Chef, changemaker and icon – Shinobu Namae on his vision for ethical gastronomy

nick coldicott - 21/02/2023

Once a politics student, Japanese chef Shinobu Namae is finding new ways to inject his culinary vision with sustainability, ethics and refreshing authenticity at L’Effervescence in Tokyo. Nick Coldicott catches up with the winner of the Icon Award for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 to hear more about his story, mission and future

When Mr and Mrs Namae sent their son Shinobu off to Japan’s elite Keio University to study the politics of developing nations – the kind of education that opens almost any door in Japan – they weren’t counting on his head being turned by a bucket of onions.

But Shinobu needed money and found a part-time job in a pasta joint near campus; it pointed him in a direction that would dismay his parents but, 30 years later, earn him the Icon Award 2023 from Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Shinobu Namae says his culinary interest was piqued when he got promoted from dishwasher to onion chopper. “I was cutting three kilos a day and five kilos of garlic,” he says. “My curiosity lit up. I felt so privileged to be holding a knife instead of a sponge.”

He wanted to cook. Italian food ideally. Anything but French. “I had a strong bias against French cuisine,” he says. Too complicated, he thought, and too grandiose for a guy like him. His heart was in Italy. He wanted to live like an Italian, liberated from the straitjacket of Japanese society. The problem was: he had no idea how to get there. He had no connections. He didn’t even know how to get a visa.
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Chef Namae first worked in a restaurant while a university student, rising from dish washer to onion chopper

Instead, he found work at a respected Italian restaurant in Tokyo, then joined a project to open a fusion restaurant. His new boss sent him to New York for a week to gorge on as much international cuisine as he could handle. “I had so many meals each day that I had to walk up and down Manhattan burning the calories off,” he recalls. On one of those walks, he stumbled on the culinary bookshop Kitchen Arts & Letters.

Inside, just one publication was open. “Like a divine revelation,” Namae says. The book was Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras, and it cured him of his Francophobia: “Michel Bras was very genuine and honest to the ingredients. He leaves their shape: a tomato is like a tomato, an eggplant looks like an eggplant, and I really loved that.”  

Then, another sign: news that Bras was opening a restaurant in Hokkaido, Japan. Namae got himself a week-long trial and was smitten from the start. “Amazing kitchen, amazing chefs, beautiful environment and landscape,” he says. “I grew up in such a big city [Yokohama], so I was fascinated by the beauty of nature, and then I realised: OK, maybe this is my place.”

Bras must have been smitten, too, because just three years later he made Namae his sous chef, elevating him above colleagues who were older and more experienced, many of them graduates of top culinary academies. With time, and humility, that situation became less awkward. The chef thinks his sparse resume helped. “I was just a whiteboard without anything on it,” he says. “I really loved the chef and absorbed everything. So my feelings about his philosophy were maybe much stronger than anyone else’s in the kitchen.”

After five years, though, he started wondering what else was out there. “I wanted another weapon,” as he puts it, so he went to work for Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in Bray, UK. Bras and Blumenthal are very different characters – one looking to nature, the other to science – but Namae saw similarities. Both are self-taught, both took the industry in new directions, both inspired him.

A new start in Tokyo

By 2010 Namae was ready for his own restaurant and opened LEffervescence in Tokyos upscale Nishi Azabu district. On the plate was a blend of ideas from his two mentors that won praise from the critics, but that he describes now as “weird and ridiculous”. “I was trying to put so much wild herbs, obscure plants and foraged stuff, plus lots of emulsifiers and bubbles and liquid nitrogen,” he says. "It was not so natural.”

Namae has honed his philosophy in the decade-and-a-bit since then. These days it’s French method, French flow, more Bras than Blumenthal, with 99 per cent Japanese ingredients – only truffles and the occasional Bhutanese matsutake are flown in.
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Fixed Point, L’Effervescence's signature turnip dish, symbolises the restaurant’s journey

The molecular touches have receded, the sous vide machine has less work to do, but is still critical for the signature dish – the turnip immersed in a bath for four hours then basted with butter. That dish has been on the menu since opening day. It was supposed to be a temporary, seasonal offering, but just as Namae was planning to replace it on the menu, an earthquake struck in 2011 in Japan. In the aftermath, with Tokyo in survival mode, L’Effervescence sometimes had 24 staff serving just one customer a day – hardly the time to implement a new menu. So the turnip stayed, and stayed, became the signature, and is now named ‘Fixed Point’ because "it was our starting point, and we can see from that dish how far we've come”.

He could measure it in accolades, too. L’Effervescence has been a fixture on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants lists since 2014 and received the third Michelin star in 2021, for example, along with a green star for sustainability. But perhaps the best measure is this latest award, because Namae is an icon for far more than his culinary talent.

Looking beyond the kitchen

The chef is acutely aware of the disparity between the scale of his reputation and the sliver of society who can afford to eat at L’Effervescence, and he is determined to leverage his position.

“The fine dining world is such a small community, for maybe like 3 or 5 per cent of very privileged people,” he says. “But I’d like to expand the scope of fine-dining skills and knowledge to benefit the community, for society.” So he studies agricultural economics and marine biology and talks passionately about biodiversity, marine desertification and the missteps in Japanese forestry policy.

At a community level, Namae hopes to inspire people to be more thoughtful about what they eat. He worries about the supermarkets using big data to narrow our food options, and the impact this has on farmers. He has taken parents and children on diving trips to collect seaweed with professional harvesters, then fed them dishes using their haul, because he believes that you can effect real change if you can get families to take the ideas home and keep talking. His menu and website list the artisans who provide him with everything, from his sugar to his celeriac, not as a flex about ingredient quality but in the hope that people will reach out and buy from the small producers. 
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Namae wants the gastronomic world to reconsider its relationship with produce

On a national level, he hopes his megaphone will bring pressure on the Japanese government. He wants it to be more transparent about what’s happening in the waters that surround Japan, saying he has found official charts with critical data missing: the equivalent of the authorities shouting “Nothing to see here!”

And on an global level, he says Japan’s leaders are sensitive to international pressure, so if he can use his position to turn up that pressure, he will. Last year he gave a speech at the United Nations headquarters about how to revive coastal waters. And when Covid-19 forced his restaurant to close for a period, he found the pre-service adrenaline was still coursing through him, but now without purpose.

“It was a bad situation mentally. I had to do something,” he says. So he went back to education, this time to the University of Tokyo’s graduate school, and began work on another of his concerns: are restaurants important to society, and if they are, do people see it? “I was all the time thinking: 'how can I make this industry valuable?’ Maybe I can do it through social science.”

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L’Effervescence strives not just to feed but also to educate its diners

His master’s thesis, An Analysis of the Value of the Restaurant Industry, will be published next month and is based on interviews with a quintet of fellow three-Michelin-starred chefs – Noma’s René Redzepi, Hyotei’s Yoshihiro Takahashi, Quintessence’s Shuzo Kishida, SingleThread’s Kyle Connaughton and Sazenka’s Tomoya Kawada.

He says he hopes to create a bridge between academia and the restaurant industry, inspiring others to become more efficient, more useful, a more essential part of the social fabric. “[I’m doing this] because the restaurant industry is always vigorously utilising energy for useless things, like unnecessary anger in the kitchen or people needing to outdo others,” he says.

All of this, beyond his work in the kitchen, is what makes Shinobu Namae an icon, though he isn’t completely buying that idea. It’s customary, of course, for award winners to say they don’t deserve the acclaim, but in Namae’s case it’s more an academic question than a qualitative one.

“I didn't know what ‘icon’ meant so I opened the dictionary,” he says.

And? “I didn't get the idea."

At least it might finally convince his parents that he took the right path all those years ago.

“No, nothing changed there,” he says. “They still think kitchen work is the least-respected, easiest work.”

Namae’s life tells a different story.

Now meet Chef Namae in the video:

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