[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]t is 2am, and Julien Royer, standing in the middle of Shimonoseki Fishery Port, is looking weary.
The Singapore-based French chef of Odette, which topped the 2019 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, had been jetting from one international engagement to another. A little more than 24 hours ago, he arrived in Singapore from the Netherlands, only to take the red-eye out to Fukuoka. The unrestful flight was followed by two-and-a-half-hours worth of rail and road transfers that finally took him to Shimonoseki, where meetings and tastings have been lined up. Yet the fatigue in his eyes is not just from his punishing schedule.
He has come to the fishery port in search of the premium-quality Japanese seafood that he loves; in search of an adrenalin rush at a fishery port seafood auction; in search of something he has never encountered. But on this whipping cold May night, the market seems empty with just a dozen or so trade buyers bidding in friendly fashion. The catch from the waters around Yamaguchi is a fraction of its usual quantity. He learns that the tides were so suboptimal that there isn’t even an amaebi shrimp in sight – something Royer is seeking out specifically for a dinner he is cooking the next day. He folds his arms and silently watches the men scribble their offers on scraps of paper, in a bidding process conducted in a code foreign to his Japanese interpreter.
A Leap Of Faith
If, at this point, Royer is silently wondering what he is doing in Shimonoseki, we too, are intrigued to find out. For, unless you are a history buff familiar with the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the First Sino-Japanese War; a diehard fan of Shinzo Abe, who calls Shimonoseki his home constituency; or a fugu fanatic, (more than 80 per cent of Japan’s puffer fish comes from the city’s ports, giving it the title of Japan’s Fugu Capital), chances are, you would never have heard of this place.
Sparsely populated with some 270,000 residents – which, for the sake of comparison, is just a little more than the residents in Tampines New Town – it is a nondescript industrial town. It has a pretty coast, a section of it paved into a Western style boulevard, complete with pizza and burger joints and a rainbow-hued ferris wheel. There is the quaint Chofu-teien, a garden converted from the estate of an Edo Japanese lord. The most photographed landmark of the city is probably the 1,068m-long Kanmon suspension bridge that connects the Yamaguchi and Fukuoka prefectures. The food scene is populated largely by casual, pocket-friendly joints, and there is a peppering of fine fugu specialist restaurants that the locals visit only on celebratory occasions, perhaps once a year.
There is, of course, a lot more to Shimonoseki than that – be it the region’s ancient craft of hagiyaki pottery, or the growing cafe culture in the city. But on the surface, it is not an obvious travel destination.
So, back to the question of what brings the chef of Asia’s best restaurant here. If the answer does not lie in the place, then it must lie in a person. And this person is Kenichi Takatsu, the 32-year-old chef-proprietor of Restaurant Takatsu.
The two had met in person only once, when Takatsu visited Odette, and something about the Japanese chef struck a chord with Frenchman. Takatsu’s chatty and happy-go-lucky front belies an fierce dedication to his craft, and an ambition that is profound. An alumnus of Fukuoka-based French-Japanese omakase restaurant La Maison de la Nature Goh, most recently placed 48th in the 2019 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the Shimonoseki native returned to his hometown two years ago to set up a very modest nine-seat restaurant serving fine, contemporary French-inspired fare. His objective: to be that one restaurant that single-handedly puts Shimonoseki on the world map as a dining destination. Working largely on his own, assisted at times by a sommelier or a pastry chef, he is a one-man reservations desk, host, dishwasher, toilet cleaner… and yes, he cooks too. In 2018, he was recognised by Japanese gourmet site Hitosara as one of Japan’s top 100 chefs, but this does not put him anywhere near the league in which Royer – who has two Michelin stars under his belt – sits.
Given that collaborations in the global restaurant scene are largely pats on the back between chefs of like calibre and stature, it is highly unorthodox for Royer to agree to a four-hands with Takatsu, even if for just one dinner. After all, his past stints – even before he shot to the top spot on the 2019 Asia’s 50 Best and No. 18 on the World’s 50 Best – have been with the likes of contemporary superstars such as Virgilio Martinez and Dominique Crenn, and legends such as Alain Passard.
But Royer has always been known to be just that little bit different. He plays the awards game but doesn’t get played by it. He speaks the language of the elite just as well as he understands that of the mass public. He might not be one to expound on philosophies or articulate lofty culinary principles, but he knows his identity – and trusts his instincts. And his instincts told him to take a gamble on Takatsu.
A One-Night Dinner, A Year In Planning
For almost a year, the two were in constant communication to set the details of their four-hands collaboration. And when they finally met again, the camaraderie was apparent. Royer and his sous chef Ng Sheng Xiong arrived with a huge chiller box of goodies spanning finger lime caviar to cheeses and house-made jam. Takatsu reciprocated with his pantry of local ingredients, from spring citrus to spring onions. A contact from the local office of government-linked organisation Jetro (Japan External Trade Organisation) even helped to secure a hunk of the elusive Mukaku wagyu (Japanese polled cattle), which have such low production quantities that ordering has to be done some half a year in advance – with no guarantees of delivery.
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Inspired, the three men sat down for a powwow. Imagine two musicians jamming together, each adding a new layer to the tune with every flourish and harmonisation. Royer started with the foundation melody, writing down a list of dishes that incorporate ingredients that can be found locally; Takatsu examined it and added his signatures. The initial process took only half an hour, owing to Royer and his sous chef’s familiarity with seasonal Japanese ingredients and Takatsu’s innate understanding of Royer’s style and the flavour profile of his cuisine. But they revisited the list and started scratching things out. Each dish was perfectly fine on its own, but as a menu it could be more cohesive.
Also, Royer didn’t come here just to rehash dishes he had done before. The wheels in his heads were starting to turn at a different gear. How about this? Or we can do that. What else is in season now? Suddenly Royer’s eyes lighted up: “Shimonoseki blueberries,” he said, remembering a shipment he once received, which was used to make a batch of Odette’s signature door gift of seasonal jams. He started sketching on a new sheet of paper, his pen flying across it in rapid motion. When he was done, he slapped the pen down triumphantly and detailed the dish. “We pickle the blueberries, serve it with amaebi and sudachi (green Japanese citrus) juice and zest. At the base, we put smoked cream.” This would be the first of a series of inspired creations that showcase the time and place behind this exceptional dinner. Challenged by Royer, Takatsu rethought his plates. It didn’t come as easily to the younger chef, and he furrowed his brow while Royer sat back, looking pleased.
Yet now, standing at the fishing port inspecting the catch of the night, the smile of satisfaction is nowhere to be found on Royer’s face. But he isn’t displeased – he is just thinking. That same intense expression is there as he visits a local organic farmer who also owns an apiary in the hills and produces some amazingly perfumed honeys. It is also there as he inspects a sprawling 2ha blueberry farm that nurtures some 70 varieties, some with a surprising minty aftertaste, others with nectar droplets forming on the edges of the leaves.
His face lights up again at an unexpected spot: the carpark of the blueberry farm, lined with pine trees. He starts picking the young, light green tips of the pine branches.
“These we can soak in oil and macerate for two hours, at 63 degrees,” Ng explains as Royer busies with harvesting. What will this be used for? “We don’t know yet. Actually, we don’t know what dishes we will be cooking yet, the menu is still up in the air,” says Ng nonchalantly.
The Japanese, who might at times add a pine branch to a fire while grilling fish or mushrooms, but never incorporate the fresh needles into their food, look on in bewilderment.
We are now 27 hours away from the collaboration dinner.
Proof Of Genius
It is 6pm, an hour before the dinner commences, and Takatsu is placing the menu card at each of the nine seats of Restaurant Takatsu’s L-shaped dining counter. It details the nine courses of the evening. The five chefs – Royer, Takatsu, Ng and two other chefs who have come in to lend a hand – have been working in the kitchen since 10 in the morning and are looking relaxed, even though the work isn’t all done. We ask Royer if he is happy with the eventual menu. That same pleased look returns to his face. “You try it and tell me.”
It opens with a rendition of an Odette classic, the “pain perdu” (French toast). An ode to the bounties from land and sea, this dish features a finger of squid ink bread toasted with brown butter and topped with aka uni from the local waters, speckled with minced local spring onions, delicate shiso flowers and a grating of yuzu zest.
This is chased by a moreish plate by Takatsu: a tartare of local mackerel marinated in yuzu miso mixed with salmon roe and wrapped in oba leaf, the creamy miso echoing the rich flavours of the earlier dish. Takatsu further impresses his guests with a tempura-ed nugget of pike eel liver and its flesh – not finely scored as it is usually done to render the bones edible, but with its bones painstakingly removed.
“Abe’s wife always wanted to come,” says Shintaro Maeda, mayor of Shimonoseki and a close associate of the Japanese Prime Minister. He is a fan of Takatsu and has frequented the restaurant since its opening. “It is amazing how he is always able to surprise you at every visit,” he says.
A similar flavour profile that combines intense umami flavours with fresh lightness and mild acidity is displayed in Royer’s dish of butter-poached akao (parrot fish) served with a puree of eggplant, a tender tentacle from cuttlefish bought at the Shimonoseki Fishery Port, and finished with a citrusy, herbaceous pine needle oil. By the time dessert comes, we can no longer distinguish if a dish is by Royer or Takatsu.
And looking at the team working together – be it finishing an ingredient, placing the components on a plate, or even just garnishing – it is apparent that the chefs treat every dish as their own. Nobody is barking orders. Instead, they exchange quiet words and understanding nods. Everybody knows just what to do, where to be, just at the right time.
The dinner might have been a year in the making, but it is, in reality, created in a day. And therein lies the secret to a successful four-hands: It is not about having perfect conditions or having access to the best ingredients. It is about synergistic relationships among people who understand each other, even if those ties were built only over short days. In the words of Takatsu and Royer: “One team, one dream.”