– Travel Food & Wine
Historically influenced by the cuisine of China, Japanese cuisine has opened up to influence from Western cuisines in the modern era. Japanese Chefs have always been known for sticking to their traditional Japanese cuisine with absolute authenticity.
However, Japanese Chefs are cooking up a storm in the kitchens today. Tokyo has a new generation of Chefs who are changing the way the city eats. Gone are the days when dining out in Japan’s capital was serious and rigid, and sometimes intimidating. The changing landscape of food in Tokyo, Japan where a young and charismatic generation is redefining what it means to be a Chef in this celebrated food city.
Tokyo-born Zaiyu Hasegawa was immersed in Japanese cuisine and fine-dining from a young age, watching and then working with his geisha mother, who would entertain customers in a traditional high-end Japanese restaurant, named Uotoku Kagurazaka. However, he quickly began developing his own style and felt driven to diversify away from Japanese cuisine’s generic ‘one size fits all’ philosophy and wanted to cook something unique for every customer. At 29, he opened Den, driven by the desire to cook what he wanted. At the end of 2016, the restaurant moved to a new location, while keeping in mind the same style of cuisine and service.
Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa has created a culinary buzz within the capital with his two Michelin-starred restaurant Den, giving Japanese fine dining a playful and skill-filled name. The cuisine at Den is his personal vision of kaiseki ryori, Japanese fine dining, focusing on pleasing the customer with every dish and conveying the beauty of Japan. Chef Hasegawa’s ingenuity and intent to make diners smile is paramount. He is notoriously creative and inventive, using seasonal ingredients to reinvent classic dishes and flavours, using the contemporary influences on Japanese culture. Playful presentation is supported with technically savvy skills to create modern kaiseki, the style of Japanese cuisine involving a series of small, intricate dishes. Den pioneered by Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa has not only quickly cemented its worldwide fame for taste-focused, joy-filled kaiseki, but has also become much loved for its playful and unique hospitality.
The front-of-house team, led by Hasegawa’s wife Emi, embraces the traditional Japanese philosophy of welcoming every diner with warmth and making them feel part of the Den family. The goal to make diners happy dictates the approach to cooking and hospitality at Den. Chef Hasegawa’s inspiration came from the Japanese spirit of hospitality, omotenashi – an organic desire for the happiness of others. Den truly embraces this traditional Japanese philosophy of selfless hospitality, making diners feel a part of their small family. This earnestness helped the restaurant win the Art of Hospitality Award for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017. This principle has become the unyielding charm of Chef Hasegawa’s cooking, himself and his team.
Hasegawa’s cooking is a creative spin on the Japanese multi-course haute cuisine, kaiseki. In a traditional kaiseki meal, chefs prepare around 10 or more small dishes, which are served to diners one at a time. Ingredients used in kaiseki cooking are hyper-seasonal, of premium quality and a specific provenance. Kaiseki chefs are also responsible for carefully selecting vessels in which they present their cooking. The cooking, the ingredients and the vessels together form an unmistakably Japanese narrative, capturing the aesthetics and philosophy of changing time through food. Therefore, kaiseki is sometimes considered an edible art form that ordinary people in the modern, ever-changing world may find distant and hard to understand.
At the end of 2016, the restaurant moved to the up-market Jingumae district. While having retained the same style of gastronomy and service, the restaurant now has an expansive space that seats at least 40, combining traditional Japanese accoutrements such as hinoki tables and counters, with modern design cues such as floor-to-ceiling windows. There is a level of separation between the kitchen and diner, much more akin to a Western-style restaurant fit out. Guests can enjoy more spacious seating and more light. Diners can actually be comfortable in their own space.
International influences can be found as light touches on traditional Japanese cuisine in Hasegawa’s seasonal eight-course menu. Guests can enjoy innovative dishes such as the signature salad called “The Garden” composed of 20 vegetables reaped daily from the Chef’s sister’s garden, all prepared in different ways, and beautifully presented or the ‘Den-tucky fried’ chicken wings, served as an Oshinogi course, with a hidden surprise, presented in a fast-food takeaway box.
Chef Hasegawa uses fresh and rare ingredients to cook up really interesting dishes. Den’s omakase tasting menu opens with the signature appetiser, a monaka pastry stuffed with hoshigaki, persimmons dried for two months, 6-month smoked daikon and foie gras from mallard ducks marinated for 10 days in shiromiso (white miso). Guests are served fresh local seasonal produce such as fried shishamo (willow leaf fish) from Hokkaido, suppon, or soft-shell turtle soup, female crab with black kodaimi rice, sashimi made with kurodai, blackhead sea bream or Spanish mackerel with its skin lightly grilled, served with nori sauce, dashi, vinegar and fish roe, and fried amadei (tilefish) served with crisp black cabbage and crisp yuba (milk skin).
Since opening Jimbocho Den in Tokyo in 2007, Chef Hasegawa received two Michelin stars, the first of which was in 2011, only three years after opening. Having made its debut in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016 at No.37, it reaches No.2 in 2018, winning the title of The Best Restaurant in Japan.
Yoshihiro Narisawa left home at 19 and spent eight years cutting his teeth in some of Europe’s most venerated kitchens, including those of Joël Robuchon and Paul Bocuse. In 1996, he returned home to Japan and opened La Napoule in Kanagawa Prefecture. Seven years later in 2003, he moved to his current venue in Tokyo’s non-touristy district of Minami Aoyama and formed Les Créations de Narisawa. When the restaurant celebrated its eighth anniversary, it was renamed Narisawa.
The Harmony of Sustainability and Gastronomy” is the theme of Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa. He is the pioneer of a cuisine connected to the preservation of the natural environment.
Narisawa has established an original genre, “Innovative Satoyama Cuisine” which expresses, through his filter, his respect for the rich gastronomical culture of the Japanese Satoyama, and for the wisdom of our ancestors. (The Satoyama is a small space in Japan between the sea and mountains where people and nature live together)
With this culture of the Japanese Satoyama, Narisawa offers gastronomy sustainable towards the environment, and beneficial for mind and spirit – “Beneficial and Sustainable Gastronomy”.
The gift of the seasons
In Japan, the locals’ hearts naturally open up when it is time for them to enjoy the beauty of the nature, when blossoming spring flowers call anew for the sky, when birds begin to sing cheerfully, when the light autumn breezes caresses, when the round moon wanes gently to a slender crescent, and when each season dies and the next announces a promise of happiness and renewed fulfilment of one’s heart.
Being in the midst of nature, one will find “the signs”, “the prime” and “the remnants” of every changing thing. Beauty is present in each season, bringing nostalgia to Japanese hearts year-around. Treasuring the spirit of the Japanese people who traditionally believe that the spirit of the Gods lie in even the smallest elements of nature, we must cherish with our true heart the environment that produces ingredients. Narisawa dreams of reviving and resuscitating natural landscapes desecrated by men.
Bringing nature to a plate
In order to bring the natural landscape and the particular strength of that season to a dish, one must carefully consider the main ingredients that form the core of the dish. The smell, aspect and inner texture which were inspired by landscape will be added on the plate but the dish structure is built with only necessary ingredients.
Guests should fall under the spell of the season. They should not only be eating a meal, they should absorb life itself. And there is no feeling that can exist beyond that experience, for one cannot perfect that which nature has created.
What is Satoyama?
Narisawa calls its cuisine “Innovative Satoyama Cuisine.” It’s difficult to find an equivalent word for Satoyama in Western languages. Literally translated, “Sato” means village or community and “Yama” means forest. Japan is an island country, and forests cover approximately 67% of its landmass. Naturally, the people of Japan have always co-existed with their surroundings by making the best out of nature’s blessings. Satoyama is the embodiment of sustainable living where people and nature coexist in a symbiotic relationship. The Japanese cultivated fields within limited space surrounded by mountains and seas, grew rice, and collected the blessing from the sea that contained nutrition of the forest. Forests are the barometer of life. Chef Yoshihiro examines the Japanese culture that is rooted in nature through his own lens and expresses it in the form of cuisine. For the Japanese, humankind was always been a part of nature. The culture of Satoyama means using only what is needed from nature effectively while tending it appropriately, and at the same time sustaining a healthy environment. Chef Yoshihiro’s style of cooking is precisely the reconstruction of Satoyama cuisine.
Narisawa’s philosophy and respect for ingredients is almost religious – a reverential meal that introduces diners to the glorious bounty of the foods of Japan. Provenance and sustainability are key to Narisawa’s cuisine. The menu comprises sustainable ingredients that are faithful to the environment and the seasons. Almost all the ingredients used are sourced from producers in Japan.
Narisawa only serves a set menu so guests are offered what is on the chef’s specials for the day. The menu has highlights such as “Bread of the Forest”, a self-raising bread, “Essence of the Forest and Satoyama Scenery” comprising green tea powder, carbonised bamboo, a bean yoghurt, deep fried vegetable chips and sweet onion coated in carbonised level powder, Madai red Seabream with Wakegi onion sauce, Seared mackerel served on an eggplant purée with rice vinaigrette and decorated with edible flowers, Kamo eggplant served during Gion Festival and Nukadoko fermented vegetables.
Narisawa is one of the best places in the world to appreciate the finest of Japanese winemaking, with Pinot Noir from Nagano, Riesling lion from Iwate, aged Bordeaux-style blends from Yamagata and beyond.
With French dining style and fanciful Japanese flavours and art, Narisawa is familiar to being on ‘Asia’s Best Restaurants’ list, ranked No.8 this year, with 2 Michelin stars.
The combination of the old and the new is creating an exciting time in Tokyo. The new talent of Tokyo’s vibrant food scene is contemporary, creative, bold and relaxed. They are beginning to incorporate a lot of Western ingredients in their traditional dishes. Their skills and expertise in modern gastronomy have earned their Michelin-star restaurants several accolades, the most recent one being Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2019.