Shinobu Namae’s Tokyo restaurant, L’Effervescence (number 12 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2016 list), is booked out months ahead for the chef’s playful interpretation of modern French cuisine utilising seasonal Japanese ingredients. The chef can currently be seen on our screens on CNN’s latest edition of Culinary Journeys, here focusing on the rich history of Japanese hospitality, from their traditional tea ceremony to multi-course kaiseki meals.
Chef Namae sits down to learn about matcha tea
What inspired you to cook? And what is your culinary philosophy?
Cooking is all about making something by hand to make someone happy. My philosophy is to be sincere to everything around you and to love who you are and what you do.
You hold a diploma in politics from one of the top universities in Japan, Keio University, but it’s not a career you pursued. Becoming a chef must have been quite an interesting journey for you. Can you tell us about it?
A lot of people have been asking me this question, but it was quite natural for me to get into the world of cuisine. When I was studying, I needed to earn money to support myself. So I started working part time at an Italian restaurant at night and went to school in the morning. I needed to survive, and this job fed me a delicious and warm meal at the end of the day. That was my starting point and it was really simple. I love people, I am interested in social science, and I wanted to understand people’s differences in different aspects including culture, generation, gender, religion, etc. Learning politics was all about how to cope with these differences. And now finding the beauty of different food cultures is another way to fulfil my interest.
Why have you decided to do French instead of Japanese cuisine?
My mentor, Michel Bras, is a French chef and I was interested in learning something different, so I started from European cuisine.
You’ve had experience in the kitchens at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and Michel Bras’ three-Michelin-starred restaurants – what did you learn from your time there?
Both chefs are unique and have extreme curiosities about nature and science. They are both self-taught chefs, creating dishes from nature.
What does Michelin recognition mean to you?
It’s good to be recognised, but I try to be humble and generous. I don’t mind being called a celebrity chef, but I still am who I am.
Tell us about your ‘culinary journey’ on CNN. What was the highlight of this journey?
Through this journey, I would like to show the very unique Japanese hospitality made by Japan’s historical background, beautiful landscape and craftsmanship. I travelled to Kyoto to meet two kaiseki chefs and a tea master. I completed the journey at a sake brewery in Chiba with more than 300 years’ history. I thought I already knew many beautiful aspects of Japanese food culture, and I realised again it’s a never-ending journey to discover all of them.
Highlights are everywhere from this journey, but I would say each person whom I introduce to the audience not only cares about the details of their craft but also cares about the people they encounter and serve. Our warm-hearted hospitality is the most unique thing here in Japan.
Chef Namae picnics amongst rice fields at organic sake brewery Terada Honke
In CNN’s Culinary Journeys, you went to Kyoto to discover the best-quality Japanese green tea, and the tea ceremony is integral in the dining experience at your restaurant, L’Effervescence. Tell us about the importance of tea in Japanese dining culture.
The traditional Japanese fine-dining experience, kaiseki, was originally the meal served in the context of the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony gives you a precious moment of encountering with other guests. A good cup of tea makes people united; it has a magical power. The tea ceremony is an important dining experience at my restaurant because it’s a symbol of unity and peace as well as caring for one another.
If we gave you a blank cheque, where would your dream culinary journey take you and what would you do there?
Ethiopia: the starting point of the great journey of every human being. I believe I could find something very important in this country of many tribes. And I am interested in gursha – grabbing a morsel of food and placing it into the mouth of someone else at the table. Then the person you have just honoured with a gursha returns the favour. It’s about making the friendship and love stronger. Ethiopia has great coffee, too.
What do you usually like to cook when you’re at home?
Something simple like vegetables with some seafood. And I enjoy having sake and wine.
The remaining episodes of CNN’s Culinary Journeys: Shinobu Namae can be seen in Hong Kong on Saturday, 27 August at 7:30pm, Sunday, 28 August at 12:30pm and Monday, 29 August at 11am (channel 74 i-Cable/channel 316 nowTV).
Thanks to CNN and Culinary Journeys for helping to provide the content of this article.