Guests dining at two-Michelin-starred Den in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward on Dec. 3 last year, perhaps expecting the restaurant’s typical, modern kaiseki multicourse, instead encountered an unfamiliar scene.
Bright green palm leaves, anchored by a centerpiece of two large coconuts, covered the long, communal table, and the staff greeted diners with a cheerful chorus of “sawadee!” (“hello” in Thai). For this single night, chef Zaiyu Hasegawa prepared a menu of Thai-fusion dishes as part of The Grand Gelinaz! Shuffle: 2019 Stay In Tour event, a giant recipe swap spanning 38 countries and featuring 148 chefs.
Like each Gelinaz! participant, Hasegawa had received eight new recipes a month prior to the event. Tasked to reinterpret the dishes in his own style, he cooked without dashi broth for the first time in his career, but replaced Thai fish sauce and shrimp paste with Japanese fish sauce and shutō (fermented skipjack tuna entrails) in courses such as pumpkin potage with an airy whip of pureed oyster and basil. At the end of the night, Hasegawa learned the mystery “guest chef” behind the recipes: Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn, of Le Du in Bangkok.
“It was fun but tough. I hadn’t even tasted most of the dishes until the moment they were served,” Hasegawa says of the evening. “This is definitely not normal for chefs.”
Having participated in previous editions, Hasegawa was accustomed to the improvisational chaos generated by Gelinaz!. But for Tokyo chefs like Michimasa Nakamura of Sushi M and Hideki Ii of Shirosaka, it was their first time taking part in a culinary event with such an unorthodox premise. Nakamura also received Thai recipes — from Dalad Kambhu of Kin Dee in Berlin — a challenge compounded by the fact he’d never tried Thai food before. He spent a month eating at Thai restaurants to study the cuisine’s flavor profile.
“I think that both Thai and Japanese cuisines respect seasonal ingredients and have a strong cultural identity,” Nakamura says. “As a sushi chef, I wasn’t used to powerful flavors, but it worked. Going forward, I’d like to experiment with a wider range of ingredients for my sushi.”
As beverage pairing is central to the concept of Sushi M, Nakamura and sommelier Yoshinobu Kimura worked closely to create the menu, which included aged sawara (Japanese Spanish mackerel) sashimi sprinkled with lime and fish sauce, served with an exclusive sake from Aramasa Shuzo. Kimura also paired an elegant dashi-based tom yum soup with 1996 Blancs de Blancs Grand Cru Philippe Gonet Champagne and matched coconut-scented rice topped with sea urchin with long-matured Akishika Yamahai Moto Muroka Nama Genshu. He came up with the pairings by “relating Thai ingredients to similar flavors in Japanese cuisine,” and breaking down the dishes into “components of sweetness, umami and acidity.”
Meanwhile, Shirosaka’s Ii describes the event as a “very stressful” but valuable “learning experience.” Working with a set of French recipes, he transformed his Japanese restaurant into a stylish neo-bistro, investing in minimalist Western-style dishware and cutlery, and devising a pairing course of French wines.
Although the identity of the “guest chef” was supposed to be secret, Ii eventually deduced that the recipes came from Virtus, the Michelin-starred restaurant run by Chiho Kanzaki and Marcelo di Giacomo in Paris; Ii and his team had met the pair earlier last year while cooking at the World Gourmet Festival in Bangkok.
“That added an extra layer of pressure, because we felt that we had to do justice to their recipes. But it was good to cook in a different style, and we got to use new techniques to make the desserts, which are not usually served at Japanese restaurants,” recalls Shirosaka sous-chef Max Barber.
Getting out of your comfort zone, says Gelinaz! organizer Andrea Petrini, is precisely the point. “If you do the Gelinaz! you have to do it for real — to commit to the challenge and take risks,” he says. “Otherwise, you look like a jerk.”
For more information about December 2019’s Gelinaz! event and to see all the recipe reveals, visit gelinaz.com.