|“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.|
“été” Ms. Natsuko Shoji
“Fleur d’été”, the prominent and difficult-to-buy cake has become the hot topic in Japan. The door to restaurant “été” opens only to those who has bought the cake. The chef, Ms Natsuko Shoji opened the restaurant at young age of 24, now she is a recognized chef to the rest of the world, being invited to overseas events. In this interview, she talks about her philosophy towards the restaurant and the future industry.
Spending Her Early Twenties as Sous Chef at a Michelin Starred Restaurant and as a Floor Staff at High-Class Hotel Restaurant
―――Tell us how you decided to become a chef.
At home economics class in my junior high school, we made chou à la crème. Watching the chou puffing in the oven was so amazing, and I made it again at home. My friends excitedly commented that I should open a shop. Well then, I thought, I should choose my career in that direction, and chose a high school with a culinary course.
In the school we study Japanese, Chinese, and western cuisines and confectionery. While I was going to choose Italian as my major, my French cuisine teacher advised that I should major in French, as it will be easy to apply or transfer to Italian. I was convinced and took the advice.
Mr. Kawate of “Florilège” is a former graduate of my high school. He introduced me to Mr Shimono of “Le jeu de l’assiette”, where I started interning at 2nd year of high school and was eventually employed. Mr. Shimono, who currently runs “à nu, retrouvez-vous”, was the chef of “Le jeu de l’assiette” back then, and he and Mr. Kawata had known each other from “Le Bourguignon”.
―――I see that you took an early start. Please tell us about your trainings.
At “Le jeu de l’assiette”, I was mainly in charge of desserts. It was when the restaurant had just obtained a Michelin star, and we were very busy everyday preparing the ingredients. I was far too busy that I don’t even remember much(laughter).
After about 2 years, when Mr. Shimono decided to leave the restaurant and I resigned as well. Then my high school contacted me saying, “Come to Mr. Kawate’s new restaurant!” so I started at “Florilège”.
There were 3 of us in the restaurant, but one of the members tend to take a leave very often so Mr. Kawate and I tend to be the only ones in the kitchen. I still vividly remember running the busy kitchen with him during the crowded lunch hour. I was allowed to do whatever task as long as I finished my duty as a pâtissière. Therefore I was able to experience a lot, such as preparing meat and fish, or making sauce.
――― When did you become the sous-chef of “Florilège”?
During my 3 years at “Florilège”, while many staff came and went, I had worked next to Mr. Kawate, so realistically I was in the sous-chef position, although I was never officially appointed as one. However, when I left to to start on my own, I asked Mr. Kawate if I could literally indicate that I had been the sous-chef of “Florilège” and I was accepted. Actually it is quite rare for chefs to be verbally appointed as sous-chef, but the status becomes important when you want to open your own restaurant.
―――Please tell us your story of opening your own restaurant.
To be honest, after I left “Florilège” I actually almost decided not to continue my career as a chef. I don’t think I have mentioned this in public. I started working as a floor staff at Sheraton Miyako Hotel Tokyo. I was recruited again through my high school. Mr. Kyouichi Hashimoto was the head chef of “Shisen Chinese Restaurant” of the hotel, and he is one of the lecturer at my high school. So my school called me saying “if you’re jobless, go work as floor staff under Mr. Hashimoto!”(laughter)
Looking back, the experience as floor staff taught me what I needed to know in starting my own restaurant. I had been working silently in the kitchen without much chance to speak to the customers. At Miyako Hotel, I had many opportunities to communicate with high-class customers, and I learned manners in speaking, understanding the sensitive atmosphere of business dinners and the payments in such situations.
When you compare the chefs and the floor staff, you would notice the difference when they communicate with the customers. If a chef suddenly comes to the floor, he or she may not be the best person to serve the customers, and the customers would definitely feel the awkwardness. I worked at Miyako Hotel to learn the service so that my customers would be comfortable when I start my own restaurant.
Afterwards, I started to receive job offers on catering and personal chefs. During my days at “Florilège”, I was also in charge to speak to the media, so I had connections. One of them contacted me asking to make a cake for a wedding. Gradually my feelings towards cooking started to come back, naturally changing my job balance of floor staff and personal chef. Hence I started to feel I want start my own restaurant.
The experience as floor staff taught me what
I needed to know in starting my own restaurant.
The Brand Strength Cultivated From the Signature Cake, Leading to the Restaurant to Spend Time With a Special Member
―――How did you choose this restaurant site?
To be honest, I purely followed my instinct. I did have in mind of a place where the street is not too busy, and could be a small place, as I wanted to serve my food while they are still hot. It is an ordinary residential building, but with a “small restaurant business permit”. I was planning to serve only one group per day, so that would produce dirty dish of only one family. Consequently I was accepted.
―――Were you planning “one group per day” from the start?
Not at all actually. I was thinking of a slightly larger restaurant with more seats. I was only 24, and although I have been the sous-chef at “Florilège”, I did not have a splendid career to show. So I imagined quietly starting would not bring many customers. I only had about 6 years of experience, and it was unlikely to hire anyone. So I thought I should start at a size where I can do everything by myself, create a signature dessert, and obtain the significant status. Then I would be ready to welcome customers with accurate and decent monetary sense.
For the first year, I ran the business with a single cake, “Fleur d’été”. It was rather gambling. I didn’t even set the opening date, started very quietly. I did make a press release for my magazine editor friends, which led to many magazine interviews. Eventually that led me to TV appearance, they called my cake legendary, and that became my brand. I felt that was the timing to start the restaurant business as well.
The cake itself is difficult to reserve, but once you buy one, the customer is entitled to reserve my restaurant. That, I believe makes the person feel special. In addition, I only accept one group per night, upto 4 people only. In my opinion, restaurant is not assessed only for the dishes, but who you spent the time with is also an important factor. If the restaurant is open to any unspecified people and number, customers could come for business, dates, or family dinners. The restaurant assessment could vary in different situation, but if only 4 people is accepted each night, the customers would only come with very special members. I am thinking that would lead to good reviews.
―――That is a very statistical idea. Please tell us your concept behind “Fleur d’été”.
“The special cake with your special ones”. It’s a cake you need to order, book a date and time to pick it up. Sounds a bit troublesome, but on the other hand, you would be told the non-public information, which I believe makes the customers feel special.
Currently I make 10 a day, but with some flexibility according to the season. It is not something one buys repeatedly or often, so I do not change the cake drastically. I have once fell ill for overworking, so I decided to control the workload.
―――Please tell us about your course menu.
I don’t change my course menu so often. Same idea as my cake, my customers don’t visit repeatedly. Hence I only change my signature dish every season, just 4 times per year. Other than that, I use the plates made by one artist whom I like. I want the public to know it is my dish at a glance every time when someone uploads on any social media.
Many restaurants gain popularity for their entertaining ideas and aspects. I rather attach importance to “dining with your special ones”. Dining with significant members in a family-like atmosphere, feeling at home. I want such calmness or peace directly link to what people feel as “good food”. Some offer me to have a bigger restaurant, but this atmosphere is something I want to keep my attention to.
I attach importance to
“dining with your special ones”.
Playing an Active Role Outside Japan, Being a Role Model For the Young Chefs, Changing the Restaurant Industry Future
―――You have been catching attention as a young and promising female chef. Please tell me about your future aspects.
Firstly, I do want to change this industry, which currently is said to have low return with hard work. While it sure is important to have many experiences outside the kitchen, like dining overseas or going to museums, those in this industry are short of time and money to do so. In addition, there are very few female chefs. It is tough work, and marriage would be another issue.
I’m actually not personally so fascinated about media appearance, but I do want to broadcast what I do in order to change the restaurant industry. I’d like to be a good and respectable model for the future chefs, showing that I go overseas or taking part in events.
―――I agree that there are more chefs who point out the profitability issue of restaurants.
That is true. For example in IT industry there are people who earn millions in a few hours. On the contrary, us in restaurants strive and labor in the kitchen to prepare meals for customers who would stay for 2~3 hours, and pay 20~30,000yen per person, including the wine. If you are lucky it could go up, but up to 30~50,000yen.
In addition, there aren’t many who truly appreciate the value of the dishes, understanding the process. For example, I start meat preparation 3 hours before customer arrival, cooking in low heat. The sauce, if I include the preparation of the fond, it takes 2~3 days. Nevertheless, when they are on a plate, it is priced around 3,000yen. That is such a low return.
Unless such situation changes, the future chefs would only decrease in number. Yes you can gain enough to make a living, but you would have to own a restaurant to be well-off. I don’t feel that is right. Thus I wish to be able to pay more to my staff in the future. At present I take my staff to dine at restaurants they wish to, about once or twice a month. There are many ambitious and well-minded young chefs in Japan, and we need to help them mature, or we would lose them.
―――Do you take part in overseas events for the same philosophy of wishing to change the whole industry?
That is right. I believe it is important to be a role model of a young female chef actively taking part in many scenes. Looking at The World’s Best Restaurants and OAD, I started to feel that I should be advertising to the world as well, and I started to take English lessons. Not only making more of my cakes, but it is also important to spend such time outside the kitchen, to cultivate for my future, eventually enabling to broadcast my restaurant concept.
Further, I need to target to be always scored 80~100 by my customers. I believe achieving such high reviews would lead to bigger opportunities.
I do feel chefs are undervalued, especially in Japan. When I take part in events, the compensations are lower than what I feel is appropriate, travel expense are not included and I have to cover that myself. Events don’t become the profit for restaurants, so many chefs go right back to their kitchens after events, for their daily business. Events appear luxurious and gorgeous, but they don’t actually pay. What we need are good sponsors.
In order to change such situation of the whole industry, being just a profitable restaurant is insufficient. We would have to make a way to be more profitable, such as being consultants. I am aiming to strengthen my brand value, by receiving high reviews even within a small scale.
〈A word from the chef〉
To change and enhance the restaurant industry, we need many young chefs actively playing their roles. I would like to be the one who can do that myself, a young female chef being successful inside and outside Japan. My restaurant is small in size with only 4 seats, but I wish to do my best to receive the best reviews from all my customers. Thank you very much.
Interviewer/editor: Naohisa Shiraishi
Writer: Rie Sasaki
|Opening Hours：||Dinner only. Time specified after discussion with the customers.|