Mique, an eight-seat vegan restaurant run out of a garage in Komazawa, is sometimes mistaken for someone’s home. The space is bright and airy, and the walls are filled with rotating art exhibits. It’s here owner-chef Keiko Seto crafts an astounding variety of plant-based delicacies that have drawn the attention of chef Amanda Cohen of New York City’s groundbreaking vegetarian restaurant, Dirt Candy, and garnered inclusion in Momoko Nakamura’s “Plant-based Tokyo.”
Back in 2011, Seto was the art director for an international advertising agency. When the Great East Japan earthquake and nuclear disaster struck, she found herself at a pivot point.
“Some people think I made a drastic change from being an art director to cook,” she recalls as she dices mushrooms for the evening dinner service, “but for me it’s the same flow. The medium has changed, but I’m still doing something creative.
“It was a life-changing moment for me. When the earthquake came,” she says. “I thought I should focus on what I love, and that was food.”
Seto resigned and enrolled at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, attracted to the institute’s focus on vegetarian and plant-forward cuisines within a broad range of traditions. “When I was a child, I had eczema, and certain chemically treated foods cause symptoms, so my passion was healthy food and doing something positive for the planet,” Seto says. “Vegan food was the only choice for me, but I didn’t want to put myself in a box. The school gave me more freedom to be creative by not limiting me to a certain type of cooking.”
After graduation, she honed her culinary skills at restaurants in New York and New Orleans before returning to Japan in early 2013 to work at a Michelin-starred kaiseki (traditional multicourse) restaurant in Tokyo. But Seto soon learned of a space — a former snack bar — available in Shinagawa. It was tiny, old and needed lots of work, but she decided to take the opportunity to step out on her own.
When Mique finally opened in early 2015 after a year of renovation, Seto knew it would be a waiting game. Though vegan and vegetarian restaurants were finding success in places like New York and London, they hadn’t made much ground in Japan. “At the beginning, I only got people I knew,” she says. “I opened just two or three days a week, but I was committed. I believed in the positive effects of plant-based eating and practicing vegetarianism for the planet and all living beings.”
Seto illustrates her conviction with mouthwatering recipes forged from the seasonal bounty of the organic growers and producers in her network. A single menu blends French, Ayurvedic, Italian and Japanese traditions together for a meal unlike any other anywhere else in Tokyo’s plant-based scene.
The result is dishes such as zunda croquette (fried green soybean and potato balls); cappelletti pasta filled with lentils, mushrooms and walnuts; or a savory onion tart infused with rum and cloves accented by a decorative cup of homemade mustard or jewel-toned pickled Brazilian peppers and tiny cucumbers. On another day, she might offer tofu noodles dressed with sesame chili oil and topped with filaments of long onion, cilantro and a single pansy on a handmade ceramic plate. “I sometimes pick ideas from shōjin ryōri (Buddhist cuisine), raw food or open a traditional French cookbook and convert the recipe into a vegetarian or vegan dish,” Seto says.
When she learned the Shinagawa building was to be demolished in 2017, a friend suggested Seto rent their garage. Not much bigger than the first Mique, Seto snapped it up. The small, now renovated space, suits her style. “I like to pay attention to each small detail when cooking,” she says. “By doing everything with my own two hands, I transmit my love, dedication and care into the food, and people can feel it.”
Three years later, and eight months into the pandemic, Seto and Mique are still going strong. Although she temporarily reduced the number of seats from eight to six, and now only takes reservations, her passion is not curbed.
“Food serves a purpose,” Seto says. “It makes people happy. When people tell me this food was really yummy and they feel nourished, it’s the best reward I could get from creating something.”
For more information, visit mique-plantbasedfood.com. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food industry.