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Named as the World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ “One to Watch” in 2016 and the winner of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ “Art of Hospitality” award this year, DEN by chef Zaiyu Hasegawa has not only quickly cemented its worldwide fame for taste-focused, joy-filled kaiseki, but also become much loved for playful and unique hospitality.
Together with three other Japan-based chefs - Luca Fantin, Yoshiaki Takazawa and Thomas Angerer – he is member of the jury for the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 Japanese local competition. He will select one young finalist from 10 shortlisted regional contestants to represent the region at the Grand Finale in Milan in 2018.
Hasegawa’s playful kaiseki
Hasegawa’s cooking is a creative spin on Japanese multi-course haute cuisine, known as kaiseki. In a traditional kaiseki meal, chefs prepare around 10 or more small dishes, which are served to diners one at a time. Ingredients used in kaiseki cooking are hyper-seasonal, of a premium quality and a specific provenance. Kaiseki chefs are also responsible for carefully selecting vessels in which they present their cooking. The cooking, the ingredients and the vessels together form an unmistakably Japanese narrative, capturing the aesthetics and philosophy of changing time through food. Therefore, kaiseki is sometimes considered an edible art form that ordinary people in the modern, ever-changing world may find distant and hard to understand.
Born and bred in Shinjuku, Hasegawa is more exposed to Tokyo’s cosmopolitan influences than what the austere culinary tradition of kaiseki claims itself to be. “I want to make kaiseki, but I also want my food to talk to those eating it,” explains Hasegawa. “Around 2011, we started getting more bookings from non-Japanese customers. My English at that time was not good enough to communicate with them or to make them feel relaxed. So, I started making kaiseki dishes more playful and kawaii.”
Hasegawa’s very simple goal – to “talk” to his diners through his cooking – has evolved into an edible fun-filled mimicry that is contrary to the high art of kaiseki. “Our fried chicken wing is served as an Oshinogi course. Traditionally, Oshinogi is a small dish with rice that aims at making diners less hungry at the beginning of a kaiseki meal. We debone and stuff chicken wings with seasonally themed sticky rice,” says Hasegawa. He also shuns the use of expensive pottery and opts for a mock KFC box, which features an image of him in place of Colonel Sanders. The box is suitably renamed DEN-tucky.
Kawaii is a big part of Japanese pop culture. It stereotypes all things cute and playful. Hasegawa continues, “We use fun elements to break many cultural barriers. I want our guests to feel that kaiseki is approachable and understandable and be able to relate to kaiseki.” Hasegawa, though, admits that chefs who come from far and wide to stage at DEN are sometimes puzzled when sent to a station dedicated to burning faces on broad beans and gingko nuts, or making grinning faces on root vegetables using Japanese cookie cutters.
The Art of Hospitality
Food and hospitality at DEN has become somewhat inseparable. While Hasegawa cooks with a purpose to communicate and make his customers happy, DEN’s front of house team, led by Hasegawa’s wife Emi and his restaurant manager Noriko Yamaguchi, work to close the gap between food and hospitality. “The most important thing is to make our guests warm to us and feel special. We are a small team, so we can deliver a restaurant experience that is more than a transaction of food and service,” says Emi.
Emi continues, “When Zaiyu comes up with ideas, we personalise them. For example, Zaiyu makes DEN-tucky boxes because they are very recognisable. Everyone knows KFC and smiles when the fake KFC boxes are being served. We personalise the box with some more surprises. It is our way of sending personal messages to our guests. We will try to communicate in many ways apart from the language to each of our guests. If we have 100 guests, we will have 100 different ways to serve. This is how much personalisation means to us.”
“Over the year, we learn that Japanese and foreign guests do not have different expectations when they come to DEN," says Yamaguchi, who acts as restaurant manager and also translates for Hasegawa. “Now that we are known overseas, we have many foreign customers every night. A lot of foreign customers who come to DEN for the first time tend to be nervous. When they find out that we can speak English, they become a lot more relaxed.”
Yamaguchi further adds: “Being able to speak enough English is important to how we approach hospitality. This is a big challenge because most Japanese are not used to speaking English. We do not employ too many new staffs because they change the dynamics of our hospitality. Everyday our staff has to study English.”
Emi and Yamaguchi also use deduction skills to aid with hospitality: “We pay attention to our guests from the moment they make the reservation. When they arrive, we observe their facial expressions, listen to their conversations, and consider what their expectations, personality, prior experiences, and try to personalise our service as much and as simultaneously as possible. If they are repeat customers, we nearly always offer something different.”
The goal to make diners happy dictates the approach to cooking and hospitality at DEN. Hasegawa, who was recently appointed a juror for the S. Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 local competition in Japan, advocates that one should not be afraid to do what one believes in: “Young people need to recognise what is important to them and hold on to it. If they decide to do one thing, they need to persevere. If it happens that this is not the right thing for them, there is always time to change their focus.” For Hasegawa, DEN is a commitment to Omotenashi – that is, the spirit of selfless hospitality that forms the ideal of Japanese hospitality. This has become the unyielding charm of his cooking, himself and his team.