Heather Sperling: Why did you choose Tokyo as the location of your restaurant?
Yoshihiro Narisawa: I was not based in Tokyo before I opened this restaurant. But this is the center; there are so many artists, artisans, musicians, painters, architects. Tokyo is really the center of Japan, and you can walk only a few minutes away and see so many different talents. The restaurant is also in the center of Tokyo, so it’s a perfect location. So that’s why I chose Tokyo in 2003.
HS: What is the philosophy behind the restaurant?
YN: Everyone is under stress here—life is so fast-paced. So I wanted to create a place where people could relax. Instead of comparing myself to other restaurants, I wanted to make a unique place that is really my own, from the cuisine to the atmosphere. I had to find things that are truly mine, that can only be made by myself.
My credo is not to copy what others are doing. So I designed the restaurant, the kitchen, everything. My wife and I own the restaurant—it is our third child. The service, interior, décor is very comfortable, but what’s on the plate should be very exciting and emotional.
HS: What is your clientele like? Is it mainly Japanese? Do you get many international guests?
YN: We have so many repeat guests; they often come once a month as regulars. We do have tourists that come to Tokyo to eat, but the number is very small still.
If I was to compare it to European culture, which I know very well, I’d say it’s rare for people to return to haute cuisine restaurants very often…but we have people that frequent our restaurant every few weeks. Somehow I end up having the same faces show up every month, instead of once a year. I have a regular who resides in New York, but comes back to Tokyo to eat at my restaurant, which is a great honor. Same with Singapore and Hong Kong. So for them I really want them to feel special, make it an outstanding experience.
As far as perfecting each plate, what’s on the plate, it takes a lot of stress to make sure that every month they can come back for an entirely new experience, from beginning to end. I have to surprise and satisfy them every time! I want to try something different, but I don’t want to go too far in the direction of novelty. Fundamentally I want them to relax here. The balance is the key. I struggle with this sometimes.
HS: How many covers do you do per night?
YN: We only do one seating a night of up to 25 people. We don’t turn the tables.
HS: What other chefs are cooking what you consider to be modern cuisine in Japan?
YN: Seiji Yamamoto at RyuGin…Other than that, not many people who are based in Japan are looking beyond Japanese borders.
HS: You served us dishes with themes—earth, sea, fire. Do you keep these themes year-round but change the dishes?
YN: Yes. Right now we’re approaching springtime, so we’ll be working with cherry blossoms. The petals are edible—they have an almost almond-like flavor. As you go towards the mountains, the riverbeds are covered with a blanket of petals, and underneath, in the river, will be baby ayu [sweet fish]. Come May, I want to express something with the cherry blossoms and the sweet fish.
I want to capture scenery—I’m painting a canvas and representing nature. Every ingredient captured on my plate is living and breathing. And because it’s on a plate, it needs to be perfectly balanced with flavors, drinks, etc.
HS: Most of your ingredients come from Japan, especially the vegetables. Is there much organic produce here? How easy is it to find great product?
YN: All my vegetables come from organic growers who have been certified as organic. But a lot of farmers will do it for a few years and then say they’re organic, so I only get food from growers who have been organic for at least a decade or two, to be sure they’re really organic.
HS: So the meaning of “organic” is in flux, just like in the United States.
YN: Yes—the term organic is really ambiguous. In Japan, sometimes things can be, like, half organic, but can still get certification. There’s no clear path. The health ministry doesn’t have a set system and criteria yet, and there’s no strong legislation. So I have to trust my instinct! I don’t trust wholesalers, so I only buy from the farmers directly, and the fisherman. We actually have a pool below the restaurant where we keep live fish, langoustines, and prawns that are delivered early in the morning each day from a few fishermen who I work with.
HS: Tell me a bit more about the ash, called “sumi,” that coats the beef. It’s made with Japanese charcoal?
YN: “Charcoal” doesn’t really express the word “sumi”—it’s a Japanese charcoal made from charred vegetables, but it’s also more conceptual. It doesn’t have any CO, so there’s none of the smell.
The char has cleansing power. You can’t eat too much—it’s not good for your stomach and intestines if you have too much, but a small amount can cleanse your system. Some tribes will eat raw soil for the same reason.
HS: I’ve read that you spent years developing the “arroser” technique that you use on pigeon. What is the foundation of that technique?
YN: I wanted to find a way to keep the pigeon very rare but with very crisp skin. I destroyed hundreds of pigeons figuring it out!
What is important for me is the skin. The cells in the skin should not break as we cook it; high temperature will ruin the surface and the collagen around the skin. We still have to eliminate the fat under the skin—need to somehow make it drip out. It’s seared in a frying pan for only a few seconds, in a very thin sheet of oil. I want to keep the center of the meat frozen, almost—very cold.
Red meat, especially fowl, shouldn’t exceed 60ºC (140ºF). So we want to keep the meat under 60ºC, while crisping the skin, eliminating the fat, and keeping the inside barely touched. Right before serving, we sprinkle the skin with trehalose, an all-natural sweetener, and caramelize it with a torch. Sometimes I can achieve this through sous vide, but the flavor is not exactly the same.
My goal for that pigeon is to keep the meat about 55ºC (130ºF) until the very end, then raise it briefly to 80ºC (175ºF), and have the most crispy skin attached. The skin is so crispy, but underneath it’s so tender and juicy. It’s difficult, but almost magical.