Shinobu Namae’s entry into the culinary world was not “fancy”. It was just a question of survival – “I had to make money,” he says, laughing.
“Back then, the easiest way to get a job as a student was to become a dishwasher. That’s how I started my career.”
It wasn’t long before Namae was being “thrown” onions and garlic to peel at the restaurant during his free time. Although it wasn’t glamorous work, he enjoyed it.
“There aren’t many jobs that respond immediately to your work. When you serve delicious food, you can see it on customers’ faces,” he told CNBC Make It.
“It’s a very, very nice job to be in the kitchen and see people happy.”
It is an ability to feel for others and to make others feel cared for. That’s a very important part of being a chef in a restaurant.
Chef at L’Effervescence
Thus began a love affair that saw Namae work his way up the kitchens of Japan and England for seven years before opening L’Effervescence in Tokyo 13 years ago.
The restaurant, which spotlights Japanese produce with modern European cooking techniques, has since been awarded three Michelin stars – for the third year in a row.
Most recently, Namae received the Icon award for his contributions to the food world at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 event. His restaurant was ranked 44th on the list.
The 50-year-old chef tells CNBC Make It about his culinary philosophy and what motivates him to keep learning.
From politics to food
Before falling in love with cooking, Namae studied politics at Tokyo’s Keio University – a field he says has parallels with the food world.
“I’ve always been very interested in humanity and what makes us human…Politics is about understanding the relationship between people, communities and nations,” he said.
His work in the food industry has helped him deepen this understanding. Food cultures may differ, but what’s universal is the desire to connect with others and find joy through food, he said.
“We can laugh at our ability…to consume or serve fancy food in a great atmosphere,” Namae said.
“But it is an ability to have compassion for others and to make others feel cared for. That’s a very important part of being a chef in a restaurant.”
That’s why he believes caring for something that takes a person to greater heights is the “fundamental ability” of people — not just chefs.
Most people become narrow-minded because they focus on techniques and details [of dishes]. These are beautiful things, but we also have to take care of our surroundings.
“That’s the starting point for my work as a chef: if we don’t care about the ingredients, we won’t cook well. If we don’t take care of our people, we don’t have a strong team and we will be in trouble,” Namae said.
“If we don’t care about the customer – if a chef only cooks what he or she likes… the business will not thrive.”
ethics of gastronomy
This “fundamental skill” is what drives Namae’s focus on ethical and sustainable gastronomy – which also “inherits care,” he said.
Despite working in a closed kitchen in Nishiazabu, Tokyo, Namae said his thoughts travel “much further” to major crises around the world and accommodate theirs Effects on our food resources.
“Most people become narrow-minded because they focus on techniques and details [of dishes]. Those are beautiful things, but we also have to take care of our surroundings,” Namae said.
That’s why all the ingredients used in L’Effervescence – right down to the soy sauce – come from 100 local farmers, producers and hunters.
Namae’s sustainable ethos is also reflected in his signature dish, Fixed Point – a whole turnip with no part waste, slow-cooked for four hours, with brioche, ham and parsley.
The chef’s passion for reducing the impact of fine dining on the climate led him to get involved in initiatives to reduce illegal fishing at WWF Japan.
Most recently, he graduated from the University of Tokyo with a Masters in Agricultural Sciences.
But even after all he’s accomplished, Namae says the work of understanding humanity through food is never done.
“If I could, I would love to continue working like the legendary Jiro-san, who even at 97 is still making sushi behind the counter,” he said, referring to world-renowned chef Jiro Ono, who was featured in the documentary ” Jiro’s Dreams of Sushi.
“Never stop discovering – that’s the hard part as a chef, but also a very, very exciting part.”
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