Yoshihiro Narisawa shares his deep love for the earth and why maintaining sustainability is mandatory in the world of gastronomy. By Eve Tedja
Yoshihiro Narisawa, Narisawa
On one of the coldest days of winter, Yoshihiro Narisawa recalled visiting a snow covered barren field in Nagano Prefecture. He was accompanied by a farmer who dug below the snow and showed him the soil where his chemical-free vegetables were planted. The soil has to be pristine and healthy for the vegetables to grow, the farmer told him. “I was wondering how can I convey this sense of purity and nature to my diners,” says Narisawa. This encounter prompted him to create the celebrated Soil Soup in 2001. It is one of Narisawa’s avant-garde signature dishes, where chopped burdock root and soil are fried together, brought to a boil and simmered before they are strained. It is a tribute to terroir and epitomises the concept of his innovative Satoyama cuisine aptly.
Yoshihiro Narisawa, who comes from a lineage of chefs, grew up by the ocean, surrounded by the mountains on the Chita Peninsula in Aichi Prefecture. Like many other top Japanese chefs, he first perfected his skills at venerated European kitchens. Having trained under Paul Bocuse, Joël Robuchon, Frédy Girardet, and Ezio Santin, he headed back to Japan at the age of 26. By 2003, he had opened Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo, which was eventually renamed as Narisawa. He coined his cuisine as innovative Satoyama as a way to pay homage to his homeland where the forest, mountain and people coexist in harmony.
Located in the quiet and sophisticated neighbourhood of Minami-aoyama, the restaurant is minimalist in decor and almost monochrome in colour. Guests are treated to a seasonal 15-course tasting menu, paired with the finest Japanese wines and sakes.
For a few hours, they get connected to nature through a parade of visually stunning dishes, such as Satoyama Scenery and Water Salad. Almost all the produce are Japanese by origin and crafted to express their roots, telling a captivating story about the land, history, farmers, fishermen and culture.
Narisawa’s deep respect for the environment, responsibility toward nature and focus on sustainability are in part why Narisawa currently holds two Michelin stars and is listed at number 22 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 list.
I hear that you are often found foraging across Japan. How does that affect your way of cooking?
The first step, which I am still practicing today, is to observe the actual place where the ingredients grow.
We can discover many things from it. I am able to see what is necessary to do as a professional chef in this field. The ingredients and the environment where they grow are vital and valuable in forming my decision. I visit farms and forage in many parts of the country, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. Each region has its own unique features. Often time when I forage, I find ideas. The idea for Water Salad was found when I came across a tiny spring beside a mountain where wild wasabi, parsley and watercress grew under the nature’s blessing, undisturbed by human’s intervention. I wish that the future generation would be able to experience this tiny piece of natural perfection.
You must come across new ingredients quite often. What was your last interesting find?
There are so many ingredients that people do not eat today but used to consume in the past. The ingredient itself is not new, but the knowledge on how we can use it is often forgotten and this threatens its existence. I’d make it relevant to the current dining lanscape with my style of cooking and, hopefully, inspire fellow chefs and gourmets. That is my mission.
One example is a dish that I created for a recent collaboration at Il Ristorante – Luca Fantin at Bvlgari Resort Bali. It is called Spiedo d’ anatra marinata alla soia cotto al carbone, where I use kuromoji (Lindera umbellata) stick to attach the duck meatloaf. In the past, kuromuji was used as toothpicks for its fragrant aroma.
As the first winner of the Sustainable Restaurant Award at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013, Narisawa has plenty of lessons to share with the rest of the gastronomy world. What are your challenges?
The most important lesson is to realise that as chefs we have to acknowledge that we have limited resources and ingredients.
Our environment is turning for the worse. With this fact in mind, chefs are required to think carefully of the impact and the contribution that they are making. The thing about nature is that everything is connected, from the soil to the dish that we serve to our guest. What happens in the forest will end up in the ocean. When we maintain our Satoyama and produce, it will directly influence the condition of seafood that we eat. It is our duty to not only focus on one type of ingredient because we forget that there are limits to this resource. The environmental issues are fully related to food and the choices we make as chefs. Therefore, we are obliged to be mindful on what we create. We are always aware of these aspects at Narisawa.
How massive is the change that you face compared to when you started off as a chef?
Until about 30 years ago, we could find ingredients easily, especially in the developed countries. Chefs only needed to have basic techniques, knowledge and plating styles, and they would be able to present their dishes suitably. Now, abalone and lobster are getting harder to find as our ocean gets warmer and climate changes. For centuries, we have tamed nature through farming, but there are many aspects that we can’t control, things that grow in the wild and are currently threatened because we take them for granted or destroy them all together.
We are facing massive environmental changes, scarcity and even extinction of some species. This happens globally, not just in Japan. I strongly believe that this is the moment for us to take the big steps and move forward together.
Is there a way to prevent this environmental catastrophe?
Go back to the roots, the origin of your culture. Seek the elders, the indigenous tribes and learn from them. Humans have always been very close with nature and we used to respect it so much more in the past when we didn’t have electricity and gas. Other than that, talk to your farmers. Show them your appreciation because they are the one who are having the toughest time.
Often, I tell the farmers whom we work with on how we cook their produce and how our guests are appreciating them. This will motivate them. The key is appreciation.
The interior of Narisawa in Tokyo
Tsubaki & Koji Sumi Soil Soup Water Salad