Narisawa Yoshihiro is to Japanese cuisine what his good friend René Redzepi is to that of Scandinavia, a creative wizard who blends avant-garde risk-taking with technological brilliance and old-school wisdom, a maverick who is just as happy foraging through virgin forests as cooking up a storm at his Michelin 2-star restaurant in the chic urban jungle of Aoyama.
Voted the ‘Best Chef in Asia” in the San Pellegrino/Restaurant Magazine awards, the Nagoya-born master chef studied under Robuchon and Girardet, before branching away from ‘pure’ French cuisine to create his own unique dishes, combining techniques and ingredients taken from French, Chinese, Japanese and Okinawan culinary traditions. His fabulous culinary imaginings include such items as “Essence of the Forest,” Luxury Essence,” “Hida Beef in Charcoal,” “edible twigs” and, most dramatically, “Soil Soup.”
“I am completely fascinated by nature and our relationship to it.
Through my cuisine I want to transport people back through time, to where they can enjoy the communion that we once felt with the natural world, with the forests and the crystal-clear mountain streams, and the bounteous oceans.”
The lengths that Narisawa goes to in order to achieve this culinary time-travel are remarkable. Most eye-catching is his collaboration with a farmer atop a mountain in central Nagano Prefecture to “create a soil so pure that it becomes edible.” The master-chef laughs when I suggest that he must have had a hard time running that past the Tokyo health and safety inspectorate.
“We tested it for every microbe, bug or virus known. I can assure you it’s pure enough to eat.” I ask if he was the kind of kid who put dirty fingers in his mouth and quite enjoyed the experience. He whole-heartedly nods in agreement. “To some extent I wanted to make soup from soil simply to see if it could be done. Once you get into that mindset, it’s hard to stop. I guess you’d say I was always ready to experiment, and always ready for a good meal!”
Narisawa generously treated this reviewer to his full tasting menu, sixteen courses of pure genius. The soil soup, interesting as it was, was rather too ‘soily’ for my personal taste, but everything else was absolutely magnificent. I loved the mysterious “Essence of the Forest,” which I can only describe as ‘lichen caviar,’ and the “Luxury Essence” was akin to drinking pure rainwater falling from a goblet made of truffles.
The maverick chef’s avant-garde credentials were never in doubt, but he can also do the classics standing on his head. The melt in your mouth squid, cooked on the bone and the langoustines were superb, but it was the Buta no Kaku Ni Roasted Pork, Okinawan-style, that took my breath away. The sweet and tender flesh contrasting with a deep, smoky, complex broth was intoxicating.
“John-san, can you guess the broth base?” he asks. I am on the spot, konbu kelp for sure, but there is something in there that I can’t pin down. Light, but deep. That smokiness, but not the strong smokiness of agodashi flying fish broth, something gentler, but quite remarkable. I give in, and Narisawa chortles gleefully, “Snake, Okinawan sea snake!” I suppose I should have guessed!
Postcript: a short time after I conducted the interview, I still couldn’t get that meal out of my mind, in particular the sea snake broth. There was nothing else for it; I had to avail myself of said reptile. A friend heading down to Okinawa for a romantic getaway was coerced into dragging her boyfriend around Naha’s central market until the serpent was procured. All that remained was for me to learn how to, er, cook it. Time passed, and the other half of the Ashburne household was heard intoning, on more than one occasion, “When are you going to get that snake out of my fridge?” Recipe books were not helpful, so I dropped Narisawa-san a quick email. Could he, I wonder, perhaps give me just a little advice? Within a day, the full cooking instructions for his “Pork in Essence of Sea Snake” were in my inbox. It’s not every day that a 2-star Michelin chef lets you know his secrets. Clearly Narisawa is a gentleman as well as a genius. Bon Appetit, Maestro!
That said, snake still in fridge.
A version of this article first appeared in ‘Beyond the Chopping Board: Master Chefs ponder the Meaning and Value of Food’ by John F. Ashburne in Kyoto Journal #83, ‘FOOD!’. It is reproduced with kind permission of the publishers. Kyoto Journal is an award-winning non-profit volunteer-based quarterly magazine established in 1986 offering insights from Kyoto, Japan and all of Asia.
Photographs by John F. Ashburne.