Always a work in progress

COULD there be anything better than bread and butter? How about a spread made of sour cream and dehydrated tofu?

This unlikely combination is served at L'Effervescence, in place of butter, as there is a shortage of it in Japan.

Its executive chef Shinobu Namae introduced it at his restaurant six months ago, and says the spread is "a most appreciated item on the menu. Sometimes, diners end up eating too much bread as a result". He couldn't get a ready supply of quality butter, and didn't want to have olive oil as an alternative.

Chef Namae was in Singapore earlier this month for a "four hands" dinner with Bacchanalia's head chef Ivan Brehm. The two met when they were working at The Fat Duck in 2008.

The Yokohama-born chef had initial plans to be a journalist before he decided to settle for a career in the kitchen. The turning point was when he stumbled upon Bras, a cookbook by acclaimed French chef Michel Bras, which got him interested in French cooking.

Chef Namae was a sous chef at Michel BRAS TOYA Japon in Hokkaido before joining The Fat Duck. "I learnt from chef Bras what a good chef should be - honest and sincere. You have to be sincere to your creations. You can copy an idea but you have to be yourself," he recalls fondly of his mentor.

He returned to Tokyo to open a restaurant when the opportunity cropped up. L'Effervescence, which opened in 2010, is a two Michelin-starred establishment, and is ranked No 12 on the Asia's Best 50 Restaurants list.

Chef Namae describes his cuisine as modern French - "food cooked using French cooking techniques but with Japanese flavours", he explains. "I am Japanese, and I want to acknowledge my palate and background."

For him, having that umami richness, very much a Japanese element, in a dish is so important - even for something as basic as bread spread. "The umami from the dehydrated tofu, mixed with the fat from the sour cream and finished with some extra virgin olive oil makes this the perfect spread," he explains.

Asked about his favourite cooking techniques, he says "one is very slow, and the other is fast and aggressive".

By that he means that he likes the process of preserving or fermenting food, using koji or bacteria, and then using ingredients, such as shiitake mushrooms or cabbage to create different flavoured dashi.

On the other end of the scale, fast and aggressive cooking refers to the use of a charcoal box to cook - anything from meats, vegetables to shellfish. "I like cooking with an open fire as it gives food a smoky, aromatic flavour," he says. He uses oak from Iwate prefecture.

Other chefs may proclaim luxurious ingredients such as foie gras and wagyu as their signature dishes, but for Chef Namae it is the humble turnip that best represents him.

"The turnip is an underrated vegetable in France, it is even used as animal feed and often not a main focus of a dish," he notes. "But I want to put focus on it to appreciate its humble taste."

Turnip has been on his menu since day one, in a dish named A Fixed Point. The turnip is cooked for four hours and then seared in brown butter, accompanied with brioche croutons and crumbled Iberian ham.

Vegetables feature widely on his menu, even if they are not apparent. He ponders and then announces that a diner would have tasted 150 varieties of vegetables at the end of meal, from Jerusalem artichoke to kabosu and burdock. He declares that L'Effervescence has the highest variety of vegetables on its menu compared with other French restaurants in Tokyo.

But why so many vegetables? "I want to support the local vegetable farmers," he says. "They like growing all kinds of vegetables, and if there is no demand for them, they may just stop growing. I accept any kinds of vegetables."

He personally visits the farmers, and will work with those whom he gets on well with, regardless of the quality of vegetables. Personal relationships are crucial to him as a chef. "My relationship with the farmers is more important than the taste of the vegetable," he adds.

Outside of work, Chef Namae cooks, but when it comes to personal favourite foods, he doesn't have one particular favourite. Instead, it depends on the season. In spring, he enjoys wild mountain vegetables; in summer, it is the ayu fish; in autumn, he likes mushrooms, and come winter, he enjoys a hotpot.

It is much like his menu at the restaurant, which changes with every season. Strawberries are in season now, and he's working on using them for a new dessert.

After he creates a new dish, the sommelier gets a taste of it, to find a complementary wine. Next, his other chefs and servers sample the dish. "I see their reaction. Sometimes they break into a smile, other times, it is silence," he says. "For every one success, there are 10 failures."

The signs are there that L'Effervescence is pretty much a successful restaurant - the industry accolades that it gets, a waiting list for those who don't make a reservation fast enough, and invitations for Chef Namae to collaborate with other renowned chefs overseas.

Perhaps, then, Chef Namae is being true to his Japanese roots when he says humbly: "I see myself as a work in progress."

This article was first published on January 30, 2016.
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