After spending 10 years as Massimo Bottura’s sous chef at Osteria Francescana, Yoji Tokuyoshi decided to take a year off to travel the world. In February 2015, Yoji opened Ristorante Tokuyoshi in Milan, earning its first Michelin star in record time.
We talked to Yoji about some of the challenges of opening his first restaurant, constantly evolving his cuisine, and what’s next for Ristorante Tokuyoshi.
After 10 years at Osteria Francescana, you took a year off to travel the world. At what point did you realize that you wanted to open your own restaurant?
I went traveling for a year to take a break from the world of a Michelin kitchen. During that year, I traveled the world and studied economics and politics – and tasted a lot of different food! I decided to open up my own restaurant when I was full of inspiration and when I got the desire to create something new.
You received a Michelin star shortly after opening Ristorante Tokuyoshi in 2015. What was it like?
My cuisine was heavily criticized at the beginning. To some extent I expected it – all new restaurants are criticized in the beginning. But my cuisine was singled-out because of its novel and playful approach to Italian cuisine. A new concept is never understood from the beginning, and Ristorante Tokuyoshi was often 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, receiving a Michelin star so early on definitely 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 Cucina Contaminata came from my desire to play around with Italian cuisine. When you have a Japanese chef who cooks Italian food, it will inevitably turn out differently. My drive to link Italian and Japanese culture was a desire to create something new – something that felt natural to me. Through my cuisine, I 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 order to emphasize the raw ingredients.
What are you working on at the moment?
This year will bring a lot of changes to Ristorante Tokuyoshi. First off, we plan to do a full reconstruction of the restaurant. The overall goal is to create a physical environment that’s as comfortable as possible for our staff and guests. Second, is the development of my cuisine. My contaminated cuisine is highly dynamic, constantly evolving with every new ingredient I discover or new experience I have.
As of now, this evolution has been more ad-hoc. Now, I want to work more systematically with developing my cuisine and discovering new producers of rare and lesser-used ingredients. A curated cuisine cannot rely on traditional ingredients and recipes. I need to actively curate my cuisine, and perhaps create a large archive of interesting and rare ingredients in order to reintroduce them – who knows?
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 to offer the guest experience I’ve always been dreaming of. I want to create a beautiful and functional restaurant for my guests and employees. More importantly, I want to make it mine. When I took over this place, I was so eager to open up that I barely changed anything – just the color on the walls. Now, I feel the need to change, in order to create the space for new and better things to come.
Can you describe the guest experience at the new Tokuyoshi?
Throughout the years, I’ve realized how different guests are from one another. Guests often 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 my guests to enter the restaurant and immediately feel at ease – like they do at home.
What does guest experience mean to you?
To me, 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. Guests return because of the guest experience, which includes everything from when you book a table to when you receive a follow-up email the day after.
For me, a good guest experience is delivered by professional and friendly waiters who move as if they were one single person, never letting 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 which complete the overall experience mean everything.
What’s the purpose of your world tour?
The upcoming world tour is another part of 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!