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Japan meets France: Chef Shinobu's cooking

Japan meets France: Chef Shinobu's cooking

Shinobu Namae combines lacto-fermentation with heritage Japanese foodstuff to create a new synergy for Franco-Japanese gastronomy.

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Having trained under such culinary giants as Michael Bras and Heston Blumenthal, Shinobu Namae builds on their legacy and never stops questioning what is next for innovative Franco-Japanese cooking. In his compact kitchen at the two Michelin-starred restaurant L’Effervescence  (#12 in the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2017), Namae works calmly and collaboratively with his kitchen team. 

But, his work as a chef does not end there. Namae is also known for his proactive travels across Japan to meet organic farmers and progressive artisans, learning as well as directly sourcing from them. “As a French chef and a Japanese growing up in a fast-paced, eclectic city like Tokyo,” says Namae, “I often question my identity – what I cook, what I serve to people. I want to make bridges over different food cultures – the Japanese, the French, and so on – learn and respect one other, and understand the differences in a creative and happy way”.

Lacto-fermentation experiments

Over the years, this synergy between the Japanese and the French has become the definitive approach to cooking at L’ Effervescence. One of the fascinating ongoing experiments that Namae undertakes is lacto-fermentation.

“We started using lacto-fermentation in our kitchen about 3-4 years ago. We look at both European methods of lacto-fermentation and those that exist in Japan. The European style of lacto-fermentation is based mostly on dairy. Lacto-fermentation in Japan is mostly from Nukazuke, or the pickling of rice bran”. Namae continues: “In the past, fermented items were often given a side role – as garnish or something to elevate flavours. But, we work on using lacto-fermentation in the cooking of our main protein. For example, we have a lot of whey because we make sour cream in house. Japanese people use whey to pickle daikon radish. One day, when we discussed how we could fortify the umami of lean fish. Instead of using traditional Japanese methods for fish cooking - Shio-Koji, Miso-Zuke, Sake-Yaki, or Mirin-Yaki – we marinate tilefish fillets in whey over night. We later cook the fillets in whey as well”.

This dish of whey-poached Amadai tilefish, purée of celeriac and olive oil (pictured above) is given a very poetic name “Une journée neigeuse” on the restaurant’s winter tasting menu. “Fish gently cooked in whey becomes our original cooking technique that is European but inspired by Japanese home cooking”, says Namae. In spring, Namae chooses Ainame greenling instead of Amadai that are out of season. The unctuous wintery garnish is also replaced with bitter mountain vegetables and Sansho ravigote – the taste that typifies springtime in traditional Japanese haute cuisine.

The use of lacto-fermentation at L’ Effervescence is purposeful. “The methods we use are not for adding acidity or contrasting with rich taste”, Namae explains. “Lacto-fermentation gives our dishes much more complex flavours. For example, apart from using whey, we also use Nukazuke, which sucks umami (amino acid) from rice bran and imparts to the ingredients that we choose to work with. Before fermentation, we used vinegar to pickle or cure only. Even though pickled and cured items add dimensions to dishes, I feel taste composition is two-dimensional. Since we experiment with fermentation, there is a big change of taste composition from 2D to 3D. The 3D taste also allows us to experiment more with beverages that are difficult to pair with – like natural wines, natural sake and Kombucha”. 

Synergy between the Japanese and the French cuisine

In order to bridge the gap between Japanese culture and French-led cooking, Namae also reaches out to heritage Japanese foodstuff. Though there is no shortage of creative French chefs in Tokyo, few are brave enough to cross this psycho-cultural line that dictates the Japanese and the French. Therefore, Japanese foodstuff – in the likes of Kombu and Katsuobushi – are often left out from innovative Franco-Japanese kitchens.

Namae explains his thought process to adopt Japanese foodstuff at L’ Effervescence as twofold. “I want to find the new possibilities of combinations and harmony, with the products familiar to us. At the same time, as a Japanese, it is important to support well-meaning artisans, keep the knowledge of ancestors and pass it to the next generations, which makes us survive”.

Katsuobushi, a Key Japanese Ingredient

Katsuobushi (dried, smoked and fermented skipjack tuna) becomes one of the key Japanese foodstuff that lend subtlety to the dishes at L’ Effervescence. This is a result of Namae’s cross-country travels that he speaks very proudly of: “I use Katsuobushi from Makurazaki, Kagoshima Prefecture, which is made by an artisan factory called Kaneshichi Shōten. When Yasuke Sezaki, the 3rd generation owner, took over the factory from his father, he made up his mind to stick to the method that produces the highest quality of Katsuobushi called Honkarebushi”.

Honkarebushi requires skipjack tuna of a certain size for the making of Katsuobushi. Namae continues, “Livestock is crucial to maintain our culture. Today, more and more Katsuobushi factories prefer catching smaller fish, which shortens the process of making Katsuobushi”. This method of making Katsuobushi inadvertently promotes responsible fishing of skipjack tunas.

The use of heritage Japanese foodstuff in Namae’s cooking is, by no means, faddish or an attempt to make headlines. He believes that Katsuobushi is best used for fortifying the umami of amino acid based ingredients, such as mustard family vegetable (i.e. radish, turnip). “We make many types of Katsuobushi broth, or Katsuodashi,” Namae explains, “For example, we braise the peelings of turnip and combine them with Katsuobushi broth. It makes a perfect juice to drink or make sauce”. 

A Personal Taste Experience Substained by Scientific Researches

Namae’s judgement is not only grounded on his own taste experience but also substantiated by scientific research: “Because Katsuobushi contains a high level of nucleic acid (inosinic acid), it acts to capture the amino acid on the taste buds and makes the taste last longer on our tongue”. 

On the current spring menu of L’ Effervescence, Katsuodashi forms the base of “Heritage”, a fire-roasted Okinawan pork dish with Japanese butterbur and Katsuobushi-infused blue cheese sauce.

Elsewhere, Namae’s use of Japanese foodstuff in French cooking is the main subject of Eric Wolfinger’s upcoming short film Dashi Journey (To be released in August 2017 - take a look on the trailer below).

All these experiments – be it lacto-fermentation or adoption of Japanese foodstuff – makes the cooking at L’ Effervescence an ongoing discussion of what it takes to effectively blur the line between French and Japanese, between innovation and heritage, between globalisation and regionalism.

“There is the need to re-discover food abandoned or taken for granted in our daily life, revitalise it and keep this diversity of ideas going in order to escape from the globalisation of food preferences”, says Namae.

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