NOT THERE YET

Ja­panese chef Yo­suke Suga at the top of La Liste says he yet to reach great­ness

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES -

Yo­suke Suga does not be­lieve he is a great chef - not yet any­way.

The sta­tis­tics tell a dif­fer­ent story. The fresh-faced Ja­panese cook is at the very top of La Liste, the most sci­en­tific of all the world's culi­nary rank­ings.

Suga shares the top spot with culi­nary gods such as France’s Guy Savoy and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York, the best friend of the late leg­endary food icon Anthony Bour­dain.

While both Savoy and Ripert have the max­i­mum three Miche­lin stars, Suga doesn’t even have one yet for Su­gal­abo, his tiny 20-seat restau­rant hid­den away behind a cof­fee house in Tokyo’s Az­abu­dai district.

Which makes his rapid rise all the more re­mark­able given that La Liste ag­gre­gates re­views from the world’s top guides, news­pa­pers and web­sites.

But Suga (43) in­sists he is not quite there yet.

“I don’t have a sig­na­ture dish so I am not yet a great chef,” he told AFP with­out a hint of false mod­esty just be­fore he was hon­oured at La Liste's gala din­ner in Paris re­cently.

Hav­ing been an as­sis­tant to the late French su­perchef Joel Robu­chon - the most starred ever - the bar has been set high. “One day I hope to be one,” he added.

But for now Suga is on a quest. Shrug­ging off the financial hit, ev­ery month he closes his restau­rant for three or four days so he can travel Ja­pan with his team looking for new in­gre­di­ents and pro­duc­ers.

Robu­chon’s ‘right arm’

He is af­ter hy­per-sea­son­al­ity, to get the very best in­gre­di­ents and cook them at just the right mo­ment.

“It is not like go­ing to the mar­ket. We try to un­der­stand why we should use a prod­uct now and not in a month's time,” he told AFP.

Last month that meant go­ing to the Ishikawa penin­sula in the west of Ja­pan for a par­tic­u­lar type of squid.

While there they found a va­ri­ety of lo­tus root just com­ing into sea­son.

“We made a stuff­ing from wild Ja­panese duck stew re­duced with Madeira wine and foie gras and then fried it wrapped in the grated lo­tus root. Had we not gone and met the farmer, we prob­a­bly would never have made this,” he said.

He never quite says it, but Su­gal­abo’s small size and fierce lo­cal fo­cus seem also to be some­thing of a re­ac­tion to the 17 years Suga spent glo­be­trot­ting as Robu­chon's ‘right arm’ - which in­cluded be­ing put in charge of the 100strong team of his two-star Tokyo restau­rant at just 25.

“Age is very im­por­tant in Ja­pan and it is not easy to give or­ders to peo­ple who are older than me,” the Ja­panese chef ad­mit­ted.

But Robu­chon, who was a man of very few words, clearly saw some of his own steel and pas­sion in his young pro­tege.

‘I am quite de­mand­ing’

“He didn't ex­plain much, he would just look at you, and it would pass like that, un­said,” Suga re­called.

“He was my master. He taught me so much,” he said, from the cut and tex­ture of a per­fect steak tartare to the clear beef and shell­fish con­sommes that took a dev­il­ish amount of tech­nique.

But most of all, ‘I learned that it was about work­ing so the cus­tomers come back’.

Suga struck out on his own in 2014 with a team of just five cooks, which has since grown to 12.

“I didn't know what I was go­ing to do at Su­gal­abo,’ he ad­mit­ted. “I just wanted to make the most sim­ple, es­sen­tial food - things I would want to eat my­self.” That meant largely turn­ing his back on French haute cui­sine and go­ing on a voy­age of dis­cov­ery back to his roots, seek­ing out the best of a coun­try he had left at 18.

“I love French food, but it just didn’t feel nat­u­ral with­out the same prod­ucts you would find in France.”

There were some things French, how­ever, that he could not bear to forgo - foie gras, wine and truffles.

"I learned so many things in France," said Suga, who comes from three gen­er­a­tions of chefs trained in the French classical tra­di­tion.

“It's a happy mar­riage” of food cul­tures, he added.

In­deed he has tempted back a for­mer col­league, Ryo Na­gashama, one of many young Ja­panese chefs who have made a name for them­selves in France, to head up a new restau­rant he is open­ing in Louis Vuit­ton's new bou­tique in Osaka in Fe­bru­ary. "He ac­cepted be­cause he is the only per­son who can work with me," Suga said, only half joking. I am quite de­mand­ing, like my master, and I put a lot of pas­sion and emo­tion into what I do.”

I just wanted to make the most sim­ple, es­sen­tial food - things I would want to eat my­self

Yo­suke Suga

At his restau­rant, Suga is af­ter hy­per-sea­son­al­ity, to get the very best in­gre­di­ents and cook them at just the right mo­ment

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