Luca Fantin can’t stop smiling. The 35-year-old executive chef of Il Ristorante Luca Fantin and Osaka has a lot to be happy about. The kudos from Michelin (he’s the only Italian in Tokyo with a star). Receiving the “Best Italian Chef in the World” award from the 2015 Identita Golose guide. The fact that Bulgari’s flagship restaurant in Tokyo has just been rechristened Il Ristorante Luca Fantin.
All of this is just the beginning. Right now he’s working on a book about finding Italian ingredients in Japan. For the last six months, Luca has been traversing the Japanese countryside, seeking out products and culinary inspiration in remote locations. He is tall and fair-skinned, with dark hair and eyes that sparkle and widen as he tells me about a recent trip he took to Mie Prefecture, in western Japan. The story begins with a six-hour train ride in the middle of the night and moves through a failed attempt to photograph lobsters in the wild; the discovery of a placid lake at dawn; and a chance meeting with a wizened oyster farmer, whom Fantin ended up befriending with his disarming frankness and boyish charm.
“Now I buy oysters from that guy,” he laughs, describing the exquisite flavor of the bivalves. The freshly harvested oysters are shucked by village women who work in shore-side huts warmed by fires—a process that imparts the flesh with a mild smokiness. His experience in Mie resulted in a dish of linguine bathed in oyster cream with lettuce and smoked oysters, which he presented to an audience of chefs and industry professionals at Milan’s Identita Golose congress in February.
Luca Fantin has come a long way from his humble roots in the town of Silea, near Treviso. He learned about food from his grandmother, who ran a small farm and cooked for the family every day. When Luca was 13, he got his first job at a restaurant—washing dishes at a nearby trattoria. Later, he began waiting tables but soon realized that the kitchen was where he really belonged. At the age of 18, he found himself staging at a two-Michelin-starred restaurant.
“I’m very shy, so I was afraid of talking to the customers,” he recalls. “The kitchen was more comfortable for me but also more exciting.”
As a young chef, his talent and ambition took him to some of the world’s most distinguished restaurants—Cracco, Mugaritz, Ryugin, and La Pergola—before he was offered the chance to helm Il Ristorante Luca Fantin in Tokyo. In the five years that he’s been there, he’s grown in confidence, and his cuisine has evolved to reflect the attention to detail and respect for ingredients that he’s gained from working in Japan.
“European chefs think about what’s on the plate but don’t put the ingredients first in the same way,” he says. “Japan is a perfectionist society. This helps me to be more precise, to be better at what I do every day.”
Although he works almost exclusively with Japanese products—the exceptions are extra virgin olive oil, Carnaroli rice, and cheeses—the food he creates is a pure distillation of Italian flavors. Take, for example, a single raviolo filled with an intense broth of burrata and topped with caviar from Miyazaki Prefecture. Or siphon-infused mushroom consommé, made with porcini mushrooms sourced from Mt. Fuji, poured over baby potatoes and quail eggs with truffles.
At Il Ristorante Luca Fantin, he strives to give his Japanese guests a deeper understanding of contemporary Italian cuisine. It hasn’t been easy, but Fantin has always embraced challenges.
“I’m motivated by perfection, and I like constant movement. Working as a chef is sometimes happy, and sometimes sad, but it makes me feel alive,” he tells me. “I think I’ll stay in the kitchen for another 20 years…or more.”
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