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TOP-CHEF-INTERVIEWS
“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 9

Restaurant Ryuzu” Mr. Ryuta Iizuka

Restaurant Ryuzu” is now popular not only to domestic guests but also to visitors from overseas. The chef Mr. Ryuta Iizuka uses Japanese knives to bring out the natural flavor of ingredients. Making the best use of Japanese ingredients in French cuisine and presenting the most natural and unique French dishes, the restaurant has been awarded 2 Michelin stars. In this interview, he talks about his life as French cuisine chef and his thoughts on the cuisine.

Pick up topics
1. Accumulated tasting experiences in France for his future career
2. Fateful encounter to the Japanese knife led to a new possibility
3. “Restaurant Ryuzu” refined by the Japanese skills


Accumulated tasting experiences in France for his future career

–  Please tell us how you decided to become a chef.

I liked to bake since when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I started making my own cookies, and when I learned to use the stove, I started to make fried rice. I grew up in Tokamachi, Niigata, where my parents had a kimono shop, and they were often too busy to cook for us. So it was natural for me to cook for myself, and I actually liked doing it.

There was a popular patisserie in my relative’s neighborhood, where I had a chance to meet the owner. I remember, it was the summer of my first year in high school. The owner asked me, “What do you want to do in the future? You should acquire expertise in some area”. That was actually the moment that made me think realistically about the future, that reminded me of my interest towards cooking. I decided I would go to a culinary school after finishing high school. So during the 3 years in high school I worked part-time at a popular yoshoku (Japanized forms of European dishes) restaurant in town, and I went to Tsuji Gakuen Culinary & Confectionery College in Osaka.

– What were the most memorable moments while you were at the culinary school?

I would say it’s definitely my trip to France. I went to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants. 3 restaurants with 3 stars each. Coming from a countryside of Niigata the experience was precious. I had authentic French cuisine, encountered dishes I really enjoyed. One of the most impressive dish was one I had at “Tour d’Argent”. They are famous for their duck dishes. I could say their foie gras was the best food I have ever had in my whole life. Sure my taste bud could have been young and inexperienced, but even today, when I cook foie gras myself, I cannot beat their dish I had back then.

– You chose to work at a hotel instead of independent restaurant after you finished the culinary school. Is there a reason to that?

Back then it was the golden era of the hotels, and the famous chef Mr Nobuo Murakami (former chief chef at Imperial Hotel, pioneer of French and other Western cuisines) , known as Monsieur Murakami, was still an active chef. I always admired him, watching him on TV since my childhood. I wished to work at the Imperial Hotel of course, but unfortunately I did not make it. I started to work at western cuisine division of “Dai-ichi Hotel Tokyo Bay” (current “Hotel Okura Tokyo Bay”) , a hotel situated right behind the Tokyo Disney Land. I was there for 3 and a half years.

– Has it always been your ambition to be involved in the western cuisine?

Yes. Actually it comes from my experience. My mother could not eat beef or dairy, hence I grew up mostly eating Japanese food. On the contrary, my aunt used to make me western dishes. Like corn potage, macaroni gratin, and stewed hamburger steaks. My aunt would bring such dishes to my house, or she would serve such dishes when I visited. That made me interested and long for such dishes that I didn’t see in my house. So I was determined to look for western or yoshoku restaurants even for my part-time jobs.

– I understand you trained in France for 2 months, that’s quite a long period.

Yes, for the first month I worked at a restaurant without salary, and after that I dined out throughout the whole of France, for the whole month. I planned and scheduled my reservations at Michelin 2-starred or 3-starred restaurants, every single day. That month I went to 27 restaurants. I literally dined out every single day.

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restaurant ryuzu

Fateful encounter to the Japanese knife led to a new possibility

– You use a Japanese knife, which is unusual for a French chef. Please tell us your encounter to the knife.

I had always been interested in sharpness of knives. There was one incidence where I became mesmerized to the Japanese knives. I attended the Diners Club 40th anniversary dinner event collaborated by Mr. Joël Robuchon and Mr. Hirohisa Koyama of “Aoyagi”. I was a sous-chef at “Café Français” then. It was a 3-day event and “Aoyagi” team were to use our kitchen on the 1st floor. The team involved Mr. Seiji Yamamoto of “RyuGin” and Mr. Hiroyuki Kanda of “Kanda”.

On the final day of the event, the two teams were to serve their dishes to each other. “Aoyagi” team served sashimi of Naruto-tai (kind of sea bream) and Aori-ika (bigfin reef squid) . I thought I had had very good squids in my life, but that sashimi was shockingly different. The slice had accordion cuts, and in my mouth it was as if it untangled and the flavor spread out. In French cuisine the main methods of cooking is using heat, or flavoring the ingredients. On the other hand, in Japanese cuisine, the technique of using knives speaks for itself. Until then, I had no idea that Japanese and western knives would make any difference as long as they are sharp. Of course you would have to carefully select the ingredients, but having a Japanese knife, which are angled on only one side, would transform the ingredient to something totally different. I used to cook with French technique, but I shockingly realized that I had to know the Japanese technique as well.

– When did you actually started to use the Japanese knives?

After leaving “Café Français”, I was a chief lecturer of French cuisine at Mr. Koyama’s culinary school in Harumi. Mr. Koyama’s Japanese restaurant “basara” was in the same area, so I went to assist in their kitchen once in a while. There I was able to watch the technique of Japanese cuisine craftsmen, and learned how to use the Japanese knives.

– Please tell us the examples when you use the Japanese knives in your French dishes.

Firstly it is important to know how to properly cut ingredients in general. I would selectively use Japanese knives on ingredients where it would improve the performance of the food. For example, ikijime (method of paralyzing fish to maintain the quality of its meat) fish meat is too firm to be sliced sharply with ordinary knives. You would definitely need a sharp yanagiba knife, or you would not be able to bring out the real quality of the fish. Other examples where I use Japanese knives are Aori-ika, which is the ingredient that actually changed my life and perspective, and some meat when I’d like to cut sharply.

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restaurant ryuzu

Restaurant Ryuzu” refined by the Japanese skills

– Please tell us about “Restaurant Ryuzu” itself.

I tried to make the most out of the materials themselves, to make the restaurant classical but having tints of modern ideas. In regards to my menu, the concept is “simple and not too elaborated dish, getting the most out of the ingredients”. My dishes are based on classical French cuisine, but adjusted in a way so that they are lighter and fit better to what people today prefer. In terms of restaurant interior, I also carefully chose the materials. I grew up in a house that reformed an old traditional house where thick zelkova were used on the floor and the central pillar, which was lacquered. Restaurant Ryuzu also uses a lot of wood. I also used the modern materials such as black stainless steel, black glass, and gold stainless steel, as well as the traditional materials such as marbles and the best quality velvet. Such combination helped to result in the comfortable, modern and chic restaurant.

–  What would you consider the “modern” dishes to be?

My idea is to use less of the fats and oils, and enjoy the natural delicacy of ingredients themselves. In traditional French cuisine, we use a lot of butter and cream. Minimizing these actually elaborates the taste of the ingredients, and also results in a lighter dish. Of course, the ingredients are carefully chosen to start with. Also, to make the best out of each ingredient, for example when using a good quality abalone, it should not be chopped into small pieces that you cannot even distinguish it on the plate. I would like to present it so that the abalone can actually speak for itself.

Another point of fats and oils, is that although I minimize their use, they should be used very effectively. For instance, in Japanese cuisine, ingredients are simply stewed or roasted and they result in mouth-watering dishes. These are because seasonings, such as soy sauce and mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine) adds the umami to the ingredients. We don’t have that culture in French cuisine. Fats and oils are used instead. The important thing is to use them effectively. Namely, olive oil or butter, or combination of the two or of other fats and oils. The most definite difference between the Japanese and French cuisines are surely the use of fats and oils. Fats and oils are themselves umami, they have the distinctive taste. Therefore, even if the same ingredients are used, French and Japanese way of cooking them would be different, and I could present its taste in a unique way.

–  Please tell us your philosophy on making the best out of the raw ingredients.

French cuisine consists of addition. You would add ingredients and seasonings to obtain the sum to create the best dish. However I adopt the Japanese style of cooking. I focus on the ingredient itself, and try to bring out the best of its natural delight. I would add only if something is missing, and then add the right amount of fats and oils to complete it in a French style.

I also use white soy sauce and konbu seaweed. These are never used in authentic French cuisine, but konbu is very effective to bring out the natural flavor of vegetables. I use salted konbu water, simply boiling konbu boiled from cold water with some salt. Generally, boiled vegetables are dipped into ice water to maintain the color, but that kills the flavor and the scent. So instead, I dip them into salted konbu water. It gives flavor and also maintains vegetable color. My guests tell me that they like the vegetables since I started this method. Before that, I used to limit myself within the “French cuisine boundaries” I thought I had, and I couldn’t have broaden my possibilities. Currently, “Restaurant Ryuzu” is categorized as French cuisine, but I would be grateful if people would regard as “Ryuzu Cuisine”.

–  You seem to use a lot of Japanese ingredients. Your spécialités dish “Shiitake en Tarte” is very popular.

Yes, 80~90% of my ingredients are that of Japanese. “Shiitake en Tarte” had been my original dish since my days at “L’ATELIER de Joël Robuchon”. My guests who came to “Restaurant Ryuzu” tend to request it, so I decided to serve the dish throughout the year. I was inspired by the “Tartelette aux cèpe” I had at “Michel Bras” in France. The amuse dish was amazing, and I decided to arrange it in my own style using shiitake mushroom. I can purchase cèpe in Japan as well, but they are expensive and the quality not stable. On the other hand, we have shiitake mushrooms in Japan, easier to stably purchase. I use “yairo shiitake” from Uonuma city, which is a neighboring city from my hometown. They are thick and don’t easily shrink when cooked. It serves as the great dish to represent “Restaurant Ryuzu”.

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Shiitake en tarte/duxelles de champignons/lard de Colonnata

– Lastly please tell us your future prospects.

I’d like to further refine my restaurant. I understand we are expensive. Nevertheless, I am hoping that my guests would comfortably accept the price, understanding the quality. Staff plays an important part, they need to be well trained and educated. Good environment for the guests requires good environment for the staff, well-paid and so. It would be the best if all my staff are happy to work with me.

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[A word from the chef]

I am grateful for all the guests to my restaurant. Western cuisine is what I have been longing to be involved in, since my childhood. In current season, unique ingredients we use include hamo (pike conger) and ayu (sweetfish) . In winter we have matsuba crab (snow crab). I am hoping to have many domestic and overseas customers to enjoy my dishes presenting the natural delicacy of Japanese ingredients. Thank you.

“Restaurant Ryuzu” 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.

【Interviewer / Writer】 Naohisa Shiraishi
【Photo】 Kimihiro
【Photo of dishes】 Restaurant Ryuzu

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<Access to “Restaurant Ryuzu”>

3-minute walk from Roppongi station (Exit 6), Hibiya Line
3-minute walk from Roppongi station (Exit 6), Toei Oedo Line

RestaurantRyuzu_725Carefully selected materials of the restaurant interior gives a classical but modern atmosphere to enjoy the food.

RestaurantRyuzu_729One street off from Roppongi-dori, Restaurant Ryuzu is in the basement of the building on the left.
Restaurant Data
Restaurant name: Restaurnt Ryuzu
Address: B1 Floor of Urban Style Roppongi, 4-2-35 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Open hours: Lunch: 12:00~15:30 (L.O. 14:00)
Dinner: 18:00~23:30 (L.O. 21:30)
Closed: Monday and Irregular holidays
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