Chewin’ the Fat with.... Natsuko Shoji

Chewin’ the Fat with.... Natsuko Shoji

Asia’s Best Pastry Chef 2020 creates fascinating parallels between food and fashion. She tells us of her work, winning the title and the effects that COVID-19 is having on business

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Foodie  Foodie Your Guide to Good Taste  on 19 Jul '20


What’s it like to be the first female Japanese chef to receive this award?

I’m very glad to have been acknowledged and to have my work recognised not only in Japan, but all throughout Asia, especially as a female chef. Throughout my career as a chef, I get asked often about how I feel being a female chef in a male-dominated industry by many of my peers. Many people think that this kind of job is only fit for men, because it’s not easy, it’s challenging and it’s physically gruelling, and that women are supposed to just stay home and do housework. This is the perception that I want to change. I believe that as long as you put your heart and soul into what you do, no matter how difficult it is, it can be achieved, and it can bring a high level of fulfilment. I have loved every single bit of being a female chef, and it will be my biggest achievement to have been perceived as equal to those great male chefs in the industry.


Why do you think it’s important to celebrate pastry as a culinary art form in itself?

To be a pastry chef, one needs special skills and techniques like sugar art, chocolate art, etc. It’s like an artist. So it’s important to celebrate and respect their skills. It’s good to appreciate the value they add to the culinary world.


How do you combine fashion and food to produce elegant confections?

Originally, my mother and I are very interested in the fashion world, and this is where I get my inspiration from to create cakes. I get inspiration from fashion; I look at fashion icons and trends and express them via fruit. For example, my peach cake is inspired by my mother’s love for Chanel. I took inspiration from Chanel’s Matelassé bags and their diamond-shaped stitching, cutting peaches and arranging them in a similar design. I hope to translate the world of haute couture to cakes.


What are some of your favourite projects or recipes that you’ve created over the years?

I remember when I was in junior high, I was so shocked to see Takashi Murakami’s artwork with Louis Vuitton at the shop window. After opening été [her Tokyo restaurant], one of my goals was to collaborate with him. And I just recently had the privilege to collaborate in creating a special mango cake and a box of chocolate.

Mango Topi by Natsuko Shoji


Along with your popular cakes, you also have a small restaurant. What made you venture over to the savoury side?

When I first opened été, I was 24. I thought, it’s really hard to do a restaurant business, because I was inexperienced, I was not famous, I was young and I was just a female cook. That means it was going to be difficult hiring any staff and finding customers. So I started été as a unique tart shop. There are many beautiful, high-quality seasonal fruits in Japan. Many people from overseas come to Japan to taste Japanese fruits. I am very proud of this. After the success of été’s cake business, I started serving food for my cake customers only. It’s like a special invitation to fashion events. After you become a local customer, you get invited to dine at été’s private restaurant.


What effect is the coronavirus having on your work and your restaurants in Tokyo?

All the overseas customers have cancelled their reservations. Fortunately, my restaurant is really small, just one table, so I don’t have to get any ingredients far in advance, so there is no waste. Honestly, it is better for us chefs to close our restaurants. But in Japan, there is no guarantee for the F&B industry from the government. We still need to work to pay rent, support the staff and their family. No matter how dangerous and risky it is during such a crisis, we chefs still have to prepare food from early morning, commute and go through our everyday routine the same way.


Do you think that social media helped you to highlight your work to a wider audience?

Yes, absolutely. It’s really important to be a master of all the social tools, especially Instagram. Everyone holds everything in the palm of their hands with their smartphone. Instagram is like your personal business profile; nobody really goes to a website anymore. When I post something, the response is really quick, and it reaches out to the world very quickly.


Who are your heroes in the F&B world?

Chef Hiroyasu Kawate of Florilège. To keep in mind that the guests are top priority, no matter what it takes. The guests deserve the most perfect experience every single time. Kawate-san taught me this, and I appreciate it more and more each day as I have my own restaurant now.


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