Globe

Culinary latecomer gets 3-star rating for aesthetic, painstaking approach

October 09, 2011

By NORITO KUNISUE / The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

If nothing else, Hajime Yoneda is a perfectionist.

At Hajime, the restaurant he runs in Osaka, well-dressed customers speak in low tones while feasting on an array of color in front of them.

On the other side of the divide -- that's the wall separating them and the kitchen -- the atmosphere is so tense you could almost cut it with a knife.

Yoneda, 39, stands dead center, eyeing a platter. Like a painter approaching his canvas without making a preliminary sketch, Yoneda has created a multicolored tableau with vegetables: pureed, raw and steamed.

If the dish deviates even half a millimeter from the layout in his head, he starts over from scratch. The smallest mistake can ruin an entire dish.

"100 minus one does not equal 99. It reverts to zero," he says.

That exacting approach is applied to the preparation of a vegetable dish he calls "Mineral," a feature of the restaurant's first-half course. It has been praised by the Michelin Guide as "richly colored like a palette."

Yoneda had a vision of recreating the world on a plate with as many vegetables as possible. To accomplish this goal, he visited suppliers, high-end restaurants, greengrocers, farmers, and importers. Of the 120 varieties of vegetable he gathered, as many as 100 are used in the Mineral dish, depending on seasonal availability.

At its center is a fluffy white foam made from the essence of Japanese littleneck clam, or "asari."

In the menu, Yoneda describes it as "a message from the Earth to human beings."

The natural iron of the forest that nurtures these vegetables is eventually carried by rivers to the sea, where it also promotes the growth of shellfish. This tale of nature's cycle is depicted on each platter.

EXCEPTIONAL 3-STAR RATING

The Michelin Guide's highest ranking is three stars. Normally, it can only be attained by supremely talented chefs who have spent 10 or even 20 years constantly honing their craft. Yet, Yoneda gained that accolade only one year and five months after opening his restaurant.

Most people might assume that Yoneda felt weighed down by the expectations placed on him.

Speaking in a matter-of-fact tone, Yoneda's response suggests this is not the case.

"I knew I could get a three-star rating," he said.

Such is his confidence in his own culinary ability and aesthetic.

French cuisine expert and Tsuji Culinary Research's head Naoko Yagi, 54, holds Yoneda's achievements in high esteem as "a culmination of French cuisine in recent years that attempts to bring out the inherent flavor of ingredients."

A typical example is the main duck dish that features in his second-half course.

It is prepared over two hours using five methods of cooking, including fry pan, oven and charcoal grill. Not only the source of the ingredients and their freshness are taken into account, but even the effect of heat on the meat's cellular membrane is factored into the equation. The attention to detail is exhaustive.

Surprisingly, many of the world's three-star chefs polished their skills through independent study and have experience outside the world of cuisine. This is particularly the case with Yoneda.

While attending elementary school, Yoneda used to watch a television program that followed the lifestyles of chefs, and pictured his own future. At the time, there were no authentic French restaurants near his home.

The closest he had come to a culinary epiphany was when he was served corn soup with silverware at a steakhouse.

Yoneda had given serious thought to entering a vocational college for cooks after graduating from high school, but his parents would not support him financially.

"If you want to go, you're on your own," he was told.

When he learned that course fees for culinary schools cost as much as 2 million yen ($26,000) a year, he decided to attend university instead,

He studied electronic engineering and went on to join a company in the computer industry as an engineer designing parts for electronic devices.

To save up for culinary school, he restricted himself to spending only 200 yen on an evening meal. He used the lavatories at work so he wouldn't have to spend money buying toilet paper.

Two years later and with 6 million yen in the bank, Yoneda quit his job. After studying for a year at a culinary academy in Osaka, he began an apprenticeship at a famous local French restaurant. He was 26.

However, things did not go smoothly.

He quit the restaurant after one year because of the rough treatment meted out to staff. He then joined a restaurant in Kobe, where he trained for two and a half years before he moved to France in 2002.

Instead of looking for work at the kind of three-star restaurant that attracts prospective young chefs, Yoneda chose a two-star establishment in the Loire region.

By NORITO KUNISUE / The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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Hajime Yoneda is a commanding presence in the kitchen, and he occasionally raises his voice in anger. This is in marked contrast to his genial countenance while being interviewed. (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

Hajime Yoneda is a commanding presence in the kitchen, and he occasionally raises his voice in anger. This is in marked contrast to his genial countenance while being interviewed. (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

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  • Hajime Yoneda is a commanding presence in the kitchen, and he occasionally raises his voice in anger. This is in marked contrast to his genial countenance while being interviewed. (Photo: Yoshinori Toyomane)

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