Japanese chef at the top of La Liste says he’s not great — yet

Japanese chef at the top of La Liste says he's not great -- yet

Paris (AFP) – Yosuke Suga does not believe he is a great chef — not yet anyway.

The statistics tell a different story.

The fresh-faced Japanese cook is at the very top of La Liste, the most scientific of all the world’s culinary rankings.

Suga shares the top spot with culinary gods such as France’s Guy Savoy and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York, the best friend of the late legendary food icon Anthony Bourdain. 

While both Savoy and Ripert have the maximum three Michelin stars, Suga doesn’t even have one yet for Sugalab, his tiny 20-seat restaurant hidden away behind a coffee house in Tokyo’s Azabudai district.

Which makes his rapid rise all the more remarkable given that La Liste aggregates reviews from the world’s top guides, newspapers and websites.

But Suga, 43, insists he is not quite there yet. 

“I don’t have a signature dish so I am not yet a great chef,” he told AFP without a hint of false modesty just before he was honoured at La Liste’s gala dinner in Paris on Monday.

Having been an assistant to the late French superchef Joel Robuchon — the most starred ever — the bar has been set high.

“One day I hope to be one,” he added.

But for now Suga is on a quest.

Shrugging off the financial hit, every month he closes his restaurant for three or four days so he can travel Japan with his team looking for new ingredients and producers. 

– Robuchon’s ‘right arm’ –

He is after hyper-seasonality, to get the very best ingredients and cook them at just the right moment.

“It is not like going to the market. We try to understand why we should use a product now and not in a month’s time,” he told AFP.

Last month that meant going to the Ishikawa peninsula in the west of Japan for a particular type of squid. While there they found a variety of lotus root just coming into season. 

“We made a stuffing from wild Japanese duck stew reduced with Madeira wine and foie gras and then fried it wrapped in the grated lotus root. Had we not gone and met the farmer, we probably would never have made this,” he said.

He never quite says it, but Sugalab’s small size and fierce local focus seem also to be something of a reaction to the 17 years Suga spent globetrotting as Robuchon’s “right arm” — which included being put in charge of the 100-strong team of his two-star Tokyo restaurant at just 25.

“Age is very important in Japan and it is not easy to give orders to people who are older than me,” the chef admitted.

But Robuchon, a man of very few words, clearly saw some of his own steel and passion in his young protege.

– ‘I am quite demanding’ –

“He didn’t explain much, he would just look at you, and it would pass like that, unsaid,” Suga recalled.

“He was my master. He taught me so much,” he said, from the cut and texture of a perfect steak tartare to the clear beef and shellfish consommes that took a devilish amount of technique.

But most of all, “I learned that it was about working so the customers come back”.

Suga struck out on his own in 2014 with a team of just five cooks, which has since grown to 12.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do at Sugalab,” he admitted. “I just wanted to make the most simple, essential food — things I would want to eat myself.”

That meant largely turning his back on French haute cuisine and going on a voyage of discovery back to his roots, seeking out the best of a country he had left at 18.

“I love French food, but it just didn’t feel natural without the same products you would find in France.”  

There were some things French, however, that he could not bear to forgo — foie gras, wine and truffles.

“I learned so many things in France,” said Suga, who comes from three generations of chefs trained in the French classical tradition.

“It’s a happy marriage” of food cultures, he added.

Indeed he has tempted back a former colleague, Ryo Nagashama, one of many young Japanese chefs who have made a name for themselves in France, to head up a new restaurant he is opening in Louis Vuitton’s new boutique in Osaka in February.

“He accepted because he is the only person who can work with me,” Suga said, only half joking.

“I am quite demanding, like my master, and I put a lot of passion and emotion into what I do.”

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