Respect for the land

25 Sep 2016
4 min read
After spending a week with Yoshihiro Narisawa of the two-Michelin-starred Narisawa in Tokyo, Carla Capalbo reveals how sustainable sourcing and nature remain paramount.

In April 2013, a new award for the most SustainableRestaurant was announced at the San Pellegrino World’s50 Best Restaurants Awards ceremony in London.Its first winner was Narisawa, the Tokyo restaurant ofchef Yoshihiro Narisawa. Currently ranked 20 in thatprestigious countdown, the two Michelin star restaurantwas also reconfirmed as the Best in Asia for the fifthyear running in 2013 and appeared at the number two spot this year: aremarkable collection of accolades for the elegant Japanese 25-seater!

The Sustainable Restaurant award, sponsored by Zacapa, wasintroduced to encourage restaurants to consider the environmentalimpact of serving world-class cuisine. It focuses on three aspectsof a restaurant’s activities: sourcing, the environment and socialresponsibility. That the award went to Narisawa is impressive asthe restaurant is not located in the countryside, nor does it grow itsown vegetables or rear any animals. Narisawa is situated in the busyMinato-ku district of central Tokyo and depends on a network ofsuppliers for its tip-top ingredients.

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

“One of the key aspects of preparing food is the respect we musthave for the land and the people who work on it,” Narisawa says. “Ideal exclusively with local purveyors – from the organic farm that growsmy vegetables to the foragers who bring me wild mushrooms and otherplants from the meadows and forests. Only that way can we begin tounderstand the culture behind food production.”

Each morning a stream of delivery men arrives, bringing the justpickeditems the chefs will work with that day. “Nothing is thrown awayin my kitchen, nor is anything pre-prepared or held for the next day,”says the chef, as he inspects bundles of branches, roots, berries andleaves as they arrive. His brigade of young perfectionists quickly cleansand stores the produce but almost nothing—aside from patisserie andconsommés—is pre-cooked. Most ingredients are only cut after thecustomers are seated in the dining room. “The most important thingfor 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 fishmarket], I’ll never need to go there again,” he confided. “I prefer aset-up where the small fishermen and growers are not cut out of theprofits and where there’s a greater range of vegetables that have notbeen produced industrially. I’m interested in the dialogue between achef 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 scenewas quite different from Tsujiki. On a wide landing overlooking the opensea, a clutch of small fishing boats displayed their live catches in basinsof clean, running water. The fishermen greeted Narisawa as a friendas he inspected the fish, signalling those he wanted reserved for him.“They understand my needs so I don’t have to come too often; theysend 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 trainingin Europe. When they started, Yoshihiro prepared and cooked all thefood while Yuko waited on tables. They shared the dishwashing. “Forthe first three years, few people came,” Yuko recounts. “Then it tookoff and soon it was impossible to get a table.” Their clients included topdesigners 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 andgrandfather were bakers, with a salon de thé and pastry shop. At 18,Yoshihiro took off to learn his trade abroad, avoiding the rigid Japanesekitchen hierarchy that can be so difficult to progress in. He did stagesof 18 to 24 months in several legendary restaurants, including FrédyGirardet in Switzerland, Joël Robuchon in France and Antonio Santìn’sAntica Osteria del Ponte, near Milan in Italy, before returning to Japanto open his own.

Narisawa’s cooking style is unique. He may have been trained inthe structure and techniques of classical French cuisine, but there’snothing French about what he does with it. He has developed apersonal language through food to speak about what concerns himmost: nature and our relationship with it.

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

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

From this poetic representation of sylvan diversity—and our needto heed and attend to it—it’s not too big a jump to ask the eater toswallow a delicately flavoured brown broth that captures the essenceof Narisawa’s favourite terroir. His ‘soil soup’ is just that: a taste of therich loam of his favourite organic farm. “This is my starting point, thepure energy of the land from which we all take our nourishment, andthat 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 hismother’s Ikebana arrangements have left their mark—or theculinary—where he remains an avant-garde classicist—to thespheres of art and philosophy. Without ever losing sight of howgood food should taste and why.