Seiji Yamamoto is one of Japan's most iconic chefs. A chef and business owner with three award-winning restaurants to his name in Asia, Nihonryori RyuGin in Tokyo Japan, Tenku RyuGin in Hong Kong and Shoun RyuGin in Taipei Taiwan, consistently listed in the World's 50 Best and Asia's 50 Best restaurant lists.
This summer saw a landmark occasion for the Japanese chef, with the shuttering of his first ever restaurant, a decade and a half after first opening. The three Michelin star, 24 cover Ryugin in Tokyo, Roppongi (one of the first Japanese restaurants to make the 50 Best Restaurants list) will instead begin a new era in its brand new home in Hibiya, Tokyo. A larger premises with almost double the covers, complete with Imperial Palace views and an enhanced customer experience with one service per evening and an eleven- to twelve-course omakase menu.
We caught up with chef Yamamoto as he reflects on how the legendary restaurant shaped him professionally and what learnings he will take with him on his new adventure in his new Tokyo restaurant.
It's the end of an era for Nihonryogi RyuGin in Roppongi. What experiences will you take away with you?
I became an owner-chef of Ryugin, 15 years ago, when I was 33 years old. During this 15 year period, I gained great experience by facing various challenges as a business owner, and I came to know that being a chef and being a restaurant owner is a completely different thing, just like from 0 to 100.
In these 15 years, I became a business owner, running the restaurant 100%, while I was also a chef whose profession is cooking, and I learned the importance of training others.
How did your culinary style evolve during this time?
I removed any unnecessary drama from my cuisine and instead I began to express the character of the ingredients more without solely concentrating on expressing my creativity or my message. I now no longer cook food which is difficult to understand.
What were the most inspiring and memorable moments and collaborations you had?
My 15 years were filled with exciting moments every day, from travelling from one country to another, going on stage to talk, getting to know so many different chefs, being evaluated by various types of people, being in guidebooks, vacations with staff, having branches in Hong Kong and Taiwan, sharing the dream with team staff, being encouraged by guests and now having a new main restaurant..... What is the best and memorable? It is now, being interviewed by you on the occasion of this special collaboration. (A final celebration collaborative dinner was had on the final evening before closing with Luca Fantin, Chef Hida from Ryugin Taiwan, Chef Seki from Ryugin HK, Chef Sato from Tavie.)
How do you manage the spirit of Japanese traditional cooking abroad in your restaurants?
I believe that the creation of cuisines is all to do with the ingredients. Ingredients are symbols which can prove the richness of the nature of the country. Those ingredients come from the country or are deeply rooted in the country which is also a pride, like treasures. I intend to create dishes by respecting such natural providence, not as my own message, but as a treasure of many people from a country to be proud of.
Your new Tokyo restaurant is located in Hibiya near the Imperial Palace where the Japanese Emperor resides. What significance does this hold for you?
I opened Ryugin on 23 December 15 years ago. It was the birthday of the Japanese emperor. I am wondering if I can believe there is a connection between where I am, across from the Imperial Palace. It is also my great pleasure to be able to cook, to create dishes in the heart of the city like Hibiya, an area historically known for theatrical arts and movies.
Tell us about the new experience that you will offer your guests in Hibiya. How will the restaurant look and feel, what will be the cooking and service philosophy etc?
I always believe that the protagonist of a restaurant is always the guests, not the chef. The newly located Ryugin is situated on the 7th floor of the large commercial complex, newly opened in March 2018, with full view of Hibiya Park and Imperial Palace, will make our guests feel at peace.
In the new restaurant, I would like to showcase dishes created by Living National Treasures like gallery and demonstrate various selected Japanese traditional crafts for the presentation of my dishes. Not just art or creativity, but I would like to exhibit those of what are proved as genuine of Japan, our country throughout the presentation at my new restaurant location. Within myself, the style of restaurants trying to demonstrate the chef’s own creativity no longer exists. I instead put my mind and my cuisines in those genuine articles.
Three restaurants, in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, one in World’s 50 Best and two in Asia’s 50 Best… what’s left to achieve?
Is ranking all that chefs want? If I am asked, I would like to say "No" to that question. Because it is not a competition. The protagonist of the restaurant is the guest and general customers. Chefs have to be in the kitchen every day in person and check and observe if the guests are spending a pleasant and happy time.
Even if he or she becomes very famous and known, a chef is not a chef anymore if he or she doesn’t find him or herself in the kitchen. I never open a restaurant when I am not in the kitchen. Even if today is OK, but we don’t know who comes tomorrow. The head of the restaurant always has to be there to lead to take care of the guests.
Then next come the staff. The happiness of those staff who work with me is the most important. It is also important to think about their salary and life. I am 100% owner-chef. My own happiness is not my happiness. I can be happy only when I make others happy. It can be only achieved when I cumulate it day after another.