Zaiyu Hasegawa, the 37-year-old chef of Jimbocho Den in Tokyo took an interest in food and cooking at early age. The son of a geisha, he recalls his mother bringing delicious leftover food from the traditional restaurant she worked in home and he would eat it in the morning and be marvelled at how good it was.
That is where he attributes his interest in food. But there was another reason why he took to cooking. “I did not speak English very well but I thought that with my food I could communicate. And cooking is something that you can do anywhere in the world.”
That is something that Zaiyu has been doing a lot recently. He is frequently on the road and able to adapt to the location he find himself in. Travelling is something the Japanese chef attaches a lot of importance to. At the end of June, he was in Alba to cook a four hands dinner with Italian three Michelin star chef Enrico Crippa. Cooking with Mr Crippa or Crippa San as he calls him is a dream come true for Zaiyu. He considers the Italian chef one of his idols and he had visited Alba earlier for a few hours but this was his first time at Piazza Duomo and he was going to not only to enter Enrico’s world and taste his food but also to cook with him the day after.
“It is really very special to be able to spend time with Enrico, to visit his garden. It is great that he has a great interest in Japanese food but the way he uses the ingredients is still very Italian and it is very interesting to see.”
Travelling for him is extremely important for him because he can learn to understand ingredients that he has never used before and to learn how different chefs cook and use these ingredients. “If you stay in Japan, you do not realise what is good about Japan. Once you return you realise how good the ingredients can be and the richness of our produce,” he says.
Having spent some time in Enrico’s kitchen, Zaiyu says he is impressed how the individual parts of the team come together. “They are a big team but everything works well. It is really amazing to see.”
Zaiyu’s kitchen is smaller, he manages a team of five people in the kitchen and they have recently moved to a new restaurant. The old restaurant was on two floors which meant that the kitchen team could not see all customers they were serving. He opened Jimocho Den in Tokyo in 2007 and the restaurant has two Michelin stars and features in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
“I needed a bigger kitchen because the previous kitchen in the old restaurant was small. Also I wanted to be able to see everyone. For me, as a chef, it is essential that I can see everyone. For example, I can sometimes see just from the welcome drink that someone might be celebrating a birthday or something special and I will adapt myself,” he says.
“Also I can see if someone is full or whether there is a problem with certain dishes and can adapt the portion sizes accordingly. As chefs at Den, we also love to serve the dishes ourselves to our customers so having everyone on the same floor makes it easier,” he said.
Zaiyu loves tradition and has great respect for tradition because without tradition you cannot have innovation. It is one of the reason why he really respects Enrico’s cuisine and style of cooking because it is innovative but also respects tradition. The two pasta dishes served in succession a cacio e pepe and then a cacio e whiskey were a case in point. One was traditional though exceptional, the other completely new. Zaiyu could not believe how good they both were. “Could I have more,” he said.
At Piazza Duomo, Zaiyu created a series of exceptional dishes which showed his complete understanding of the produce and the location that he found himself in while fully respecting his country of origin.
“For me seasonality is very important,” he says despite the fact that like in any other large city, having access to all sorts of ingredients from anywhere in the world is easy. “In summer I love to use lots of herbs, in winter and autumn I shift my focus to root vegetables and mushrooms.”
So how did he think of presenting a green penne using the stem of the zucchini which looked exactly like penne, I asked him? “I wanted to do something which Enrico would not do. Usually you do not use the stem of this vegetable so in a way I was trying to use everything and also to do something completely different,” he said.
“I wanted to make something that is new, that is very different to what Enrico would do. And creating this penne makes me very happy,” he said.
Creativity is something that embodies Den’s style. “We are always working on doing something different. For me it is not difficult as it is something that I am aways doing. I do not think about creativity. I don’t have to think a lot to come up with something new. An idea normally just springs up,” he says.
One of the dishes he served at the four hands dinner was a gnocchi or no gnocchi which showed a complete understanding of the country he was in. He made a cream of robiolo cheese for the base. He then created a gnocchi like texture using beetroot, milk and kuzu. He topped it with a puree of beetroot cooked in Barolo Chinato. Enrico Crippa put the finishing touch, an anchovy. The dish was magical.
Of course, I tell him, an idea comes because there is a lot of knowledge and thought that has been accumulated. He smiles and says that for him creating new things is something he does on a daily basis but without forgetting traditional which is extremely important.
That is something he really admires in Enrico Crippa. “He can mix tradition with innovation seaminglessly. Balance is the basis and he does it perfectly,” he said.
Zaiyu Hasegawa will be cooking at Belgian three Michelin star restaurant Hertog Jan with chef Gert De Mangeleer on 24 August. He will be joined by Yusuke Takada of La Cime in Osaka and Hiroyasu Kawate, chef of Florilege in Tokyo.
Asked what he wants to bring with him to Gert de Mangeleer’s and Joachim Boudens’ restaurant, Zaiyu said he wanted to cook with his heart.