March 2022 10 Min Read

Interview: Shinobu Namae

By Jens Jensen

One of Japan’s most celebrated chefs, Shinobu Namae is humble and softly spoken. His cooking has brought him to where most chefs dream of: his restaurants have been awarded three Michelin stars. But for Namae, while stars are a nice accolade, it is his part in shaping a more sustainable environment and doing his bit for the climate that gets him really excited. In his restaurant, he tries to minimise food waste, using organic produce whenever possible. He is even looking at switching to a more sustainable electrical provider. Before opening L’Effervescence in Tokyo, he worked for five years at Michel Bras’ restaurant, Toya Japon, in Hokkaido, northern Japan, and before that spent three years at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire.

We were lucky to catch him on a day off and he took us to a nearby spot on the beach in search of fresh nori seaweed and an invasive sea-urchin that are a big nuisance to the local fishermen.

ACM: Perhaps you could start off by introducing yourself for our readers that might be less familiar with you and your background?

SN: OK, my name is Shinobu Namae; I was born and grew up in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo. Since I graduated from university, I have been working in the restaurant industry. After coming back from working at The Fat Duck in England, I opened L’Effervescence with the F&B company Citabria.

Two years ago we gained our third Michelin star and three years ago we opened a bakery/restaurant in Roppongi, where we focus on using local Japanese wheat and natural fermentation.

The beautiful scenery of the Morito Coast, overlooking the Sagami Bay.

You told me that you studied politics at university. How did you get into food in the first place?

I had a fairly oppressive and very dominating father. He never allowed me to voice my own opinions. That made me think about the concept of fairness, which was one of the reasons I chose to study politics. I wasn’t intending to be a politician or work in politics, but I was very curious about becoming a journalist, travelling around the world, meeting people and [trying to better] understand what was happening everywhere.

That explains why you chose to study politics, but when did you start cooking?

Right after starting university I got really fed up with living at home and wanted to become financially independent and live on my own. That meant I had to earn some money and, as a student without any particular experience, the easiest job was to become a dishwasher at a restaurant. That was the beginning of my culinary journey!

That’s quite impressive. You went from washing dishes to being the head chef of a three-Michelin-star restaurant. What about your early childhood? Do you have any specific memories of food? Was your mother a good cook?

I think most chefs have their own food memory of maybe their mother or maybe a grandmother cooking. My mother is probably going to get mad at me for saying this, but I actually don’t think she was very good at cooking. At least I don’t have any specific food memories from my childhood days. I just grew up in a very average middle-class family. I had a very ordinary childhood, I guess.

Namae's transformation from dishwasher to head chef of a three-star Michelin restaurant is no small feat.

So, while at university, you started washing up dishes. When did you actually start to cook?

There weren't a whole lot of dishes to do at the restaurant, but the kitchen was really busy. The chef asked me to help out from time to time – simple jobs like peeling garlic or chopping onions. That was how I began the transition from dishwasher to chef. At some point they bought me a knife and a cutting board and I was soon slicing like maybe three or five kilos of garlic every day.

That’s a lot of garlic! What kind of restaurant was it?

An Italian restaurant chain restaurant. They used a lot; my hands were smelling of garlic and onions all the time. That’s the grand beginning of my chef career!

So how did you go from chopping up three kilos of garlic to three Michelin stars?

I didn’t graduate culinary school and had no proper culinary training. At university I was working through the night until the early morning. I would come back to my apartment at five or six in the morning and sleep for two-and-a-half or three hours, then go to the university. Between classes I always went to the university library, because it was the one quiet place I could take a nap.

In the library there was a small culinary section which no one else was using. I always sat in front of that bookshelf and read cookbooks. Between university and working at the restaurant, I had very little time to go job hunting, so basically I didn’t have much of a choice.

Namae surrounded by nature.

What happened after you graduated? Did you stay at the Italian restaurant?

I eventually left, because the quality of the food was actually really bad. I got more and more interested in food and wanted to work for a professional, really high-level restaurant in Tokyo. But I didn’t have any basic knowledge about French, Japanese, or even Chinese cuisine. The only food that I knew just a tiny bit about was Italian from my experience at the restaurant. I also really liked Italy. I actually used to hate everything about French cuisine.


Yes! Now I cook in the French tradition and run a restaurant with a French name, but I really used to despise all that French snobbery. All the French restaurants in Tokyo used to only serve super-privileged people, and the menu would always be something overly complicated – orange-coloured fluffy something. I didn’t like that style of cooking.

So you thought Italian cooking was more honest?

Yes, a zucchini is a zucchini and is usually served as one. I prefer this kind of honest and simple approach. So I started working at a fine-dining Italian restaurant in Tokyo, but as it was very competitive to work in the kitchen, I started out in the front as service staff. That was a great experience. I learned the whole system of the business: dealing with customers, managing shifts, etc. I think that really taught me more than an old-school traditional chef education working 13 to 14 hours in the kitchen. I was curious about the whole system and the relationship between the restaurant, the customers and the rest of the society.

Rather than attending culinary school, Namae knew he wanted to work with food, and gained professional experience through working in service.

When you opened L’Effervescence, you served more classic French cuisine. I think that has evolved quite a lot, and I know that now you try to use as many local Japanese ingredients as possible. Can you talk a little about this transition?

When we opened the restaurant in 2010, maybe we were using 50 percent Japanese products, and 50 percent products imported from France and Europe. Today, I think 99 percent of our ingredients are locally sourced. Truffles are the only thing I can think of that we still import from France or Italy.

After the great earthquake in 2011, business was slow, so I had time to travel around Japan and search for local ingredients. That was when my approach towards local Japanese ingredients really changed.

What about the style of cooking? Has that also changed?

When I started the restaurant, I felt a little reluctant to use traditional Japanese ingredients like soy sauce, miso, kombu [seaweed] and katsuobushi [bonito flakes] for dashi stock. But the busier and more popular we became, I started thinking about what the value of a French restaurant in Tokyo run by a Japanese chef should be. The more I thought about it, I thought we should incorporate and introduce part of the Japanese food culture and the amazing local produce to our guests. The more I learnt through my travels around the country, and from friends and other chefs, my initial concerns of using traditional Japanese ingredients in a French restaurant disappeared and I started using things like miso, soy sauce, konbu [kelp], etc. Before Covid, many of our guests were overseas visitors and obviously they don’t come to Japan to eat what they could have had in France. They want to get a taste of Japan but in a setting and a style they can relate to.

I think maybe our mission can be defined as welcoming international visitors and offering them a familiar style of European cooking, but made using local flavours and ingredients. For our local Japanese guests, they can hopefully discover new possibilities using local Japanese ingredients. We actually have quite a few Japanese chefs who come here to get inspired.

Let’s go back a bit. You have told me before that French cuisine is like speaking English. It’s the universal language of most modern kitchens. Where did you learn the basics?

After graduating, I was trying to save my money to travel to Italy, because I was so obsessed with Italian cooking and the Italian way of life. But I didn’t have any connections so never managed to go. In 2001, Citabria was planning on opening an international restaurant and the CEO asked me to go to New York for a week and eat everything the city has to offer. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and in betweens. From bagels, Indian to three-Michelin-star dinners. I did that a whole week and ended up stuffed.

I travelled with another sous chef and in order to stay hungry we walked all around Manhattan. We stumbled upon this tiny bookstore that only sells cookbooks, and when I opened the door there was this one book that was calling out to me. When I opened the book I knew this is what I wanted to do.

And which book was that?

Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras. I knew of him, and his cuisine, but I felt his cooking was a little bit too complicated for me, so I had never really studied him in detail. But then the pictures in the book were calling out to me; each of the ingredients are just what they are. A tomato is a tomato. A zucchini a zucchini, and the pumpkins are pumpkins. It’s the total opposite of my narrow mind’s perception of French cuisine. He really opened my mind. I think he was one of the first chefs who made a signature dish only using vegetables. His gargouillou consists of maybe 60 or 70 different kinds of vegetables in one plate. It’s amazing, but also very labour intensive.

At that time he was trying to open a restaurant near Lake Tōya in Hokkaido. Not Tokyo or Kyoto, but far up north in the middle of nowhere. I was very, very interested in working with him, and sent him my resume and applied for a job. After a week of different tests, the Japanese executive chef contacted me and three months later I moved from Tokyo to Hokkaido.

That was also my first real exposure to nature. The restaurant was surrounded by it. No movie theatres, no city life to speak of. Nothing but forest, Lake Tōya and the nearby sea. Every morning I drove from my apartment to the restaurant. I would stop on the way to forage for mountain vegetables, wild fruits, and herbs. The experience really taught me how to connect with nature and of course local farmers. These are the kinds of connections I still cherish today.

Namae puts great emphasis on connecting with nature and local farmers – getting to the source of his ingredients.

The way I choose and source ingredients is not just based on the quality of the product itself. Of course, the taste is very, very important, but it’s not the main point I consider when choosing. Rather, it’s the human connection that I value the most. That’s the reason why I travel all over the country to small farms, and visit fishermen and hunters. I want to meet and talk with the people who make the products and if something feels weird and I cannot communicate well with that person, I don’t buy the products, because there’s no human connection.

You are also very conscious about the environment. Just today, at the beach, you told me about these sea urchins that are multiplying too fast, and are killing all the seaweed, and then that in turn is killing a lot of the smaller fish in this area.

Yes, but this is the kind of information I usually learn about from the food producers. I am a sort of catalyst for delivering the message. I am always listening to and learning from the producers, but they in turn often tell me they are learning from me. This is one reason I think the human connection is so important. We both learn and grow from these interactions.

Do you try to convey some of these issues to your diners?

This is a very interesting point. Some guests are very interested in these kinds of relationships with the producers, but some others don’t care at all. For example, we always present a rather detailed farmers list, with the variety of vegetables that they produce when serving our signature vegetable dish as a presentation of our connections with these farmers. But some customers don’t want that kind of information. Maybe they don’t want to be distracted by too much information. They just want to enjoy their meal.

Namae is very conscious of his work's impact on the environment and makes use of locally-sourced produce.

I’ve learnt that each guest’s motivation for visiting the restaurant is really different. Some guests are keen to learn all about the philosophy behind our restaurant. Some come because they love the fact that we serve so many vegetable dishes. Others come to enjoy the three-Michelin-star dining experience. Or maybe that they come to entertain an important business contact. Everyone has different reasons for coming. I think that’s very interesting.

You got your third Michelin star about two years ago. How important is this for you?

As a leader of the restaurant, my focus is basically on the daily progress. We should be better than yesterday and even better tomorrow. So it’s a kind of accumulative process. I am not doing anything especially different today [than I did] two years ago. I’m just doing what I have been doing all the time. So in that sense, I wasn’t overjoyed or emotional when we got the third star, partly because my goal has never been to become a restaurant with three Michelin stars. Maybe it’s more like just the beginning.

So in that sense I think I didn’t have too much emotion, or an emotional moment, or great feelings about obtaining the Michelin stars, and because my goal was not being the three-Michelin-star chef, and also the restaurant owner says the same – it’s not the goal.

I see. But does it put a lot of pressure on you to keep it?

Actually no, not really. I think because I have confidence in what we are doing. It took 11 years to obtain the three stars. Some restaurants get the second Michelin star in the first year, and then maybe four, five years later they get the third star. But it took us ten years and I think that makes me confident that our approach is right. Also, we have a very loyal following, so even if we were to lose one star, that wouldn’t bother them or me too much.

The power of being a three-Michelin-star restaurant is that more people will now listen to what we are trying to do. I can use it to get my message out to a wider audience.

You also told me that you started school again, you went back to grad school to study microeconomics.

Microeconomics of agriculture. Basically, we called it agriculture, but it’s a study of the whole food system from the producer to the consumer and the relationships between the two. My biggest curiosity right now is around consumers’ preferences. – why some people choose a certain product based on any specific reason, or no specific reason at all.

Is this related to your work in the restaurant, or did you choose to study more out of a personal interest?

Both, I think. I have been lucky to have been invited to many food events in the UK, Europe, the US, and other places around the world. Even though Japan is considered a highly developed country, I’ve noticed that the variety of food available compared to French or American supermarkets is actually quite limited. Of course, these countries also have a huge selection of less expensive junk food, but on the other hand also a wide selection of organic produce and more healthy options. Every time I return from abroad, I always feel that Japan’s food consumption pattern is very traditional and hasn’t really changed in tune with many other countries.

Despite already attaining three Michelin stars, Namae hopes to keep improving and fine-tuning his craft.

Do you feel like as a restaurant chef you have an obligation to kind of help that movement, and how might you help to change the mindset of the Japanese consumers?

I think that our role is not to change the entire economic system. Of course, we don’t have the power to do that, but I also think that every change starts from a tiny little thing that could turn into a chain reaction for positive change. Our role is to be an example of this positive change, by using more environmentally friendly products, and supporting the producers who grow these kinds of ingredients. It doesn’t happen in one day, but by being persistent and patient I think we have made some good progress.

Our thanks to Shinobu Namae for taking the time to speak to us. Photography by Corey Fuller.