Is this Asia's El Bulli?

Yoshihiro Narisawa's Tokyo restaurant has just been voted the best in the East – and conventional it is not. David McNeill meets a chef with a taste for soil, charcoal and bark
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Indy Lifestyle Online

In Tokyo's crowded gastronomic landscape, restaurant-de-jour and critics' choice Les Créations de Narisawa enjoys perhaps the city's loftiest reputation. Seven years after unleashing its idiosyncratic blend of Japanese and French eating on the capital, Les Créations has already taken its place in the pantheon of culinary greats, alongside a handful of establishments in Europe and the US.

The two-star Michelin winner has just been voted Asia's top eatery in the San Pellegrino World's Best 50 Restaurants List, the planet's leading international poll. Fans trek from across the world to sample its "unorthodox" treats, the word most often used by critics – including San Pellegrino's team of chefs and journalists – to describe the quirky menu, which is sprinkled with ingredients such as organic soil, charcoal and tree bark. Founder Yoshihiro Narisawa loves the description.

"Unorthodox means doing something that nobody else has done," says the 40-year-old chef as his small crew of waiters glides soundlessly around him and his working wife Yuko, ferrying tea and coffee. "A good restaurant should surprise people; make them sit up and take notice of the food and understand the message behind it. That's what we try to do."

That assessment only scratches the surface of Narisawa's famously obsessive attention to putting what he calls "nature on a plate". Although the food is ostensibly French, the menu is guided by the Japanese philosophy of shun, or using ingredients at their freshest and most seasonal: sweet-fish are topped with cherry blossom petals; sea snails peep out from beneath a layer of wild mountain vegetables, winter snow melts on top of buckwheat risotto.

Drawing on food from Japan's forests, including wild mushrooms, and cedar trees, his latest creations involved laboriously working with nutritionists to make sure they were edible. "Customers should fall under the spell of the season," he explains. "They should not only be eating a meal, they should absorb life itself – the smell, the texture and the taste of the landscape that produced the food."

Les Création's low-key ambience is the embodiment of its quiet-spoken, modest founder. Tucked in behind an office block in the up-market Aoyama district, its stark, black and white interior is dominated by a glass wall looking into the gleaming kitchen. The two-way view ensures nothing is hidden from the 25-seat dining room. "First of all, you should never lie to the customer. They can see everything, including what's inside the refrigerators. And food should be tailored to suit the individual. There's no point making the same dish for a 70-year-old man and a young man or woman."

Inside the kitchen, the chefs move with the same unfussy, noiseless efficiency as the waiters. The contrast with the high-octane antics of celebrity-chef contemporaries could hardly be greater. "I just don't think that approach is conducive to imaginative creativity," says Narisawa with a faint smile. "I like the atmosphere to be efficient but relaxed. Besides, the customers can see what's going on and angry chefs are not very enjoyable to look at."

He is equally reserved in his praise of Tokyo haute cuisine, selecting Seiji Yamamoto RyuGin restaurant in the nightclub area of Roppongi from among the few doing anything truly creative with French food (see sidebar).

Catering is in Narisawa's blood. His grandfather was a maker of traditional Japanese sweets and his father ran a sweet and bread shop. The young Narisawa saw the obvious pleasure good food gave his father's customers, and at 19 he decided to study cooking in Europe, the "origins" of his father's trade, as he puts it. "I thought: why study it second hand. I should see it up close."

The quest put him in the kitchen of maestro Frédy Girardet, one of the most celebrated chefs of the 20th century. Girardet's Swiss restaurant was considered the best in the world, but many young chefs thought it madness to cook with him, recalls Narisawa. "The stress involved in keeping that reputation and your Michelin stars is enormous, and it filters down to everyone. He was extremely tough. At first I thought he was crazy."

Girardet's obsession with detail included trying every single piece of food that went out to the tables. "He would explode if the lobster sauce tasted the same every day," laughs Narisawa. "I thought the idea was to perfect the recipe but he would say, you have to judge with your tongue, not the amount of ingredients. So it had to be changed daily. There were 10 different sherbets and he would try them all. He could taste the difference in the sugar in fruit and would say, 'Don't get hung up on quantities, use your creativity and your palate.' His attention to changing the taste every day, and to the details of food has stayed with me."

Unlike many Japanese contemporaries, Narisawa returned to Tokyo, a city that, despite boasting four times more restaurants than New York is still oddly conservative in its approach to French food, he believes. "I felt I could express something different by introducing the best elements of Japanese cooking – the focus on the moment, on the strengths of the season – and blending it with what I learned in Europe." The result, he says, is neither French nor Japanese. "I think we're getting beyond the labels of "Italian" or "French" cooking and getting to a point where it's the person who creates the food that counts – that's why we're called Les Créations de Narisawa."

The restaurant retained its top Asian spot for the second consecutive year in the 2010 San Pellegrino poll, though it dropped four places overall. If Narisawa is feeling the pressure that made Girardet such a punishing mentor, he's not showing it, but he's not relaxing either. Six days a week the father of two is in the kitchen at 7:45 and rarely leaves before midnight. When not sweating over a stove or talking to customers he is out visiting his network of about 40 organic growers, strung across the country from Hokkaido to Kyushu.

"I trust them because I've gone to see most of their farms for myself. I've even planted and dug crops with them. Food is not just about eating. It should be about also remembering the environment and the soil that gave us what we put in our stomachs."

That philosophy, and his recent accolades have brought him a global following, including a growing number of admirers in China. With the fame comes invitations to set up outlets elsewhere, like Gordon Ramsay, who has lent his name to what has effectively become a global franchise. Narisawa will not be taking up any of those offers, he insists.

"To me it's like sports. Fans pay to see Ronaldo, not just the team he plays in. People come here to eat my food and see me work. I owe it to them to put on something special."

Les Créations De Narisawa, 6-15 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo.

Narisawa's own dining choices


Exclusive members-only establishment serving Japanese cuisine in Tokyo's Ginza district.


In Tokyo's Shinjuku district, serving Shanghai-style Chinese food.


Nagano Prefecture-based buckwheat noodle (soba) eatery.


A banquet-style restaurant in Kyoto.


Upmarket Kyoto establishment serving Japanese food.