You can’t exactly carry one over your shoulder, but with Natsuko Shoji’s most expensive design costing up to US$2000, you can be sure you’re indulging in the haute couture of pastry.
Inspired by the handbags of Chanel and Louis Vuitton, the Tokyo patissier has earned a cult following for her fashion inspired confections topped with premium quality (and notoriously expensive) Japanese fruit, served in her button-sized shop/restaurant été – in the Yoyogi-Uehara district.
With just one table, été has been a near impossible dining ticket to get – although Covid-19 has since changed everything. But Chef Soji is in the limelight now as Asia’s Best Pastry Chef 2020, bestowed by the annual Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants guide two weeks ago.
It’s a validation for Chef Shoji, considering that “there is still a very limited number of female chefs in Japan.” Adds the 30-year-old, “for a small restaurant like mine to win an award like this, it will mean a brighter future and for that I am very grateful.”
It’s been a whirlwind ride to the top for Chef Shoji, who opened été in 2014 and made a splash with her simply titled Peach Cake, which was fashioned after Chanel’s iconic matelassé bag. “I was inspired by my mother’s love for Chanel and their bags’ signature diamond-shaped stitching (which I emulated by) cutting peaches and arranging them in a similar design.”
Also fascinated with Louis Vuitton’s Damier or ‘checkerboard’ print, she replicated it in her Damier cake using Akahoppe red and Awayuki white strawberries atop a sponge cake layered with the sliced berries. On top of that, “My Bouton (French for ‘button’) cake alternates Shine Muscat and purple Nagano grape varieties with dollops of lime-flavoured mascarpone cream, arranged to look like Commes des Garcons’ dot pattern.”
Chanel is her mother’s favourite brand, so she grew up loving it, along with other brands “which have their own history and style”. But she never thought of being a designer. “I always found fashion fascinating but found garment-making too complicated.” Instead, “When I was in junior high school, my favourite subject was home economics. We had an assignment to make cream puffs and I was so thrilled to see the pastry rise in the oven. I became very interested in baking after that and I made a lot of cream puffs for my friends who said I should open a shop when I got older. It was such a wonderful way to make something for people who are important to me.”
After high school, she landed an entry-level job at the two Michelin-starred r Florilège in Tokyo under chef Hiroyasu Kawate, who promoted her to sous chef within three years. But the call to go solo came and she answered it. But it was no walk in the park.
“When I first opened été, I was 24. I thought it was really hard to do a restaurant business because I was inexperienced. I was not famous, I was young, and I was just a female cook. That meant it would be difficult to hire staff and find customers. So I started as a unique tart shop.”
The idea behind her cakes was to make use of Japan’s highly prized fruit. “There are so many beautiful, high quality, seasonal fruits in Japan. What I do is look at fashion icons and trends, and translate what I love about the world of haute couture to cakes using the best fruit.”
With the high cost of ingredients, her cakes are priced from US$150 to US$2000 depending on what she uses. But it was no deterrent to fans dazzled by her edible haute designs.
With her success, “I started serving food for my cake customers only. It’s like a special invitation to fashion events. After you become a loyal customer, you get invited to dine at été’s private restaurant.”
With just one table, it was impossible to get in, but last year, Chef Shoji moved into a bigger space just one metro station away. The six-seater restaurant is available via email reservation, and features a cake lab styled like a shokunin or craftsman’s workshop.
Like everyone else, Covid-19 hangs heavy over her business. ”All the overseas customers have cancelled their reservations. Fortunately, my restaurant is really small, so there is no waste of ingredients. Honestly, it is better for us chefs to close our restaurants. But in Japan, there is no guarantee for the F&B industry from the government. So we still need to work to pay rent, cost, support our staff and their families.”
While success seems to have come easily for her, she’s quick to say it hasn’t been without sacrifice.
”When I started été, my mother was very worried because I had to borrow money from the bank. I have to work hard to support my family and my younger sister (who is intellectually disabled). My father passed away when I was 21, so I needed to be strong and successful.”
She also wants to see more female chefs in Japan. ”There are not enough of us, so I want to change this. So to all the women chefs out there, you can start small and keep it small. There is no need to make a big restaurant with big money. Your success is not measured by how big and famous you are, but by happy customers and the smiles on their faces, The rest will fall into place.”
As for her, she’s not stopping at just being the best pastry chef. ”Next for me is to become Asia’ best female chef.”