In April 2013, a new award for the most Sustainable Restaurant was announced at the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards ceremony in London. Its first winner was Narisawa, the Tokyo restaurant of chef Yoshihiro Narisawa. Currently ranked 20 in that prestigious countdown, the two Michelin star restaurant was also reconfirmed as the Best in Asia for the fifth year running in 2013 and appeared at the number two spot this year: a remarkable collection of accolades for the elegant Japanese 25-seater!

The Sustainable Restaurant award, sponsored by Zacapa, was introduced to encourage restaurants to consider the environmental impact of serving world-class cuisine. It focuses on three aspects of a restaurant’s activities: sourcing, the environment and social responsibility. That the award went to Narisawa is impressive as the restaurant is not located in the countryside, nor does it grow its own vegetables or rear any animals. Narisawa is situated in the busy Minato-ku district of central Tokyo and depends on a network of suppliers for its tip-top ingredients.

I was fortunate to spend a week at the restaurant with Yoshihiro Narisawa and his wife, Yuko, a couple of years ago, and was able to witness first-hand how the chef works and where he sources his produce.

“One of the key aspects of preparing food is the respect we must have for the land and the people who work on it,” Narisawa says. “I deal exclusively with local purveyors - from the organic farm that grows my vegetables to the foragers who bring me wild mushrooms and other plants from the meadows and forests. Only that way can we begin to understand the culture behind food production.”

Each morning a stream of delivery men arrives, bringing the justpicked items the chefs will work with that day. “Nothing is thrown away in my kitchen, nor is anything pre-prepared or held for the next day,” says the chef, as he inspects bundles of branches, roots, berries and leaves as they arrive. His brigade of young perfectionists quickly cleans and stores the produce but almost nothing—aside from patisserie and consommés—is pre-cooked. Most ingredients are only cut after the customers are seated in the dining room. “The most important thing for me is to cook ‘at the minute’, as I would for my family,” he says.

Seafood is a staple on the menu, though you won’t find traditional sushi here. When I asked to visit Tokyo’s legendary fish market, Tsukiji, I was amazed to find that Narisawa had never been. He organised a predawn trip to the giant market—with the great tempura master, Fumio Kondo, as our guide—and we spent two unforgettable hours exploring the stalls and alleys of this almost Dickensian world of dead and live seafood and other produce.

Afterwards, Narisawa was pensive. “Now I’ve seen [Tsukiji fish market], I’ll never need to go there again,” he confided. “I prefer a set-up where the small fishermen and growers are not cut out of the profits and where there’s a greater range of vegetables that have not been produced industrially. I’m interested in the dialogue between a chef and his purveyors.” So where does he get his fish, I asked?

Two days later we set off again before dawn for the port of Odawara, in Kanagawa Prefecture, 80km south of Tokyo. This market scene was quite different from Tsujiki. On a wide landing overlooking the open sea, a clutch of small fishing boats displayed their live catches in basins of clean, running water. The fishermen greeted Narisawa as a friend as he inspected the fish, signalling those he wanted reserved for him. “They understand my needs so I don’t have to come too often; they send fish to the restaurant daily,” he says.

The young Narisawas opened their first small restaurant, La Napoule, in this port in 1999, after Yoshihiro returned from his eight years training in Europe. When they started, Yoshihiro prepared and cooked all the food while Yuko waited on tables. They shared the dishwashing. “For the first three years, few people came,” Yuko recounts. “Then it took off and soon it was impossible to get a table.” Their clients included top designers and business people from Tokyo and beyond. In 2003 they
took the plunge and moved to Tokyo, opening what was then called ‘Les Créations de Narisawa’.

Narisawa never trained in a Japanese restaurant. His father and grandfather were bakers, with a salon de thé and pastry shop. At 18, Yoshihiro took off to learn his trade abroad, avoiding the rigid Japanese kitchen hierarchy that can be so difficult to progress in. He did stages of 18 to 24 months in several legendary restaurants, including Frédy Girardet in Switzerland, Joël Robuchon in France and Antonio Santìn’s Antica Osteria del Ponte, near Milan in Italy, before returning to Japan to open his own.

Narisawa’s cooking style is unique. He may have been trained in the structure and techniques of classical French cuisine, but there’s nothing French about what he does with it. He has developed a personal language through food to speak about what concerns him most: nature and our relationship with it.

When the theme is the forest—as it often is—the meal is subtly orchestrated around it. In what amounts to a performance, a rudimentary dough of chestnut flour and grated wood, whose wild yeast was ‘captured’ from the forest floor, is baked at the table in a stone bowl so hot it singes the bowl’s wooden cover, releasing the smoky memory of a campfire. That primitive, symbolic bread sets the meal’s tone, yet Narisawa never hammers home his message: it’s up to each diner to pick up the subtle clues (and it doesn’t stop him serving perfectly crafted breads à la Française as well).

In another forest-inspired dish, the eater is presented with a wooden slab on which the minutiae of the forest floor have been arranged: tiny mushrooms and berries, flowers and buds, a ‘leaf’ of lily root and a sablé leaf, a ‘cup’ of tannic rain water carved from a branch and, at the centre, a strip of crisp and juicy pork crackling that suggests a wild pig’s journey through the undergrowth.

From this poetic representation of sylvan diversity—and our need to heed and attend to it—it’s not too big a jump to ask the eater to swallow a delicately flavoured brown broth that captures the essence of Narisawa’s favourite terroir. His ‘soil soup’ is just that: a taste of the rich loam of his favourite organic farm. “This is my starting point, the pure energy of the land from which we all take our nourishment, and that we have a responsibility to protect,” he says.

Even a ‘simple’ salad is an excuse to explore nature’s sources. In his ‘Salade d’Eau’, Narisawa distils the watery co-habitants, wasabi and watercress, into a crystal-clear, semi-solid mass with an indefi nably aqueous structure. Chilled to the touch, it heats the throat as it slides down, as pure as the spring water it mimics.

Narisawa’s innovation goes beyond the visual—though his mother’s Ikebana arrangements have left their mark—or the culinary—where he remains an avant-garde classicist—to the spheres of art and philosophy. Without ever losing sight of how good food should taste and why.