. I hope to be able to tell how rich the country is to people who visit Japan,” he says.

For this reason, he does not use the same Japanese ingredients in his other restaurants in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“I think Japanese cuisine should be expressed by using the richness of local land,” he says. “Otherwise it’ll be just a copy of the main restaurant.”

Yamamoto’s meticulous quest for perfection has even led him to use CT scans on fish he cooks to better understand their bone structure.

“Doctors can’t carry out surgery without knowing the human body,” he says. “I think it’s wrong (for chefs) to cut fish without knowing its bone structure and organs.”

Even when he is on vacation, he does not stop learning about ingredients.

A qualified scuba diver, Yamamoto often dives in Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, a peninsula southwest of Tokyo, to check out the fish.

“While other divers enjoy watching colorful, cute fish, I’m watching edible fish or shrimp,” he says with a laugh.

“It’s a joy to be able to see them so close to my own eyes in the open,” he says.

RyuGin shares the top spot on La Liste 2020 with Yosuke Suga’s 20-seat Tokyo restaurant, Sugalabo, and reigning leaders Guy Savoy in Paris and New York’s Le Bernardin.

For more information about RyuGin, visit www.nihonryori-ryugin.com/en.

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