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“Sharing Japanese food culture to the world.” The series of interviews feature the vision of Pocket Concierge. We interview the chefs of the leading restaurants in Japan and introduce their thoughts on the restaurant and their way of thinking as a “top” chef.

Volume 6

“Nabeno-Ism” Mr. Yuichiro Watanabe

Mr. Yuichiro Watanabe had dedicated himself for 21 years to be at an executive chef position at a famous Michelin 3 star restaurant – Gastronomie Joel Robuchon  He opened his own restaurant – Nabeno-Ism in Asakusa, Tokyo last year. Using Asakusa related or originated ingredients in French cooking, his cuisine has been well-recognized immediately after the debut. The restaurant has already been awarded one star in the 2017 edition of Michelin Guide. In today’s interview, Mr. Watanabe shared his thoughts about the opening and his idea about restaurant creation with us.

Pick up topics
1. The challenge of integrating Edo food culture and French cuisine; opening the restaurant on the star festival day.
2. 21-year training at Joel Robuchon’s restaurant, the dream place since school days.
3. Nabeno-Ism, a restaurant of art with delicate stories on plates and dishes.

Nabeno-Ism chef

The challenge of integrating Edo food culture and French cuisine; opening the restaurant on the star festival day.

— I understand your restaurant opened on 7th July, 2016 at Asakusa Tokyo. The day is Tanabata (Japanese Star Festival, originating from the Chinese Qixi Festival).

Yes, the reason why I chose this day is that 7th July is the day of Tanabata, and it is easy for our customers to remember. Also because we are always conscious about “stars”. I thought starting on a star-related day would lead a good fortune. The story inside me is like there is a river of sky, and Sumida river running beside our restaurant. I just feel like it’s good to have shooting stars down from the starry heavens.

— Does the star mean Michelin star too?

That’s true. When I traveled to study in France, I always bought the Michelin Guide colored red. I have all the Japanese edition of Michelin Guide Books too. No matter during a trip or training, I always keep conscious towards restaurants with Michelin stars. While browsing through books, I would think about something like what if I worked at some restaurants, my ambitions are coming out of my mind. I become so excited every time I read the red books, just like getting back to my young days. And the new editions are published every year, so memories belongs each year. It’s just like footprints for me.

— I’m wondering whether Kamon (family crest) element on restaurant logo also symbolizes stars.

You mean Watanabe star, right? Looking into my family crest, the star in the middle of Orion’s belt is called Watanabe star, which sounds like a call of destiny. Following this good fortune, I made it into the restaurant logo, especially on the design of decorative plates. My ceramic artist friend made these decorative plates. Logo part on the outside is made of ceramic designed to suggest sealing stamp, the main part is made up of wood. The amuse of the course is served on the wooden under side. The line of two parts symbolizes the current of Sumida river, so we on purpose arrange it cross the line. And the amuse will definitely go with Gazpacho, placed in a dish with Watanabe-star logo. A black bowl express one big circle and three small orange bowls on the edge of black one express three small circles. Nabeno-Ism three color “black”, “orange” and “white”  are used when the black plate is filled up with ice.

Nabeno-Ism Show plate

Nabeno-Ism’s Show plate

— Why did you choose Asakusa as a location?

That’s due to the desire of challenging to combine French cuisine within Japanese food culture. Japanese food culture reached its heyday in Edo period. In Asakusa, it is well inherited. So here lays the root of Japanese food culture. For example, both my neighbors monaka(bean-jam wafer) and dojo(loach) have history of over 200 years. Asakusa’s history like this is still quite different even in Japan. Furthermore, located near river, beside a historic street, it fits my temperament. Refreshing and relaxing.

Nabeno-Ism Mr. WatanabeNabeno-Ism_Wishing stars pouring down from the starry heavens

21-year training at Joel Robuchon’s restaurant, the dream place since my school days.

— We know you have been working for quite a long time, nearly 21 years for Joel Robuchon.

I really like the old saying, “three years on a stone”, saying that perseverance prevails. Until now, each of my stay at different restaurants was very long. The first one, Le Maestro Paul Bocuse Tokyo, I have been there for 5 years, though I have been on training for a while elsewhere in France during the period; 10 years at Taillevent Robuchon, 11 years at Joel Robuchon. As for the reason why I stayed this long, that’s because the teaching from my dear master at Tsuji Culinary Institute. I graduated from a French culinary school, there was a master called Mr. Kinoshita, who I owed a lot. One day, I asked him that for a chef, how to think of the best timing to change a restaurant. But I actually was asking him when think of the future, we learn different genres, but how exactly to have one’s own restaurant. Then he said, stay there until you become the lead chef or the owner of a restaurant, one that cannot be replaced, that to be asked to stay for a little longer. To be one the Key Man there, to work until everyone is satisfied. And I just followed his words.

— What inspired you to start working at Joel Robuchon?

I met the chef Joel Robuchon when I was a student at Tsuji culinary Institute in France. The first Michelin 3- star restaurant I visited in Paris was JAMIN, run by Mr. Robuchon. I was totally shocked by his specialty– Gelée de Caviar crème de chou fleur (smooth cauliflower cream with caviar and crustacean jelly). Robuchon’s signature dish, which overlaps three layers of caviar and jelly of omal shrimp and mild cream of cauliflower, has been selected as one of the three great dishes of the 20th century. The moment I tasted it, I thought I want to know the secret of it. When that shock remained in my head, I worked at Paul Bocuse Tokyo. At that time, there was a rumor saying that Robuchon and Taillevent are running restaurant business together. Then, I told Master Kinoshita, I would like to work at Robuchon’s restaurant. Fortunately, I was introduced to Mr. Kawano Toru, who was then selected as a Japanese chef for Taillevent Robuchon and now the owner chef at MONNA LISA. I took an interview and became able to work there.

— What was the impression of Mr. Robuchon at that time when Taillevent Robuchon was just opened?

For Mr. Robuchon, Taillevent Robuchon was the first oversea branch since he started Gastronomie restaurant. In order to guarantee the same flavor as main restaurant in Paris, we received much pressure from Mr. Robuchon. Feeling like the engine being fully at its top gear, we were rebuked everyday. Everyone in the kitchen got shocked.

— How did you conduct the experiment of cuisines?

We did some, but basically it was made by Erik Bush Noir, the right-hand man of Mr. Robuchon, the first executive chef Morris Gillette, and Japanese chef Kawano Toru. Especially, Mr. Erik has been qualified as M.O.F (French state craftsman chapter). M.O.F exam is supposed to be held only once in four years and so difficult that only expert French chef can pass it . If you have this qualification, you can live on this in France. Everyone including Mr. Robuchon, tasted what Mr. Erick, Mr. Moriis, and Mr. Kawano made, and Mr.Robuchon made the final decision. His judgment  was strict. As a team, with the mission of making Parisian cuisine, we always carried responsibility, joy and tension, mixed with many things, including solidarity.

— What food philosophy did you learn from Mr. Robuchon?

He usually told me, “Don’t try difficult things, don’t mix more than 3-4 ingredients, value harmony and season ingredients to make them to be recognized eventually. Let beef to be tasted as beef, chicken as chicken. Respect the ingredients and season it to raise its origin flavor.”

And also he advised me to cook with love. “Cooking is the behavior with love.” was always his line. He had sharp palate and subtle identifications towards details. For example, “Is the fridge empty?” ,”Did you put butter without wrapping? “,”There must be an onion over there, right?”  We got rebuked quite often.

He also told us to pay attention to cleaning and other daily works. To fold the towels into square, put salt bottle back to its original position, to put the salt at the same handy place so that it will become more convenient when you make sauce. I always remember to pay attention to the Robuchon style.

Nabeno-Ism Mr. WatanabeNabeno-Ism_Tried Gelée de Caviar, wanted to know the secret of it.

Nabeno-Ism, a restaurant of art with delicate stories on plates and dishes.

— When you decide to open Nabeno-Ism, what kind of story and concept was in your mind?

Creation of restaurant cannot be boring. No need to say that food must be delicious, the most important thing is to have good service and atmosphere to make people want to visit again. So it is necessary to give a joy beyond our food delicacy. What I want to do is to create a comfortable space. Just like there are many customers staying quite long time at counter seats on the third floor. I feel really happy when they say, “Wow! It’s so comfortable. The view is so fantastic that I forget the time.”

The concept is to get customers interested in Asakusa. For example, getting out from Asakusa station, you will see lantern shops, handcraft shops, soba restaurants and dojo restaurants along the avenue. There are many craftsmen, so you would reach Nabeno-Ism while enjoying the walk around this area. And many people would visit Asakusa temple after lunch, to find kaminariokoshi (traditional Japanese rice crispy) that they had at Nabeno-Ism. I am thinking about making an Asakusa ingriedients map in the near future and I am working on it.

— Is there any concept contained in cuisine courses?

Lunch and dinner courses are slightly different in detail, but both have many concepts in the first three dishes. The concept for the first dish—Gazpacho, is the combination of region and restaurant. Marinate of green olive, with canapé in the middle, added by the mixture of kaminariokoshi and butter. It’s good to go with aperitif.

Nabeno-ism Amuse

Nabeno-ism’s Amuse Bouche

The second one is sobagaki (buckwheat dough ball), which is my signature dish. The symbol of soba flour (buckwheat) culture, in France, is the famous galette in Bretagne, from which that Japanese and French soba flour cultures are somehow connected. This was inspired by Mr. Robuchon, and rather, my wish to create a dish that can compare with Gelée de Caviar—the dish once completely shocked me. So it was actually a challenge for myself. Sobagaki for dinner comes with caviar, which is my original style to enjoy caviar. Also, this sobagaki is a dish that requires a high handling skills towards cooks. I use French Plaque (traditional French cooktop),  the pan has to be copper to convey heat effectively, and the whipper has to be silicon to avoid the metalic scent. Those three makes the best combination to create a perfect dish. Also, I consider the signature dish is something like people might immediately figure out who made it, so it’s necessary to make an impact to make our guests say, “This is the very dish of Nabeno-Ism! ” Speaking of Mr. Paul Bocuse, we think of Suzuki’s wrapped in pie pastry as his signature dish.  Mr.Joel Robuchon, we think of Gelée de Caviar or Agneau Pastoral. Such direction making or character design are very important when running a restaurant.

Nabeno-ism Sobagaki

Nabeno-ism’s “Sobagaki”

Nabeno-ism chef

The third dish is an integration of traditional French and Edo ingredients. For example, autumn menu includes French pigeon and eggplants made in Kyoto. As for this season (interviewed in January 2017), French black truffle and traditional Edo vegetable— Senju spring onion.  Spring menu may include comte cheese or mimolette cheese made in Jura, France and Japanese seafood and wild vegetables. After that, at dinner, there will be two dishes carrying the sense of The France. The cuisines that carry the flavor of France that cannot be made without foie gras. Next, there will be fish, meat cuisines and dessert.

— Would you mind sharing the direction strategies of Nabeno-Ism to the future with us?

Well, the first thing coming into my mind is the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Since foreign visitors are going to increase during this period, I want to show them the Japanese Omotenashi spirit (hospitality). For Japanese, it’s a good to have them knowing more about the roots of our culture; for visitors from overseas, I want them to feel good to visit Japan. Actually, most foreign visitors would like to enjoy Japanese cuisine when they are in Japan, but if some of them would say that Nabeno-Ism is an interesting restaurant, I would be more happy. Also, since I am running this business in this area – Asakusa, I would like to grow together with my neighbors, appreciating the history of this area. I hope there is some day, talking about Asakusa, people will no longer just think of dojo, but also Nabeno-Ism, as the second one. This is what I want to hold out for.

Nabeno-ism logo

<A greeting from the chef to Pocket Concierge’s customers>
The coming year is the 30th anniversary for me, working as a chef. I want to embrace more challenges as stepping into my sixties. Basing on all my precious experience, I am ameliorating everyday to keep the peak state of myself, to provide the best space and meal for our guests. We look forward to having you here in the near future.

“Nabeno-Ism” is currently a difficult-to-book restaurant, but if you register as a member of Pocket Concierge you will be able to receive update information of various restaurants.

【Interview / Editor】 Naohisa Shiraishi
【Photo (Person / Interior / Location)】 Kimihiro
【Other Photos provided by】 Nabeno-Ism


[ Access to “Nabeno-ism” ]

– Asakusa Station,Toei Asakusa Line (3 minutes on foot from the exit A2-b)
– Asakusa Station, Ginza Line (6 minutes on foot from the exit 4)
– Kuramae Station, Toei Oedo Line (5 minutes on foot from the exit 6)

Nabeno-Ism_introspectionTable seats on the 2nd floor. Depending on the season, terrace seats are also available. On the 3rd floor there is also a counter seat where you can overlook the Sumida River and the Sky Tree.
Nabeno-Ism_locationWalk from subway station “Asakusa” and set up in a quiet area past Komagata Bridge. Orange logo mark is a landmark.
Restaurant Data
Restaurant name: Nabeno-ism
Address: 2-1-17 Komagata, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Open hours: [Tue – Sat]
12: 00 ~ 15: 00 (Kitchen closes at 13: 30)
18: 00 ~ 23: 00 (Kitchen closes at 21: 00)
12: 00 ~ 15: 00 (Kitchen closes at 13: 30)
Closed: Monday and the fourth Tuesday of each month (with change)

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