Tokyo Tokyo Delicious Museum2023


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Chef’s Interview

LA CASA DI Tetsuo Ota

LA CASA DI Tetsuo Ota is a restaurant located in Karuizawa that is open approximately 40 days a year, with reservations fully booked until 2026. The owner of the restaurant is Mr. Tetsuo Ota, who has studied at such renowned restaurants as "El Bulli" in Spain and "Astrid y Gastón" in Peru. In addition to serving meals as a chef, he has devoted his efforts to importing and developing sales channels for Amazonian cacao. Today, he has gained many fans for his sweets made with Amazonian cacao. He personally travels deep into the Amazon to purchase Peruvian cacao at fair prices and give back to the local community. We spoke with Mr. Ota, who has become fascinated with the Amazon and is now nicknamed the "Amazon Chef".

What are you particular about regarding the food served at "LA CASA DI Tetsuo Ota," and what do you wish to convey through your cuisine?

We place an emphasis on seasonality and the sense of the land, and the natural ingredients that we find in such places are the mainstay of our cuisine. In spring, we use field horsetail and tree shoots, and in fall, we use various mushrooms and nuts. For most of these ingredients, our staff and I personally go into the mountains to search for and gather them. This is partly because we devote so much energy to making sweets, but also because we want to take advantage of these natural blessings, which is why we are only open about 40 days a year.

The reason I came to this way of thinking was due in large part to the foreign chefs I saw taking pride in the local foods when I was training abroad. I was inspired by them and opened a restaurant in Karuizawa to reassess the ingredients from my hometown of Shinshu.
We do not choose vegetables based on their brand or name recognition, but actively purchase from unknown producers with the idea of circulating them within the community.

Recently, we have been paying attention to foods from marginalized settlements, and last year I became fascinated by the wonderful daikon radishes grown in the village of Ogawa, and bought all the daikon radishes they had to offer. This year we plan to buy an entire village's worth of chili peppers. In recent years, restaurants abroad have been expected to contribute to their local communities not only through their presentation on the plate, but also through their cuisine, such as local production for local consumption. We do not blindly collect tasty and high quality products, but rather actively try to purchase a certain amount of them so that the local economy can circulate. It would be nice to be able to introduce them with pride to my former colleague chefs when they visit my restaurant.

What are your thoughts on creating sustainable food through Amazonian cacao?

Fair trade is something that is often discussed, but I think it is important not to disrupt that circular system of selling what you buy at a fair price for a fair price. What we value most about Amazonian cacao is not only to improve the standard of living of the local people, but also to increase the amount of cacao we buy in the second year compared to the first year, and in the third year compared to the second year, and to pay a fair price for it. The reason why I began to focus on cacao was that I had been dealing with chocolate frequently since my days working at El Bulli, but I did not understand what chocolate was made from. I became interested in what was going on in the countries where cacao was produced in after visiting Spain. I first went to Peru, where I learned for the first time that there was a place called the Amazon, and that this kind of thing could be obtained there. I often think of the faces of the local people when handling cacao as part of my approach to making sweets.
Also, when you eat it, it is completely different whether it is "mainly chocolate flavor with a strawberry flavor added to it" or "chocolate with strawberry flavor added to it," so since I am involved with cacao farmers, the way I make products is such that the cacao or chocolate is the main ingredient and something else is added to it.

What does "food in Tokyo" look like now from your perspective?

I feel that the market is so established and saturated that nothing unique is being created. For example, creative restaurants like Noma are hard to come by in Tokyo. Overseas, the emphasis tends to be on being unique in terms of the food and environment, but in Tokyo, I get the impression that rather than creating originals, people are taking the originals created overseas and making them their own. In other words, I feel that Tokyo is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of originality.
We can see that there is a bit of a struggle because of the fierce competition in the food and beverage industry. One of the factors is the high cost of rent. If fixed costs are high, it is inevitably difficult to create a restaurant's own unique worldview because it is impossible to secure sufficient floor space. It isn't easy to open a restaurant in Tokyo like my restaurant in Karuizawa. Even with Japanese restaurants, I feel that Kyoto and Tokyo have very different ways of presenting their worldviews due to the spaciousness of the restaurant's space.
Recently, the city of Tokyo itself has been changing, with long-established shops closing due to a lack of successors and progress in redevelopment. One of the reasons why foreigners traveling to Japan in recent years have tended to shift to the countryside is that there are fewer places in Tokyo that have a sense of "uniqueness" to them. The combination of these factors makes it difficult to create something truly unique in Tokyo's food scene. How to solve these problems unique to major cities may be a key factor in the future.

How do you see the future of "food in Tokyo"?

First of all, I think it is important to realize that Tokyo is not a "cosmopolitan city".
It may be partly because Japan is an island nation, but whether it is New York or other European cities, "cosmopolitan cities" are filled with people of many different nationalities. Compared to them, Tokyo has an overwhelmingly high percentage of native (Japanese) residents. For example, the requirement for a waiter at El Bulli, where I worked, was to be able to speak five languages. There aren't many job listings like that for restaurants in Tokyo. In other words, a world-class "cosmopolitan city" has a large ethnic mix.
It is a certainty that the number of foreign customers will increase in the future. In order to meet a wide range of needs, providing vegan and vegetarian options, as well as multilingual services, will be essential for the future of food in Tokyo.
In addition to inbound support, it would also be a good idea to accept immigrants to make the industry more diverse and ethnically diverse. In Japan, where labor shortages are becoming more and more serious, it is no longer possible to maintain restaurants solely with the help of people from this country. From a manager's perspective, there is absolutely no reason why employees must be Japanese. If we can create a system that makes good use of immigrants, the food world will change dramatically. I believe that the reason why restaurants overseas are doing so well is because of the diverse ethnic groups that work there. For example, it is quite common to see Indians and Pakistanis kneading bread in the kitchen of a famous boulangerie in Paris. There are excellent chefs all over the world, so I think it would be beneficial to look to the world for employment.

Also, over the past few years, we have had foreign chefs ask us about their initiatives, but almost never about food in Tokyo. In addition, in regional areas, food from Tokyo is not often mentioned, while food from overseas is brought up as a topic of conversation. The challenge for Tokyo's food industry today is to create a clear image of "the kind of future we want to move toward" and to continue to create originality.