Hajime - Pursuing Uncompromised Perfection Through Science
Graduating from Kinki University with a degree in electronic engineering, Yoneda originally worked as an engineer. He then attended a culinary college, going on to train in Osaka, Kobe, and France. In 2005, he became a chef de partie at The Windsor Hotel Toya’s restaurant, Michel Bras Toya Japon, and in 2008, opened his first restaurant. The following year saw him become the fastest-ever recipient of three Michelin stars. His restaurant’s accolades include being ranked among Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and the Foodie Top 100 Restaurants.
I’ve heard that you decided to become a chef in spite of being artistically talented. What do you think about the relationship between food and art?
I regard cooking as a synthesis of many art forms. It can be enjoyed through sight, smell, touch, sound and taste; it stimulates all five senses, making it a more complete sensory experience than other forms of entertainment such as theatre.
You once said that “great food is just like great music”. That made a deep impression on me.
I was in the science and engineering department at university, and when I started studying music, it was through the lens of neuroscience. If we consider the question of why people are emotionally moved by music, from a neuroscientific standpoint, it’s due to the rise and fall of musical notes causing the brain to produce dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure. I wondered if similar responses could be triggered by food. When I create my course meals, I’m always thinking about how I can incorporate a message into each dish, something to provoke just a bit more of an emotional response from the diner.
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from?
I have thought that my aesthetic sense, or true sense of beauty was not actually gained through studying. From the age of 1 to 4, I lived my life surrounded by nature of mountains and rivers where back then, I subconsciously felt the harmony and beauty within the natural world. I believe my true sense of beauty was born from there. Now, I use that sense of real beauty as a pillar to compose ideas for my cooking.
So, you create dishes based on the beauty of nature. What other aspects of cooking are important to your vision?
It’s about the details; I think it’s important to be able to explain every element of the process – why an ingredient is cut to a certain size, why you choose one cooking method over another, why you use a particular seasoning, and so on. When you’re heating something, there’s a world of difference between 10℃ and 100℃. You need to be conscious of the details so you understand why when something needs to be heated at exactly 46.4℃.
I have faith in my own sensibilities and aesthetic sense, expressing them through food.
How did you develop an original style, distinct from any other chef’s? In May 2012, you removed the ‘French cuisine’ from your restaurant’s name; how was that decision made?
I don’t think very much about what other chefs are making, I just express my own sense of beauty through my cooking. When I asked myself what my own style of cooking is, I eventually reached the conclusion that it’s not something you learn from those around you, you have to create based on what you truly believe is delicious and beautiful.
When I graduated university, I first worked as an engineer before becoming a French chef at age 26. But if you ask me what kind of food I was eating up to that point, it was all homestyle Japanese food, ramen, everyday dishes like that. And if we go back further, to my childhood, I was living a life that was very in tune with the four seasons, observing the way plants and animals changed through spring, summer, autumn and winter. It’s always been my goal to express the natural beauty of that cycle through my cooking, and I felt I no longer wanted to be tied to any particular genre or label, cooking in my own unique style instead.
And that was why you felt there was no need for the ‘French cuisine’ label on your restaurant. You’ve been known as a culinary genius since becoming the fastest-ever recipient of three Michelin stars. What are your thoughts on that, and how did receiving that accolade change your life?
I was incredibly grateful, of course. However, at that point in time, I felt I was still only part way to achieving my goals, so I don’t think receiving that award really changed me.
When you switched paths from engineer to chef, it was a leap into completely unknown territory. Was that a difficult time for you? I believe you used to practice karate, has that had any influence on your work?
When I quit as an engineer, I had absolutely no experience of cooking, so it was failure after failure to begin with. I was constantly being told off at the restaurant I worked at.
I began practicing karate after I graduated university, until I was about 30. I’d also done some judo and kendo as a child. When practicing martial arts, it’s essential that you’re able to engage in internal dialogue and discipline your spirit. I believe the way you temper your mind and body as a martial artist has something in common with the internal process you go through when cooking, where you need to have a kind of ‘dialogue’ with the ingredients.
As the manager of your restaurant, what kind of training do you offer your staff, and how do you maintain an excellent level of service?
When it comes to training, I believe there are some aspects you can put into words, and some you can’t. The former can be communicated in words and numbers. However, in a situation where several people eat the same food, each will have their own slightly differing perception of what makes it delicious. This aspect, people’s palate and intuition for flavor, is something that can’t be taught with words, but instead develops with experience over a long period of time.
Do you have any goals for the future? Any dreams you haven’t yet realised?
In future, it’s possible that people will be spending more time living in space. My dream for the future is to cook in space. Currently, most space food comes in tubes, but once space travel becomes more widely accessible, I’d love to test the limits of cooking in zero gravity and see if I can produce a proper meal instead.
What a fantastic dream! Lastly, I’d like to ask about the Coronavirus pandemic. You’ve put your name to a petition to call for aid for Japan’s hospitality sector. How is the situation at your restaurant?
The pandemic has affected us very badly. More and more restaurants all over Japan are being forced to close their doors; the industry is in a critical state. I want to make sure our voices continue to be heard by the government. I’m sure that someday soon, life will return to normal, and domestic and international travel will resume, so until then let’s just stay positive and keep doing the best we can.
Chef Yoneda’s undeniably unique dishes, each one a work of art in itself, are created not merely with intuition, but through precise calculations based in gastronomic science. The fine attention to detail and accuracy demanded by science, coupled with long years of experience – these are surely the key to the genius of Chef Yoneda. This formidable combination has made him a shining star of the culinary world.
Photos by Mashashi Kuma