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The Future of Japanese Cuisine Lies in Nature, Says Yoshihiro Narisawa

Checking in with one of Tokyo’s best chefs

Sergio Coimbra/Courtesy Narisawa

Yoshihiro Narisawa is a chef deeply connected to his environment. All the ingredients used at his essential Tokyo restaurant Narisawa come exclusively from Japanese landscapes — except, maybe, chocolate, coffee, and some peppers. “I can’t conceive the idea of a chef separated from his own environment,” he says. “I always try to build close relationships with local producers and what they produce.”

By tapping Japanese fields and forests, Narisawa became internationally known for dishes like “Soil Soup,” a burdock root fried with earth, then simmered and strained to create a true taste of terroir and a Hida Wagyu beef rump roast rolled in a carbonized leek “powder,” making the outside of the beef appear like charcoal.

Narisawa calls this cuisine “innovative Satoyama,” referring to the Japanese population who lives in cities surrounded by forest and ocean, in close proximity to nature; many, as part of a cultural philosophy, take only the most necessary resources from the earth. Literally, sato is a place where people live, like a village or community, and yama means mountain: Together, they reference a limited space between sea and forests where people and nature coexist.

Narisawa decided to be a chef when he was 19 years old, and moved to France to work with some of the best chefs in the country, like Joël Robuchon and Paul Bocuse. In the late 1990s, he returned to Japan to open his first restaurant in Kanagawa. Years later, in 2003, he moved to Tokyo and opened Les Créations de Narisawa, shortened later to simply Narisawa as his focus turned away from French influence and more toward Japanese ingredients. The restaurant currently holds two Michelin stars, a consistent ranking on the World’s 50 Best list, and a spot on the Tokyo 38.

But later this year, Narisawa’s dishes will leave Japan for the first time — in the form of an exhibition and a book, that is. In partnership with the acclaimed Brazilian food photographer Sérgio Coimbra — who’s worked with chefs Pierre Hermé, Alex Atala, Michel Bras, and others — the Satoyama exhibit will open in September in Japan House, a cultural space the Japanese government recently debuted in São Paulo, the city with the largest Japanese population outside Japan. The exhibit will be open until November, when the chef plans to launch an eponymous book in English with over 300 pages — a collection of photos, recipes, and records of his trips to the interior of Japan.

Eater recently talked to Narisawa during the Biodiversidad Symposium. There, he talked about the cultural center he recently debuted in Kaga, the importance of local sourcing for chefs, and his plans to open new restaurants.

Your work is known for representing the natural environment and for local sourcing. How important is it for a chef to be linked with his own territory?

Yoshihiro Narisawa: All of the ingredients a chef is using to create his dishes come from nature, so it should be a common thing for a chef to prioritize what is within his reach. The preservation of nature is not only a way to preserve our food, it is the only way to preserve our own work. I can’t conceive the idea of a chef separated from his own environment.

My recipes represent what is going on in Japanese society right now, the social and environmental issues we face, because it’s all linked. They are an interpretation, a picture of this current moment. Of course my recipes are influenced by issues such as global warming, which made some of the ingredients rarer, or by the importance of thinking about how the next generations will cook, since some of our traditions are getting lost. As a Japanese citizen and chef, everything around me influences me, I can’t avoid it.

In addition to the recipes, have you been working on any projects to raise awareness about the environmental conservation of Japanese ecosystems?

In Japan, we are facing a high rural flight, with young people moving from the countryside to the cities, in search of better work opportunities and a modern life. I am committed to showing them the importance of rural work, to teaching them how to value the land they came from, so as to make them want to stay. I have been traveling to the fields to visit producers and to create a deeper relationship with them.

Recently, I opened a cultural center in Kaga, in the province of Ishikawa, to teach cooking classes to rural people and show them the importance of their work in the field to feed our nation, and to maintain an exchange with the countryside. It’s pretty recent, but we are getting great results. I’m developing this place also to sell food, all made by these people, like a local café. I hope we can do that really soon.

So, do you also believe that cooking schools should integrate environmental aspects beyond technical knowledge?

Absolutely. Nowadays, when you open a laptop, you can browse the internet and search for hundreds of recipes and how-to tutorials on cooking. Anyone can do this. These aren’t the important parts of making future chefs. We need to teach them how to face the issues that are going on in our food system, to preserve nature and to create not only recipes, but solutions for the problems we will inevitably have regarding the feeding of millions of people.

How do you see Japanese cuisine innovating in the next few years?

We need to know how to renew ourselves. Look at traditional French cuisine from 30 years ago, for example. It stayed somewhere in the past; it’s like a beautiful museum piece, which people still revere, but new French chefs went beyond that to create a renovated French cuisine.

The connection with our past is much less linked with techniques and culinary traditions passed down through generations. For me, it is more connected to looking at our environment and our landscapes and learning from them. Everyone should go to the fields and forests in search of innovation. The answer is there, not only for the innovation of Japanese cuisine, but for all cuisines in the world. And I see few youngsters doing that, at least in Japan.

You once said that you would like to open a restaurant outside Japan. How is that going?

I have received proposals to open restaurants abroad, but I do not have any plans right now. I’m focused on understanding my surroundings. But if one day I thought of opening one, it would be in a place with many potential ingredients; a country with a rich nature. I would use only local products, [so it] would differ from the work I do now. For me, it wouldn’t make sense to open a restaurant outside Japan to make Japanese food.

And are you planning to open a new place in Japan? Some years ago you created a pop-up food truck... Any plans to get back on the road?

I would love to open a casual business, to serve great and clear food, more affordable. Formal restaurants cost too much: furniture, dishware, decor, staff, etc. I would love to concentrate more on the ingredients than anything else, so that’s why I would choose a casual business, which has a more democratic approach. I would love to keep it open 24/7 to welcome all kinds of people, serving ingredients from all over Japan, and it would probably be in Tokyo, a city where this concept would make more sense.

This would be a turning point for me, since I could test the concept and then expand it to other venues around the country — and maybe the world. But now I’m really focused on making the Kaga café take off. This is my plan for now: create a place where people can cook and sell their food, all made with the ingredients they harvest themselves — to develop a local concept that goes beyond the local ingredients.

How will your first book and exhibition look like?

Satoyama is a project that I’ve been working on with Sérgio [Coimbra, a Brazilian food photographer] for more than three years. We traveled to the interior of Japan and we did many photos in the restaurant, to register my recipes. But the main thing about the book and also about the exhibition is to tell a message about the importance of Sotoyama culture.

We will publish an independent edition of the book in November. It will be in English first. I haven’t got any contract with a publishing house yet. Maybe one editor who sees the book can be interested in buying the rights to publish it in a commercial scale. It would be great, but it isn’t my main goal.

Narisawa [Official site]

Rafael Tonon is a Brazilian journalist and food writer based in São Paulo.