Yoji Tokuyoshi: When Ambitions Takes Over
When several doors close, one opens. This is arguably the story of Yoji Tokuyoshi, Japanese Michelin star chef and owner of Ristorante Tokuyoshi, Milan.
The door belonged to notorious Osteria Francescana of Modena, Italy, where Yoji ended up staying for 10 years as sous chef to Massimo Bottura, revolutionizing the Italian cuisine and racking up an impressive total of three Michelin stars for the restaurant. After a decade at one of the best restaurants in the world, Yoji took a gap year to travel the world in preparation for creating his very own style of cuisine and open his self-titled restaurant. This eventually became a reality in February 2015, when Ristorante Tokuyoshi saw the light of day – notably earning it’s first Michelin star in record time. In 2018 Ristorante Tokuyoshi will undergo a massive change and reveal the true vision of ‘Contaminated Italian Cuisine’ creator, Yoji Tokuyoshi.
We‘ve had a chat with Yoji about the challenges connected to opening his own restaurant, constantly evolving his cuisine, and looked into the future by discussing the new vision for his brainchild, Ristorante Tokuyoshi.
After 10 years at Osteria Francescana, you took a year off traveling around the world. When did you realize that you wanted to open your own restaurant?
When you’re working hard in a Michelin kitchen it’s as if the real world disappears. I took a year off to take a break from the remote world that a Michelin kitchen is. During that year, I traveled the world and I studied economics and politics – and tasting lots of different foods. I decided to open up my own restaurant at a point when I was full of inspiration, grit, and the desire to create something new. That is basically also how my cuisine came about.
You received a great recognition and a Michelin star shortly after opening your restaurant. What was I like to receive this recognition shortly after your opening?
It felt great. My cuisine was heavily criticized especially at the beginning. To some extent it was expected – all newly opened restaurants are criticized in the beginning. But my cuisine was particularly so, because of its novel and playful approach to Italian cuisine. A new concept is never understood from the beginning and often has Ristorante Tokuyoshi been mistaken for being a Japanese restaurant. I’ve understood that change makes people feel unease. Every day I try to turn this fear of the unknown into curiosity and, when we succeed, into appreciation. But there will always be people whom I won’t succeed in clearly communicating my message to. In short, the recognition of the Michelin star so early on definitely warmed and helped nourishing a more attentive and curious clientele.
How did you come up with the concept of Tokuyoshi? What inspired you to develop the idea of ‘Contaminated Italian Cuisine’?
The concept of the Cucina Contaminata came from my desire to play around with the Italian cuisine as I wish. My drive to linking the Italian and the Japanese culture was my desire to create something new – something that felt natural to me. And when you have a Japanese chef who cooks Italian food it will inevitably turn out differently… Through my cuisine, I also like to show people my personal taste – what I like and what I don’t like. I like to cook with as little fat as possible, and to use few ingredients in each dish in order to bring forward the raw ingredient. That has both features of the Italian and the Japanese cuisine.
Tell me more about the upcoming changes. Why? And what is the plan?
This year will bring a lot of changes and new developments to Ristorante Tokuyoshi. First and foremost, we plan to do a full reconstruction of the restaurant this summer. When I took over Via San Calocero 3 in 2015, we only changed the color on the walls prior to opening. Tables, chairs, and the kitchen equipment are still to a large part the same as when I took over. Now this space no longer fits my ambition. The reconstruction offers an opportunity to refine and develop current projects as well as projects I’ve only been dreaming of until now. First and foremost is the development of my cuisine. My contaminated cuisine is highly dynamic – it evolves with every new ingredient discovered and any new impression or experience I have. As of now, this evolution has been more ad-hoc. Now, I want to work more systematically on developing my cuisine and discovering new produce and producers of rare and less-used ingredients. A curated cuisine cannot rely on traditional ingredients and recipes. I need to actively curate my cuisine, and whilst at it, perhaps, create a large archive of interesting ingredients that few people use – and maybe reintroduce them – who knows? Second, the link between a large city like Milan and the countryside has really decreased during the past decades. I see an incredible difference from my time in Modena. With the reconstruction, I am looking to find a way to give back to the countryside that is shaped for the city and that does not demand the amount of square meters that a city does not allow for. My dream is to initiate producing compost to give back to the incredible farmers that every day bring us fresh produce. The overall goal, however, is to create a physical environment that is as comfortable as possible for my staff and my guests.
What is the new Tokuyoshi going to be like?
This summer we will break down some walls and enlarge the restaurant to create more space and offer a guest experience that I’ve always been dreaming of. I want to create a beautiful and functional restaurant for my guests and my employees. And more importantly, I want to make it mine. When I took over this place, I was so eager to open up that I changed barely anything – just the color on the walls. Now, I feel the need to change in order to make space for new and better things to come.
Describe the guest experience at the new Tokuyoshi?
Throughout the years, I’ve realized how different guests are from one other, and how much they expect and desire completely different experiences although they come to the same place. I want to accommodate for that. At the new Tokuyoshi, I want for my guests to enter my restaurant and immediately feel at ease – like they do at home. We will receive our guests in a separate and serene part of the restaurant separate from the dining room, which is often much more dynamic and hectic like a kitchen in a home is, compared to the entrance. The new dining room will allow for different experiences/seating options. Entering the dining room, a lounge style seating will run alongside the bar-seats at the kitchen counter creating a more discrete and intimate seating for snacks, drinks, or even dinner. Our kitchen-counter, on the other hand, is for the curious ones that love to watch the chefs’ hands in action. At the very end of the restaurant a smaller ‘classic’ dining room presents itself; big enough to host 15 seats, small enough to be transformed into a private dining room, a chambre separée, when needed.
What does the guest experience mean to you?
To me, the guest experience means everything. Living abroad made me realize how inherent hospitality is in the Japanese culture and how much I have taken that with me in opening my restaurant. Practically speaking, I think people visit a restaurant the first time for its cuisine and then return because of the guest experience that comprises everything from when you book a table to when you receive a follow-up email the day after. A good guest experience to me is delivered by professional, smiling, and elegant waiters who move as if they were one single person and never let their presence be over-felt. And then it is helped along the way by a pleasant surrounding; good acoustics, comfortable chairs, harmonious lighting, and flowers! The ‘significant insignificant’ details that complete the overall experience means everything.
We’ve heard rumors about your upcoming world tour. What is the purpose of the world tour?
The upcoming world tour is a part of further developing my cuisine. I want to travel the world and meet with inspiring chefs with the purpose of learning, teaching, inspiring and being inspired. In the meantime, my team of chefs will do the same all over Italy. To meet producers, talk to them face to face and bring back produce to our restaurant that we would otherwise not know of. A non-traditional cuisine always benefits from an open mind and a vast knowledge of what products are available to you. Closing down the restaurant for a couple of months during the reconstruction is the best, and probably only, opportunity I will have to actively engage in that. So I am taking it!
What’s the plan and can you reveal some of the destinations?
I cannot yet reveal any destinations because everything has yet to be confirmed. I have a lot of chefs in mind that I would like to learn from and work with, but as of now, I prefer to keep it all to myself.
Thanks for talking to us Yoji, we wish you all the best of luck with the evolvement of Tokuyoshi and your upcoming world tour!
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