In a society known famously for male domination in the workplace, the debut in 2014 of a female chef-owned and run restaurant, Été, certainly provided much fodder for attention.
The spotlight was as much on the gender and the relative youth, then 25 years old, of its female chef-owner, Shoji Natsuko, as it was on the trailblazing concept of her one-table restaurant.
Taking a minimum of two and a maximum of only four guests each time, Été is a by-invitation-only restaurant, open only to friends (and friends of friends) and patrons of the chef-owner’s fashion-inspired cakes, which are available for order from 14,000 yen each. Her rose-patterned mango cake, in particular, has taken Tokyo by storm.
“The mango cake is my original cake,” says Natsuko, who used to make anniversary cakes with seasonal fruits for guests when she was serving as sous chef of Florilege. “I hand-sliced the fruits and formed them into roses,” she says. “So I continued experimenting with it and that’s how my signature mango cake came into being.”
While her most-talked-about cake is the mango cake - Miyazaki mangoes (Hokkaido mangoes in winter) with fresh cream on sable, Natsuko also has other seasonal bakes. Her peach cake draws inspiration from Coco Chanel’s signature quilted matelasse bag and her newest Ombre cake using chestnuts from Kyoto and Kumamoto has check patterns inspired by Glenurquhart Cheques, a textile used by designers like Comme des Garçons.
The importance of seasonality
Growing up with a fashion-loving mother, she was surrounded by fashion magazines and catalogues. But whilst she found fashion “fascinating”, the young Natsuko did not take to garment-making (“it’s too complicated”). Instead, she fell in love with baking in junior high school, often making cream puffs for friends.
Then In 2007, the Michelin red guide landed in Tokyo and the city experienced a boom in French dining.
“I started referring to the Michelin Guide and visiting restaurants with the money I saved from part-time jobs,” she says. This, she adds, inspired her to further her passion in cooking.
While much of the spotlight has been on her cakes, a visit to Été is just as much, if not more, about Natsuko’s precise cooking, using seasonal Japanese ingredients.
If you visit in autumn, you will taste her Mexican-inspired dish of deep-fried Japanese pacific saury with zucchini taco served in hara leaf with a side of Nagano apple salsa and Okinawa pepper. You will also see her showcasing seasonality by way of the crispy tilefish deep-fried a la minute and served in an earthy matsutake broth strewed with chiffonade of matsutake. And if her cakes alone are not a solid-enough testament to her first-rate pastry skill, she cements it by serving an excellent course of cape gooseberry mille feuille topped with a coat of caviar.
Rene Redzepi, David Beckham and Ferrán Adriá have dined here, as have Takashi Murakami, Dan Barber, Eason Chan and Tony Leung.These luminaries and celebrities are amongst the 15 groups, or so, a month that Natsuko serves in a tiny outfit in Shibuya City, just minutes from Yoyogi Koen train station. Given the sheer uniqueness of the restaurant’s reservation system, it can be said that it is generally easier for guests to order a cake from Été than to reserve a table.
Much more than a cake lab
But all this is about to change when Été moves to a new roost with dual sections by the end of the month. Not only will it boast a bigger space with a table for six, the dining room will overlook an adjoining garden showcasing seasonal flora through a glass window.
The new Été will also have a cake studio designed like a shokunin’s workstation, complete with a window to showcase the fashion inspirations for her cakes.
For those itching to score a seat at Été’s new place, the good news is you will be able to reserve via email.
“Guests can now book without having to purchase a cake before dining at Été,” says Natsuko, who has received countless interests from people all over the world wanting to dine at été but gave up upon knowing that it’s by-introduction only. “I have decided to make reservations slightly easier but still keeping it fine and exclusive.”