Ever since he swirled onto the stage with his arms open wide to accept the Miele One to Watch Award for restaurant Den at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016, chef Zaiyu Hasegawa has been capturing the hearts of cooks around the world with his playful personality. Though he speaks virtually no English, the Japanese chef has developed firm relationships with his international peers, cooking with the likes of French chef Pierre Gagnaire, Gaggan Anand of Gaggan in Thailand and Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil in Mexico.
While he has accumulated a string of accolades including the title of Best Restaurant in Japan, Hasegawa has also earned the respect of chefs for his imaginative cuisine and inimitable service style at Den in Tokyo. This culminated in him winning the Chefs’ Choice title – the only award voted for by those whose restaurants are on the 50 Best list. While he celebrates his achievement, he talks through some of the characters behind his success.
Hasegawa accepting the Chefs' Choice Award with Maria Faus, Estrella Damm
The person who inspired me to be a chef: my mother
My mother is a geisha, and I always used to look forward to the food that she would bring back from the ryōtei (high-end Japanese restaurant) where she worked. From there, my interest in food grew and I began to think about becoming a chef.
My mother cooks for me and my family with her heart. I wanted to be like her, to cook for my guests in the same way a mother cooks for her children, with the same sense of care and attentiveness.
Hasegawa's mother, Setsuko (geisha stage name Chiharu)
The Japanese chef I admire: Seiji Yamamoto, RyuGin
We are both Japanese chefs, but I admire him for the impact he has on spreading Japanese cuisine to the world. Because of him, people have gained interest in Japanese cooking and come to Japan for it. This is also something I aspire to do with Den.
Yamamoto on stage at Asia's 50 Best Restaurants
The non-Japanese chef who taught me something important: Alex Atala, D.O.M.
He treats everyone with the same importance and attention. From his service staff, porters, cleaning staff to his sous chef, everyone is treated equally. When I first started Den, we were a ‘nobody,’ but the first collaboration I ever did abroad was with Alex Atala. He taught me so much about humility.
Alex Atala (Rubens Kato) and sea bass, açaí berry, yam and baniwa chilli (Ricardo D'Angelo)
The chef I’d most like to collaborate with: Riccardo Camanini, Lido 84
I tried his food three years ago at an event but only recently got to meet him in person. I really admire his style and have been wanting to cook with him for a long time. I hope my dream will come true this year.
Riccardo Camanini (Francesco Cancarini)
The non-chef who has been important to my career: my wife, Emi Hasegawa
My wife is also the front of house manager of Den. She is like the mother of my team. Her attention to detail and her commitment to delivering the best experience to every single customer make us a good team. Sometimes, our guests come just to meet her, rather than trying my food.
Hasegawa (middle) with his wife, Emi (third from left) and Den team
One other person who inspired me in my career: Nobuo Hagiwara
He was the chef of the first restaurant I worked at, Uotoku in Kagurazaka. He taught me everything I needed to know about Japanese cooking. [Hagiwara passed away; his son now runs the restaurant]
Header image: Hasegawa with the Den team at #50BestTalks: Vital Ingredients in Macao
The 2019 edition of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced at a ceremony in Macao last month. Watch the highlights: