Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa exudes the serenity of a man who has found the equilibrium between passion, which in his case is cuisine, and a contemplative attitude to life. Coupling Japanese culture and seasonality with French sensibility acquired through his time in Europe with chefs like Paul Bocuse and Joël Robuchon, Narisawa has developed his own distinctive “Satoyama” cuisine. This unique style of cooking is an ode to his Japanese culture and ancestors, bridging centuries-old traditions and the contemporary (satoyama is the Japanese term for the borderland between foothills and flatland).
As one of Japan’s trailblazing chefs, Narisawa has garnered international attention for his artistic depiction of natural landscapes on plates at his Narisawa restaurant in Tokyo’s Minami Aoyama neighborhood. A visit to his table evokes the earthy aromas of nature and the harmony of seasons realized as comestible poetry. Subdued seasonings may include herbs, flowers, or even charred vegetables meant to enhance his contemplative creations.
One of his iconic dishes, “Essence of The Forest and Satoyama Scenery,” is most representative of his edible landscapes, with a soil of matcha, soy pulp, black tea, and bamboo representing the forest floor while edible branches are made using ten different ingredients. The “Bread of The Forest,” baked at the table with butter disguised as a moss-covered rock, precedes courses highlighting Japanese ingredients like sea snake, seasonal ayu fish, snow crab, fugu (pufferfish), or (when in season) cherry blossoms. Narisawa’s imaginative cuisine is literally hands-on, as surprised diners at this two-Michelin-star restaurant are instructed to use their fingers or spear food with twigs at the draped white tables. Japanese wines and unique sakes are optional pairings with the tasting menu, while teetotalers have the option of tea pairings curated by a tea expert.
The usually quiet, reserved chef is vocal when it comes to Japanese products and the topic of sustainability. As one of the first Japanese chefs to speak out about the use of pesticides in Japanese agriculture he has paved the way for conservation and a renewed connection to nature. He was the first recipient of the Sustainable Restaurant award from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 for his mindful cuisine. Since 1996 he has owned and operated his own establishments: first the La Napoule restaurant and then the present restaurant, opened in 2003 as Les Creations de Narisawa and now simply called Narisawa. Over time, his style and cuisine has moved from a very French perspective toward his Japanese roots. His passion also extends to wine, and consequently the restaurant uniquely showcases the finest wines produced in Japan. The two-Michelin-starred restaurant has been in the top ten of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for many years and was voted No. 18 in 2017. On Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, it currently holds the No. 6 spot, making it the top restaurant in Japan.
Narisawa’s familiarity with kitchens goes back to his childhood in Aichi prefecture south of Tokyo, where he was exposed to both Japanese food culture (in his grandfather’s sweet shop) and Western culture (in his father’s shop, which relied on local dairy and eggs for its confections). Reminiscing about those days, he shared: “My grandfather used to pound steamed rice to into rice cake [mochi] at home during the New Year days, so I was always looking forward to fresh rice cake. I also liked my father’s fresh-baked bread every morning and from the spring until summer I loved the Japanese sweet with Japanese mugwort (known as yomogi in Japan, it belongs to the chrysanthemum family) picked by my father.” The Japanese sensibility of beauty and emotion epitomized by the phrase mono no aware, or “the pathos of things,” or sometimes “a sensitivity to ephemera” is beautifully encapsulated in his work — in the case of his cuisine, it references the transience of nature. The serene dining room of his restaurant allows glimpses of the kitchen team in action through sliding glass doors, and diners are treated to seamless and attentive service.
Narisawa sits on the International Culinary Council of the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián, Spain, with the likes of Ferran Adrià, Massimo Bottura, Alex Atala, René Redzepi, Dan Barber, and Enrique Olvera. In an industry where transient celebrity status turns chefs into egoistical rock stars of the moment, Narisawa is an example of a man with his feet on the ground, unaffected by the media hyperbole. Whether at home in Japan, or speaking and cooking at international food events, he stands out for his dignified manner and humility. When not on foraging trips into the Japanese hinterland he can be found surfing the waves at Amami Ooshima Island, so it’s not surprising that the surfing-centric San Sebastián is one of favorite places to visit.
The Daily Meal: How do you bridge tradition with modernity in your kitchen?
Yoshihiro Narisawa: Tradition was formed over a long period of time and is actually a kind of style that was necessary for each period in history. Modernity, on the other hand, is a reflection of actual society and the natural environment. The style always exists, so I make use of the part of the style that is necessary while at the same time I use the current technique by thinking of the future. Therefore in the kitchen, tradition and modernity always coexist. Nowadays, it’s necessary to understand tradition and its influence on the society and natural environment for the future.