In January, Japanese kappo restaurant Esora announced over Instagram the firing of its chef, Shigeru Koizumi, over allegations of “multiple accounts of mistreatment”. The statement by its parent company, The Lo & Behold Group, alluded to unprofessional behaviour that jeopardised “a safe and positive work environment for all its staff”.
The post divided diners and industry folk, with most lauding the move and others saying the restaurant should have handled it privately, especially given Koizumi’s role in winning Esora its first Michelin star.
It’s well known that restaurants — especially those with Michelin stars to uphold — can be pressure-cooker environments defined by long hours, fiery substances and fussy customers. But it’s rare for restaurants to take a public stand on abusive behaviour. The last notable instance of this was back in 2011 when Ebbe Vollmer parted ways with Jaan at Swissotel The Stamford ostensibly for personal reasons, despite industry murmurs of a physical altercation with a staff member.
But that was then. Obnoxious, abusive behaviour, like spouting expletives and flying plates — once glamorised by the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White — seems positively anachronistic in modern workplaces pledged to upholding mental wellness, diversity and inclusion.
“The idea was to… break them mentally and morally, then rebuild them as champions,” said Éric Ripert at a panel discussion on healthy kitchen culture at the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurants that was held in Singapore.
A cook who’s shaking in fear, according to Ripert, “will never do a better job than a chef who is eager to cook and gains enormous pleasure from cooking”.
Where once restaurants were content to stake their fortunes on a (sometimes abusive) cult of charisma, today’s top operations stress cohesion and collaboration. So too does the new team at Esora, which is understandably keen to move on from controversy and look instead to a bright new future.
Head chef Takeshi Araki now helms the restaurant. He worked for four years at Tokyo’s three-Michelin-starred Nihonryori RyuGin. His new chef de cuisine is Noboru Shimohigashi, previously from three-Michelin-starred Odette, also under The Lo & Behold group. The duo will uphold Esora’s reputation for refined kappo cuisine, says Araki.
“Kappo cuisine is a traditional style of service where a more open kitchen gives the chefs and guests a chance to interact and watch the food being prepared. It can change from day to day. To me, it’s about keeping the experience simple and making ingredients better. We don’t manipulate it too much or make it too complicated. Our kappo style has a foundation in traditional Japanese cuisine, but borrows techniques and experiences from other cuisines,” says Araki.
I want the kitchen to be a place where people can bring up their challenges and share them so that everyone can grow together, to try new things and experiment together from cutting and cooking to plating, and how we serve our guestsTakeshi Araki
He adds: “We make room for exploration and fusion. Chef Shimohigashi and I are looking to explore new ways of plating. We create simpler dishes, focusing more on the ingredients and keeping them in their original condition or form. We’re excited to share this with our guests.”
Araki’s approach is true to form, considering his former mentor, chef Seiji Yamamoto, is revered for his seasonally driven, 12-course omakase menus, which Asia’s 50 Best describes as telling “the story of Japan’s best ingredients at their peak of ripeness”.
“At RyuGin, I learnt how to hear the voice of ingredients,” says Hiroshima-born Araki, who cooked in izakayas after studying sociology at a university in Kyoto.
“Every day was different, constantly trying to cook and give our guests the best. It was always about making ingredients better, not hiding their original taste and adding too many things.”
Esora flies produce in three to four times a week. Its straight-from-Japan offerings include bonito flakes, seaweed and marbled yet clean-tasting omi wagyu from Shiga prefecture. Other air-flown ingredients include fresh saucer-eyed, vermilion kinmedai, bonito, uni and conger eel. There are also pigeons and ducks from France.
“I’m constantly inspired by the purity of great ingredients. I’m interested in the entire process of each ingredient, starting from how it’s cultivated to the point where it ends up on a plate. When suppliers bring new things to share, I want to know how it was grown, when and how it was harvested, and the different ways to cook and present it,” says Araki.
“Nature plays the central role in where we get our food. This is the lens through which I approach my cooking. With every ingredient, my aim is to showcase its natural flavours, textures and unique qualities simply. It’s about enhancing the product so that its true character can come through.”
Esora’s menu will continue to change with the seasons. The next — Spring — debuts this month.
Bamboo, Spanish mackerel and mountain vegetables like wasabi flower, broad beans and asparagus will star in the menu’s dishes. The plating will have elements of traditional Japanese gardens, one of Araki’s many visual inspirations.
Look out for his new spin on dashi, which is traditionally brewed with seaweed and bonito flakes. Araki’s variant has a FrenchJapanese, vegetable-infused twist. He’s also reinvented the visually stunning Hassun — a sort of tableau of the season’s greatest hits in miniature — with new ingredients and a fresh, new look.
Araki would be the first to admit that Japanese fine-dining restaurants can be a lot like the proverbial swan — a picture of grace and elegance on the surface and anything but behind the scenes.
“In Japan, I think it is normal for kitchens to have tough environments; no one interferes. In Singapore, things seem more progressive,” he says.
“The kitchen at Nihonryori RyuGin was a super tough environment. It was the toughest place I had worked at in Japan. I worked an average of 16 to 18 hours every day and had no days off. But I value the experience and it made me feel fulfilled. I wanted to touch and see everything and learn all the senior chefs’ techniques and philosophies. The team became like a family. I trusted every single person, from the front of house to the kitchen, deeply.”
At Esora, Araki is keen to foster a modern kitchen culture that has defined rules but is built on respect.
“It’s important that we have a relaxed and open atmosphere in the kitchen where people can speak freely. Discipline is important but I don’t believe in strictness that makes people nervous or uncomfortable,” says Araki.
“I want the kitchen to be a place where people can bring up their challenges and share them so that everyone can grow together, to try new things and experiment together from cutting and cooking to plating, and how we serve our guests.”
Ultimately, Araki believes a positive kitchen culture makes practical sense.
“The kitchen is a high-pressure environment, and safety is very important because we are always moving fast. Therefore, during service, when we are all focused on delivering the best for our guests, it has to be a confident and calm environment.”
There is, indeed, a new dawn at Esora.