Shinobu Namae | The Francophile in Tokyo

06 Dec 2015
5 min read
Melinda Joe visits one of Japan’s best French restaurants at L’effervescence to meet its pioneering chef, Shinobu Namae, as seen in FOUR International edition…

Changes are afoot at L’effervescence, the contemporary French restaurant in Tokyo helmed by Shinobu Namae. At the end of July, the restaurant will close for 45 days to undergo a major refurbishment. The plans for expansion will double the kitchen space, and the light colour scheme of the main dining room—the blonde wood, cream-colored walls, and backlit bubble-patterned glass panels—will soon be replaced with darker, earthier tones reminiscent of “the inside of a Japanese farmhouse or a sakagura (sake brewery),” the chef told me, tracing an outline of the layout on the table with his fingers. The description evoked images of stately wooden structures that have stood for centuries in the lonely Japanese countryside. “We want to express how we’re getting older, in a good way,” he said. L’effervescence will reopen on September 14, the restaurant’s fifth anniversary, and the new ambience will reflect the kind of maturity that comes with age.

Over the years, the cuisine has evolved along with Namae’s life experience, and the restaurant has gone from strength to strength. In the early days, his cooking was marked by playfulness and a quirky exuberance. His apple pie, for example — puff pastry filled with stewed fruit and beef cheeks—came in a red paper box that referenced another famous specialty—from McDonald’s. These days, the dishes at L’effervescence display a more contemplative quality. Roasted takenoko (bamboo shoot), resting in a puddle of umami-rich Napa cabbage extract, is paired with monkfish liver and raw wakame seaweed, illustrating the transition from winter to spring. Japanese flavours, which had been largely absent, have become more prominent as Namae has grown more confident in his culinary identity. The chef has one foot in the French kitchen, with the other firmly rooted in the terroir and traditions of Japan, and the food he creates feels like a dialogue between Asian and European culture.

“I try to think universally, but I work in a way that shows the local perspective,” he explained. “For our overseas guests, our restaurant is an entry point to Japanese food culture. But because we use ordinary ingredients in different ways that push boundaries, we can show our Japanese customers new aspects of local products.”

Recently, the accolades have been tremendous. L’effervescence climbed to the 12th position on San Pellegrino’s list of 50 Best restaurants in Asia after earning two Michelin stars in December, and Namae, who also runs the bistro La Bonne Table in Tokyo, has become the focus of worldwide attention. Tall and slim, he has intelligent eyes and a manner that is at turns jokey and serious. The Yokohama native is soft-spoken but surprisingly garrulous and perfectly at ease with public speaking. The upcoming months will see him jetting around the globe to participate in various gastronomical events. In April, he’ll present at the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor conference in Napa Valley, before traveling to Taiwan to do a collaboration dinner with Lanshu Chen of Le Moût. This autumn, he will share the podium with Alice Waters to talk about sustainable fishing practices at Asio Gusto, Slow Food’s first symposium in Asia, which will take place in South Korea.

Shinobu Namae hadn’t always planned on becoming a chef. He started cooking in university, at a popular pasta chain, while working toward his degree in political science and social psychology. The colourful names and the stories behind Italian classics like bachi de dama piqued his curiosity, and he quickly discovered that food could be a window onto culture. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to understand Italy and proper Italian cuisine,” he said. Instead of attending culinary school, he immersed himself in books about food and cooking, often experimenting with ingredients at home in his tiny kitchen. “Every day I had off, I would go to the bookstore and read because no one would teach me how to cook,” he recalled. After a few years, he had honed his skills sufficiently to land a job at the restaurant Aquapazza in Tokyo, where he learned the importance of high-quality ingredients and developing relationships with producers.

But the real turning point came during a visit to New York. Wandering into a bookshop in Manhattan, he stumbled upon “Bras,” the cookbook by Michel Bras. It was a moment of epiphany. The French chef’s culinary philosophy, he says, encapsulated “everything that I was trying to do.” Namae was moved by Bras’s relationship to the landscape and inspired by his intuitive approach to cooking. Moreover, the story of Bras himself—a self-taught chef who went on to become one of the most influential figures in gastronomy—resonated deeply with him. When he heard of a possible opening at Michel Bras Toya Japon, in Hokkaido, he sent multiple letters in hopes of getting an interview. Finally, he was called in for a one-week trial and was offered a position in the kitchen.

After five years at Michel Bras Toya, he left Japan to work as a sous-chef at the Fat Duck in Brae. There, he learned modernist techniques that he would later incorporate into his cuisine at L’effervescence. “I thought it would be a good idea to work in a totally opposite way to how we were cooking at Toya,” he told me. “Michel Bras creates dishes from nature, but Heston Blumenthal can analyse things from a scientific point of view.” Namae’s style of cooking combines the soul of Bras with the wit of Blumenthal in a way that is uniquely his own. “Now I know who I am and what I can do,” he said.

In recent days, the chef has also been turning his attention to matters outside of the kitchen, lending support to initiatives that aim to raise awareness about organic farming and sustainable food production in Japan. “It’s the chef’s job to promote the producers,” he observed. This May, he will cook at an event as part of a new project to revive fallow fields in Hayama, about an hour outside of Tokyo. Just after that, he’ll join a farming festival in Miyagi Prefecture, where other chefs have turned abandoned fields into vineyards. Last year Namae, along with nine of Japan’s top chefs, launched the Itadakimasu Project, a symposium that brought together producers, restaurant industry professionals, and journalists to share ideas about the future of food. The event, which took place in the bucolic town of Kiyosato, in Yamanashi Prefecture, culminated in a spectacular collaborative dinner, with each chef preparing one dish. Namae is currently working on the second edition of the Itadakimasu Project, which will be held next year.

“Through food we can connect,” he reflected. “We can talk about life, nature, art, time, and love…anything and everything.”

I thought of this as I ate his signature dish, a golf-ball-sized Japanese turnip cooked sous-vide for four hours until perfectly tender and juicy. It’s deceptively simple. The root vegetable is sliced in half and then seared in butter, served with parsley puree and dehydrated crumbs of Basque ham and brioche. But the turnip is different every time I have it—sweeter in the winter and sharper in the spring. This time, I noticed something new. Viewed from above, the two halves, which had been rejoined at an angle, looked as though they were locked in a warm embrace.

Find out more about Shinobu Namae