A man for all seasons
Pushing the envelope on contemporary Italian cuisine in Tokyo, Luca Fantin shares his fascination with tradition and how Japan changed his appreciation for seasonal produce at Il Ristorante – Luca Fantin with Eve Tedja.
The luminous Bvlgari Ginza Tower stands tall in the middle of the luxury shopping district of Ginza, Tokyo. Home to the largest Bvlgari store in the world, the building also houses one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 on the 9th floor. Ranked at number 28, the Il Ristorante - Luca Fantin received the recognition for its ingenuity in integrating the deceptive simplicity of Italian cuisine with Japan’s seasonal bounty of ingredients. This fruitful marriage produces four seasonal menus throughout the year. There are delectable dishes such as Tagliatelle with Raw Lobster for autumn (a dish bathed in a broth made of crustacean bits) and Risotto with Radicchio and Red Wine Sauce for winter. The latter layers Japanese-grown radicchio and rice with a touch of Italian flavour.
Luca Fantin is the indomitable force behind the restaurant. Born in Treviso, Italy, Fantin trained at some of the world’s most legendary kitchens, such as Cracco in Milan, Gualtiero Marchesi’s Hostaria dell’orso in Rome, Akelarre and Mugaritz in Spain, and Le Pergola in Rome. Among its several accolades, Il Ristorante – Luca Fantin received one Michelin star in 2011 and Fantin himself was awarded Best Italian Chef in the World in 2014 by the Italian culinary guide, Identità Golose. The restaurant’s first entry into the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 singularly placed it in a unique position, as it is the only restaurant out of 11 from Japan which is led by a non-japanese chef.
Overseeing Bvlgari’s Il Café and Il Cioccolato in Osaka as well as Il Ristorante – Luca Fantin at Bvlgari Resort Bali, Fantin is also known for his collaborations in a series of Four Hands events with top toques, such as Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana, and, recently in Bali with Yoshihiro Narisawa of Narisawa. The latter resulted in an impressive eight-course wine pairing dinner, which included Fantin’s signature cold spaghetti with caviar to Narisawa’s roasted pineapple with dazzling Hibiki whisky and mango sorbet. “I spend a lot of my time in our headquarter kitchen in Ginza, experimenting with new ingredients and creating new menus with my team,” says Fantin. In the same kitchen, he has also created a map of Japan, identifying different ingredients from the north to the south islands as a way to mark the best ingredients for each season. What do you enjoy most from working with guest chefs through Four Hands events?
It’s the sharing and understanding of the different culinary styles and techniques. For the guest chefs, it is often a one-of-a-kind experience. A Four Hands dinner is not a showdown but more about how to create an overall exceptional experience. As such, I usually ask the guest chefs to decide on their dishes first before I complement their selection.
How has Japan changed you over the years?
I have lived in Japan for nine years and it has taught me a lot in terms of gastronomy and the way the Japanese always strive for perfection. This attention and continuous attempt to reach perfection down to the smallest details never cease to amaze me. I am also very inspired by the pervading obsession with the seasons. We also have the four seasons in Italy but we don’t obsess over it like the Japanese do. In Italy, you can find basic cooking ingredients all year long. Spring and autumn feel shorter and tightly squeezed between summer and winter. That’s not the case in Japan. Everything wondrously changes in every season, be it ingredients, packaging, colours, traditions, and rituals.
Is there a similarity between both culinary traditions that you are able to translate into the menu?
We share the same focus and appreciation of a particular ingredient in a dish. We let the texture and the flavour of the ingredient shine without the need for too much seasoning. While the foundation of Italian cuisine is based on olive oil and the Japanese is based on dashi, they are essentially similar. In Tokyo, what we do is to simplify the dish. There is no need to have too many different ingredients in a dish.
What you are currently working on at Il Ristorante – Luca Fantin? We have been experimenting with less popular meat and seafood cuts which will be featured on our new menu. It boils down to how you cook the meat, something we discovered when we experimented with tuna collar or Wagyu shoulder cuts. Working on prime cuts is easier, but where is the challenge in that?