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During the Dec. 20 lunch service at Rakushin, a half-dozen chefs pack into the narrow kitchen at the Michelin-starred kaiseki (Japanese traditional multicourse) restaurant in Osaka’s Fukushima Ward for a one-off extravagant meal melding Flemish and Japanese cuisine.

When they speak, it’s a mix of Japanese, English and Dutch, but often they operate and move intuitively, as empty plates and bowls come to life with everything from snow crab, smoked eel and potato foam to “pizza” laden with sea urchin and caviar.

For Belgian chef Gert De Mangeleer, of the now-shuttered three-Michelin-starred Hertog Jan, neither Rakushin nor Japan are new territory. This is his second year in a row bringing his culinary magic to Shintaro Katayama’s machiya (townhouse) restaurant. What does always require a bit of adjustment is the small space. But, De Mangeleer notes, it cuts both ways.

When Katayama cooked at Hertog Jan in 2017, the restaurant that De Mangeleer operated outside Bruges, Belgium, with his partner, Joachim Boudens, for its closing dinner, Katayama had to familiarize himself with their kitchen — all 180 square meters of it.

“He needed a bike to get around,” De Mangeleer jokes.

De Mangeleer first visited Rakushin as a guest in 2016.

“I had always been inspired by the Japanese kitchen and culture … (visiting) Japan had been on my bucket list for several years,” De Mangeleer says. “I was sitting at Katayama’s beautiful counter and I was deeply impressed by his skills and by the hospitality of his wife, who is also a sommelier. There and then it felt like a very unique and special place. It was as if I was in another world.”

Tight quarters: Rakushin's kitchen is compact, but often half-a-dozen chefs squeeze behind the counter during collaborative meals. | KOTARO YAMAMOTO
Tight quarters: Rakushin’s kitchen is compact, but often half-a-dozen chefs squeeze behind the counter during collaborative meals. | KOTARO YAMAMOTO

For Katayama, accepting the offer to collaborate on a four-hands meal required a leap of faith.

“I was not the kind of person to push for collaborations, but at the same time it was an honor to be asked (by De Mangeleer),” Katayama says. “Ultimately our goal is to create beautiful dishes,” he continues. “When it comes to aesthetics I feel we have the same mindset.”

That first visit has since grown into a friendship and several collaborations organized by Arts Flanders Japan, a Tokyo-based foundation that liaises between the Dutch-speaking Flanders region in northern Belgium and Japan.

Arts Flanders Japan Director Bernard Catrysse, a longtime resident of Japan, describes these collaborations as mini-residencies, a chance for Flemish and Japanese chefs to learn from each other.

“Chefs, as much as other artists, need to constantly challenge themselves, venture into uncharted territory, push their boundaries, share their knowledge and skills, and reach new heights without losing their own identity,” Catrysse says. “This is exactly what both chefs are aiming for.”

Creative plating: Two pieces of sashimi sit on a life-shaped plate. | KOTARO YAMAMOTO
Creative plating: Two pieces of sashimi sit on a life-shaped plate. | KOTARO YAMAMOTO

Earlier in the month, De Mangeleer and his sous chef, Jef Poppe, also collaborated with French restaurants Florilege and Anis in Tokyo. But they saved the most elaborate collaboration for their final stop at Rakushin, simultaneously preparing both lunch and dinner services in Rakushin’s compact kitchen.

One dish that embodies their collaborative philosophy is the broiled shirako (milt) topped with strands of gossamer-thin turnip shavings to which De Mangeleer adds a sauce of hazelnut butter and capers. It’s a dish with subtle textures and bold flavors, one that well-represents the personalities that went into creating it. Another is the beetroot, salmon roe and caviar served in a dill and cream sauce.

On the face of it, the two are very different chefs. Katayama and his team could pass for salarymen, if it weren’t for their chef’s whites and geta. In contrast, De Mangeleer is outfitted in a dark leather apron, sporting numerous bracelets and pendants for that rockstar-chef look.

“What’s most important, though, is the (overall) harmony that’s created,” Katayama says. “It’s not just about the food, it’s also about the atmosphere and theme of what we are doing. Above all it’s about the people gathered here.”

For more information about Arts Flanders Japan and future chef collaborations, visit www.flanders.jp/en.

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