Through his use of Japanese ingredients imbued with the intense passion of the producers, Nagaya hopes to exhibit the supreme quality of Japanese products.
Yoshizumi Nagaya - Owner & Chef of Nagaya
After training at Kandagawa in Osaka and Takada Hassho in Gifu Prefecture, Nagaya relocated to Germany with his family in 2000. Having worked at a number of different restaurants, he opened his own, Nagaya, in 2003. His culinary style fuses Asian and European cuisines. The restaurant moved to a new location within the same city of Düsseldorf in 2009. Soon after, he was awarded his first Michelin star. Nagaya is also an official Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassador for Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
What made you decide to become a chef of Japanese cuisine?
My family was in the wholesale business, selling fish to restaurants. When I was a child, I’d often go to the market during the summer holidays; I was completely at home in the hustle and bustle of the hospitality business. My mother loved sushi, and for a time I thought about training to be a sushi chef. Becoming a chef of Japanese cuisine felt like a completely natural path for me to take.
What was the reason behind your move to Germany?
After I graduated high school, I spent seven years training at Kandagawa, a famous Japanese restaurant in Osaka, and then at Takada Hassho, another Japanese restaurant in my home prefecture of Gifu. At some point during my training, my wife told me she was seriously interested in living overseas, and we began doing some research. We wanted somewhere that would be easy to adapt to, with a Japanese language school for our child to attend. Based on those criteria, we eventually settled on Düsseldorf in Germany, and I found a position there as head chef in a Japanese restaurant.
It wasn’t always plain sailing, but the local people were very kind and helpful to us, and before long I managed to open a restaurant of my own.
20 years ago, it was still very unusual for a Japanese person to open a restaurant overseas, wasn’t it
The biggest problem was the language barrier. Money was also very tight when I first opened the restaurant – I’m sure most young people understand that issue. I made the countertops myself; anything I could do on my own, I did, gradually making improvements as I went along.
I honour the cha-kaiseki spirit of hospitality, adapting dishes to my customers' tastes.
How have you adapted your cooking style to suit your European customers?
I quickly found out that trying to do everything the Japanese way, the way I’d always learned until then, wouldn’t work at all in Germany. At that time, a growing number of German people were encountering Japanese food on holidays to Japan, New York and so on, and awareness of Japanese food was spreading, but I always heard the same complaint: that it was tasteless and bland. Aroma is extremely important in European cuisine – wine is a prime example. Aromas are treated as key components of a good meal, chefs blend and layer them upon each other. Japanese cuisine, on the other hand, is kept as simple as possible so as to highlight the natural flavors of the ingredients – it’s a completely different philosophy. I had to come up with a new approach, taking the preferences of the local people as a starting point.
Foods with strong saltiness and strong acidity, such as sauerkraut, are popular in Germany. In my cooking, I make use of creamy textures, focus on making dishes as visually appealing as possible, and add textural accents like nuts to increase their interest. I realise that from the perspective of orthodox Japanese cuisine, my cooking may be somewhat unconventional. However, this style is the result of carefully considering the tastes of my customers.
The fundamentals of Japanese cuisine were born from cha-kaiseki, which is about offering the finest possible hospitality to your guests. That philosophy is what I keep foremost in mind in order to please my own customers.
For many years now, your restaurant has been known as one of the best Japanese restaurants in Europe. How have you maintained that status?
I’m never content to stand still, always looking to take things to the next level. Aiming for a second Michelin star is a straightforward goal that I and the whole staff can work towards together.
What would you say you’ve learned over the past 20 years of running a restaurant in Germany?
The food world constantly evolves as new eras bring new trends and different needs. It’s important to always keep your ear to the ground and stay abreast of these changes. Keeping in touch with your customer base this way lets you know what they expect from you, giving you the direction for improvement.
In recent years, for example, we’ve been receiving a lot of enquiries from vegan customers. People in Europe are very interested in shojin ryori (vegetarian cuisine originally developed by Buddhist monks) and macrobiotics, and we’re often asked if we offer that kind of cuisine.
You’ve been involved in promoting Japanese culture overseas for a long time now – what aspects in particular are you keen for people to learn about?
I want people to know about the superb quality of Japanese products. In Europe, the emphasis tends to be on factors like profitability and efficiency, whereas Japanese producers are extremely passionate about quality, pouring so much love and dedication into what they do. I find ingredients produced with that level of care extremely enjoyable to work with. We procure a lot of ingredients from Japan for the restaurant.
I teach various things at Japanese cultural events – like the proper ways to cook and eat Japanese ingredients, for example – but it’s an exchange; I have the chance to hear all kinds of fresh ideas that a Japanese person would never come up with. That’s a lot of fun. The young chefs in particular are full of original and interesting ideas.
Many chefs around the world have a keen interest in Japanese cuisine and are experimenting with incorporating it into their own styles of cooking. Part of my mission is to make sure that people aren’t working with inaccurate information. To that end, I prioritise teaching basic preparation and cooking methods, providing correct knowledge.
What effect has the Coronavirus had on your restaurant? How are you coping with the situation?
It’s been a very difficult time, not just for my restaurant, but for the whole industry. However, I’m a believer in the saying that ‘crisis is the mother of invention’; we may see some interesting new ideas come out of this. In any case, producers and all of us in the restaurant business are doing our best to overcome the challenges, and we’re very grateful for everyone’s support and encouragement.
Lastly, could I ask for a message to the young people out there hoping to become chefs of Japanese cuisine?
You can’t rush headlong into something new without a solid foundation. When it comes to cooking, it’s important to start by getting a firm grasp of the basics. Remember that traditions, ways of doing things that have been passed down year after year, have survived for good reason. When it comes to running a restaurant, it’s not just about culinary skill or savvy management, you need a balance of both. Once we come through the Coronavirus crisis, I’m sure many opportunities are going to open up. In the meantime, please stay strong – we can overcome this.
Running a Japanese restaurant in Germany gave Nagaya a fresh appreciation for excellent Japanese produce and the people behind it. He honours the spirit of cha-kaiseki while adapting his cuisine to European tastes. Even where lifestyles and culture are completely different, fine quality is always welcomed – Nagaya’s restaurant is a shining example of this universal truth.