Zaiyu Hasegawa’s Tokyo restaurant delivers a singular gastronomic experience. Customised for each guest, thoughtfully crafted step by step and executed with kindness and humour by the front of house team, service at Den is unique in more ways than one. In our article, chef Hasegawa highlights five…
One of the 1,040 anonymous voters who form The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 Academy describes Den as “the embassy of Japan for all foodies in the world”. Another highlights that for them, “Den is more than a restaurant – it is a home away from home, the most hospitable restaurant in the world”. Reading these comments, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the Tokyo restaurant was voted the winner of the 2019 Art of Hospitality Award, sponsored by Legle.
Since opening in 2007, Den has grown into a must-visit gastronomic destination in Asia, in part by refusing to compromise between outstanding food and a world-beating service experience. “Amazing and personalised hospitality is paired with fun and engaging dishes that are deceptively traditional. This is punk-rock kaiseki cuisine,” shares another member of the 50 Best Academy.
Although hospitality is carried out with the utmost spontaneity, it is the fruit of a team effort and every member’s individual research into the art of making guests feel welcome. “The way we see hospitality is based on the Japanese spirit of omotenashi – we serve our guests as individuals and we try to anticipate their needs to make them feel valued and respected,” says Hasegawa. “I hope the award will allow the Japanese spirit of omotenashi to be understood on a global level, especially prior the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020.”
Hasegawa and his team at work
The front of house at Den is managed by Hasegawa’s wife, Emi, whose welcoming personality goes hand in hand with her husband’s thoughtful culinary touches. “Hospitality is not a one-person job, it requires a team effort,” says Emi. “Our biggest motivation to give guests the best possible experience comes from their positive responses and eagerness to return. Our regulars know all our staff by name. Once this personal connection has been established, hospitality comes naturally, as we are welcoming our friends to our home.”
Discover five unexpected ways in which the Den team executes their outstanding hospitality in all aspects of the dining experience.
1. No online reservations policy
The only way to make a reservation at Den is by calling the restaurant – you will not get in by booking online or through a concierge service. “We want to maintain a direct and personal contact with our guests,” says Hasegawa. “From their voice, mannerisms, accents and responses, we can pick up cues on the kind of guests they may be, thus enabling us to better anticipate their needs and expectations.” The reservation team also notes down when overseas guests will first arrive in Japan, to ensure they won’t be too jetlagged when they visit the restaurant.
2. A bright atmosphere and no music
Den’s dining room is bright, with a big communal table at the centre of the room facing the open kitchen. “This helps to create an open space where everyone can see everything and talk to everyone else. We used a lot of wood in the furnishings to create a homely and relaxed atmosphere,” says Hasegawa. To encourage communication both among customers and between the team and the guests, there is no music at Den, which "allows the team to listen intently to what’s happening in the dining room, and to respond quicker to small incidents such as fallen chopsticks."
3. No two menus are the same
“Our menu changes not only with the seasons, but also with the person,” says Hasegawa. “We personalise the menu to each guest according to our conversations with them, their reactions to previous courses and their drinks preferences. The menu takes shape as we get to know the guest better over the course of the meal, as well as over time during their repeat visits – we want them to try new things every time they come, so we never serve the same dish twice. We also adjust portion sizes, as some guest might want to save more space for dessert!”
4. Developing a rounded relationship with the guest
Everyone in the Den team – from kitchen brigade to service staff, as well as Hasegawa himself – has to feel at home in the dining room. The chefs often leave the open kitchen to explain their dishes to the guests, and everyone in the team makes an effort to talk to the people in the restaurant. “We want to know them better, so we can serve them better. We talk to them about anything, from their eating experience in Japan to their favourite Ghibli character… There is nothing we don’t talk about,” says Hasegawa.
5. A special furry appearance
A visit at Den wouldn’t be complete without a cuddle with Hasegawa’s Instagram-famous chihuahua, Puchi Jr. The dog is considered a member of the team and contributes to making guests feel welcomed and loved. “Most our returning guests don’t come back just for the food, they come back to see our team, and more often, to see Puchi Jr.,” adds Hasegawa.
Watch Hasegawa explain why his team is the soul of Den at #50BestTalks: Vital Ingredients, presented by Miele, in Macao:
The 2019 list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants was announced on 25 June from Singapore. Browse the new list and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for all the news, features and updates.