French-born chef Guillaume Bracaval has an extraordinary knack for turning lemons into lemonade.
When he arrived in Tokyo on a working holiday visa in 2011 — a mere two months after the triple disaster of the Great East Japan Earthquake — the country was in turmoil. The hospitality industry was devastated, tourism had bottomed out and bankruptcies were rife.
Having left his position as head chef at Michelin-starred L’Agape in Paris, he set about starting a new life in Japan, despite the circumstances. Luck smiled on him when an encounter with legendary chef Michel Troisgros, who was in Japan at the time, led to a job offer. It just so happened that Troisgros was looking for someone to run Cuisine(s) Michel Troisgros, his two-Michelin-starred outpost in Tokyo. Bracaval leapt at the chance, and took over as executive chef in 2012 until the restaurant shut its doors permanently in December of last year.
Initially crestfallen by the restaurant’s closure, within a few months Bracaval found an opportunity to create his own restaurant concept — one based principally on Japanese produce, with an emphasis on sustainability. Partnering with pastry chef Michele Abbatemarco, who worked with him throughout his Troisgros tenure, Bracaval’s new venture, Est, opens inside the swanky Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi on Sept. 1.
While most chefs would be daunted by the idea of opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic, Bracaval remains characteristically sanguine.
“Spending this time at home during the coronavirus situation has made me more confident in what I want to do,” he says, describing the restaurant’s locavore philosophy and vegetable-forward menu. “We have to use what we have around us. I have no interest in going back to using things like foie gras. It’s easy to make something that tastes good with caviar and truffles, but if you start with simple ingredients like leeks or potatoes, you can be more creative and make something really special.”
Growing up in a small village in northern France, Bracaval spent weekends tending the family garden with his father and recalls the delight of pulling bright orange carrots from the ground to be enjoyed later at the table. His appreciation for the bounty of the plant kingdom intensified while working at three-Michelin-starred L’Arpege in Paris, where chef Alain Passard shocked gastronomes by taking his French haute cuisine completely vegetarian in 2001 (though he later reintroduced a fish and meat menu). There, he learned the importance of developing relationships with farmers, as well as how to compose dishes on the spot from daily deliveries of fresh produce.
It’s a skill Bracaval took with him to Cuisine(s), where he quickly gained acclaim for his nuanced approach to French cuisine, which showcased local ingredients and incorporated subtle Japanese influences.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a learning curve. In his early days at the restaurant, Bracaval — then unable to speak Japanese and lacking connections — found himself unable to communicate directly with producers and turned to pastry chef Michele Abbatemarco for guidance.
A native of Italy, Abbatemarco also grew up in the countryside and shares Bracaval’s passion for organic agriculture. After relocating to Tokyo nearly 15 years ago, Abbatemarco says he had to “start over from scratch” and learn how to cook with “completely different” Japanese ingredients. Aiming to work exclusively with domestic products, he began establishing connections with purveyors — visiting farms to find the best honey, the most fragrant lemons or sweetest milk — and later helped Bracaval tap into his network.
“Thinking from the perspective of ecology, I questioned the meaning of using imported foods when there are so many amazing ingredients in Japan,” he says.
Although vegetables will play a starring role at Est, the restaurant will adhere to an “enlightened-omnivore” — rather than vegetarian — ethos. Meat will be served, but Bracaval plans to use it sparingly, opting instead to concentrate on seafood and vegetables.
It’s a daring proposition for a French fine-dining restaurant in Tokyo, where guests have been reluctant to relinquish the classic trappings of luxury. Foie gras, pigeon and prime cuts of beef still feature prominently at many of the city’s high-end French establishments, although Abbatemarco predicts that the COVID-19 pandemic will prompt diners to rethink their values.
“The customers are changing, looking at the experience as a whole and considering how they want to spend their time. Today,” he says, “we are all asking, ‘What is luxury?’”
For Bracaval, the answer is clear. “I’m pushing to be more respectful of everything in my kitchen. When you take your children to a farm to pick strawberries and see bees pollinating the flowers, you realize that life starts here. That makes you think about how you’re using these ingredients,” he says, noting that minimizing waste will be a priority. In the future, he also hopes to build a farm outside of Tokyo to supply the restaurant with produce.
When I visit Est for a preview, I sample a glistening slice of pomfret, the fish’s silky texture complemented by the velvet of oyster-cream sauce, set amid a circle of gemlike vegetables — a ruby-hued semidried tomato, a jade crinkle of cabbage and emerald slivers of crisp beans. They taste like the best possible versions of themselves. Abbatemarco’s luscious goat’s cheese bavarois, topped with goat’s milk sorbet and nestled against a pile of matchstick wafers with honeyed fig compote, conjures a stroll through a grassy meadow. Indeed, this is luxury. Who needs foie gras?
Otemachi 1-2-1, Chiyoda-ku 100-0004; 03-6810-0655; bit.ly/fourseasons-est; lunch from ¥10,000, dinner from ¥20,000
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