Japanese tradition meets playful execution at
Highest Climber Award winner Den

Giulia Sgarbi - 09/07/2018

Header: Zaiyu Hasegawa collects Den's Highest Climber Award from Sara Peirone of Lavazza; the chef's aged fish sashimi and long-tailed red snapper

Zaiyu Hasegawa’s Tokyo restaurant, Den, has earned a reputation as one of the best and most fun dining experiences in Japan. After the restaurant received the Highest Climber Award, sponsored by Lavazza, at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018, we talk to chef Hasegawa-san to understand the Den experience.

When heading for dinner at Den – the Tokyo restaurant recently voted No.17 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 – you might not be expecting to eat a root vegetable cut into the shape of a smiley face, or a single ant carefully placed on a leaf. But chef Zaiyu Hasegawa’s originality, playfulness and ability to incorporate thoughtful touches in the dishes have propelled Den on an impressive ascent up 28 places in the list from 2017, and are what sets it apart from any other Japanese restaurant. 

Affable in person, Hasegawa never misses a chance to have some fun – including receiving his award at the awards ceremony in Bilbao wearing a t-shirt with a colourful print of his beloved chihuahua, Puchi Jr. This genuine inclination to make people laugh creates a unique atmosphere at his Tokyo restaurant. “I’m always trying to make Den a place where the guests can feel relaxed, even if they’re coming to Japan for the first time,” says Hasegawa. “I hope they can have fun and discover that Japanese cuisine is not difficult at all.”

Hasegawa's signature Garden Salad

Hasegawa’s cuisine is kaiseki – a traditional Japanese style characterised by a multi-course menu of intricate dishes – but at Den he makes an important leap, transforming the formal technique into an accessible, friendly experience. Details such as the smiley root vegetable, reminiscent of the childhood lunch boxes Hasegawa’s mother prepared for him, immediately make you feel close to the Den team, and a certain intimacy develops over a series of dishes personalised to each guest.

Hasegawa oversees the kitchen, while his wife Emi is in charge of the dining room and the execution of the masterful hospitality experience, which won the restaurant an Art of Hospitality Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017. Inspired by the selfless spirit of Japanese hospitality known as omotenashi, the Den team might check the guests’ facial expressions in response to the dishes to gauge and adjust their dining experience, or change the menu based on their health status. A diner with a cold, for instance, may receive a slightly different offer suited to improve their experience.

In 2016, Hasegawa moved the restaurant from its original address in Jimbocho to a new, slightly larger venue in the Jingumae district of Tokyo, with the addition of an open kitchen. This feature allows the chef to observe and quickly respond to the guests’ experiences, as well as taking trips around the dining room to talk to the patrons, often treating them as friends. “When guests tell us that they would love to come again, that’s the moment for me when omotenashi worked,” says Hasegawa.

Of all the courses on the menu, which traditionally includes several steps from sashimi through soup to a grilled course, with seasonally changing ingredients, Hasegawa says that his favourite is the rice course, or gohan in kaiseki tradition. “For most of the Japanese, rice is a very important ingredient of our daily life and culture. I love it when my guests try the Japanese rice,” he says.

Zaiyu Hasegawa and the Den team at The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2018 awards ceremony

Underlying the menu and its unique details is Hasegawa’s desire to open up his country’s culture, cuisine and traditions to everyone, ensuring that diners from any country can enjoy a true taste of Japanese cuisine with a touch of humour. Among the chef’s famous dishes is the Dentucky Fried Chicken – a chicken wing stuffed with sticky rice and seasonal ingredients, juicy and full of flavour, served in a personalised take-away box, where Hasegawa replaces Colonel Sanders.

As for Den’s latest award as the Highest Climber at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018, Hasegawa is still incredulous. “As I waited for Den to be called for a while [at the awards ceremony countdown in Bilbao], I started to wonder if it actually wasn’t on the list,” he laughs. “When I realised we were awarded as the Highest Climber, I really couldn’t believe it was true. I was very surprised and I want to thank all the guests who came to Den.”

While the chef says that the inspiration for his dishes comes from the people around him – from his team to his producers and guests – he is also learning more about local Japanese dishes and travelling around Asia to collaborate with other chefs. Hasagawa’s inherently human cuisine is the true winner of this year’s award, which further motivates him to continue his mission of making Japanese cuisine fun and relatable for everyone.

Now watch the best moments from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018:

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