“Why did I leave Japan? I guess it’s because I had nothing to do back home,” says Paris-based chef Sota Atsumi as he takes a coffee break from prepping scallops for his dinner guests. “I didn’t study much, so enrolling in a university was not an option. I wanted to be a professional snowboarder but I gave up due to an injury.”
Atsumi, recently described by food critics as one of a recent surge of “rebellious French chefs,” took the recommendation of one of his high school teachers to go to France to be a chef.
“I didn’t necessarily aspire to be one, but always found cooking entertaining,” he says, adding that one of his earliest childhood memories is his grandmother’s simple home cooked dishes, like curry rice. “It’s not like I was obsessed with France either.”
At age 18, Atsumi arrived in Lyon, France’s capital of gastronomy, and found his first apprenticeship at the Michelin-starred La Maison Troisgros, then in Roanne. From there, he moved to Paris to work at more Michelin-starred French restaurants and other well-known establishments. His previous kitchens include Tateru Yoshino’s Stella Maris, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Toyo by Toyomitsu Nakamura, Vivant by Pierre Jancou as well as the century-old Clown Bar, where he served eccentric offerings like veal brain in soy dashi.
When he announced his first solo project, a French homestyle restaurant called Maison in the hip 11th arrondissement of Paris, in the spring of 2018, foodies all over the world left reservation inquiries on the restaurant’s Instagram feed months before its 2019 fall opening, while a Japanese television network followed Atsumi for over a year, documenting his journey from Clown Bar to Maison.
Atsumi’s description of his rise from Japanese high school graduate to working at Michelin-starred restaurants to celebrity chef status makes it seem easy.
“It is possible. Of course, there is a big number of aspiring chefs with talent, but I think it depends on one’s luck as well,” he says modestly. “Running into good people in life is also part of one’s luck, no? In my case, I’ve met many great influences.”
Atsumi’s so-called luck extended beyond the French borders. Since his departure from the Clown Bar in 2017, he has traveled the world with his Maison culinary team members. In Japan, they were invited to hold pop-up events at locations as high-end as Hotel New Otani Tokyo, as well as at casual eateries, including a yakitori shop. In Los Angeles, the American film director David Lynch dined at Atsumi’s event and invited the chef to his house.
“It was almost a life changing experience for me,” recalls Atsumi. “I got to see the world Lynch aims to achieve in his works up-close and I decided that if I were to create something of my own, I must push for that level of completeness.”
In New York, he took a three-month-long residency with the restaurant group Chefs Club where, along with eight members of his Maison team, he offered a preview of what was to come at Maison. Other stops along Atsumi’s travels included Columbia, Croatia, Ukraine and Mexico, where he worked with a group of young, aspiring chefs to serve over 1,000 guests.
“I don’t speak English at all,” he confesses. “But when working in the kitchen, it’s not really about the linguistic communication. It’s more about the atmosphere and considerations.
“For example, when I was working with Mexico’s young chefs, I made sure that we were all on the same page by selecting dishes that didn’t require too much technicality. Whereas in Napa Valley, I worked with a three-starred restaurant, so we knew how far the American team could perform in terms of techniques.”
Though Atsumi has found it easy to brush off any awkward cultural differences in France, he says he’s not immune to homesickness.
“I’m a foreigner here and I wanted a house. I met my wife in France and we have a kid now,” he says, explaining the idea behind the homey vibe of Maison. His wife, Akiko Otsu, works with the Parisian lithography brand Idem, and, he says, helps him connect the dots between developing dishes and providing extraordinary dining experiences for his guests.
“We met in Paris when she came here to study art. She oversees the artistic side of my projects including Maison,” he says. “Aside from finding artworks for the interiors, she introduced me to the creative minds in her field, like Lynch.”
From the whimsical Maison logo, created by Lynch, and its custom-designed stereo set by the French artist-photographer JR, to Japanese architect Tsuyoshi Tane’s complete renovation of the interiors, Maison has become Atsumi’s home away from home, albeit one with high artistic credentials.
“I never thought to work with Tane because I assumed my budget wouldn’t be enough,” recalls Atsumi. “But his atelier was very close from the restaurant site at the time and when it came up in our conversation, he said ‘let me.'”
The architect took in Atsumi’s vision of serving homestyle French cuisine and applied his signature “archeological research” method, gathering historical information on the concept of dining and interior design to inform his vision. The end result is a spacious loft-space restaurant with red terracotta tiles applied throughout. The hexagonal tiles, an iconic historical feature of French interior design, were entirely reclaimed from local sources, something that resonates with Atsumi’s understanding of his role as a modern chef.
“It’s not the job of the next generation but of mine and my fellow head chefs” says Atsumi, commenting on his efforts to source locally and pay attention to sustainability. “People often ask me, ‘How do you find inspiration for your menu?’ It’s easy, I go to the markets and talk to farmers. There is no doubt that many of the ingredients we see now may not be available in the future and it’s important to communicate with the producers.
As an example, he talks about his butcher who he has just ordered veal from. “I asked him for just one calf. From that calf, I will utilize as much as possible for a week,” he says.
Atsumi says this approach of carefully sourcing ingredients was something he learned from one of the many influences he has met during his travels — restaurateur Pierre Jancou, who introduced him to ethical ways of operating an eatery. But to pick the most precious influence of his life? The chef answers without hesitation, “My wife, Akiko.”