The Japanese chef Yoshiaki Takazawa cooks in a small teakwood-and-steel restaurant in Akasaka, a district of central Tokyo. The restaurant is nearly impossible to find, marked only by an eight-inch strip of backlit clear Plexiglas with the name Aronia de Takazawa spelled out in English letters. The aronia is a chokeberry. For many decades the dime-size fruit, which has a sweet-and-sour flavor so intense it seems artificially engineered, has been the hope of various Norwegian scientists and farmers, who have turned it into marketable juices, candies, and syrups. The aronia does, however, have one peculiar side effect: Its rich purple tannin coats the lips, teeth, and tongue of anyone who eats one. Consuming a bowlful of aronias is like sucking out the center of a particularly sweet, delicious ballpoint pen. The stain takes days to disappear. A 13-course aronia of cuisine, memorable and indelible, is what Takazawa is trying to create in his restaurant.
Takazawa often works 18 to 20 hours a day, looks like a movie star, is trailed by cameras throughout Japan, and rarely serves dinner to more than ten people a night. It's not that Takazawa-san wouldn't like to feed more guests, it's that even on four or five hours of sleep he feels he barely has time to deliver the food his obsession demands. He has the intensity of a chess genius and a fervor that suggests zealotry rather than simple cuisine. The choices for dinner at Aronia are between a $140, $170, and $205 menu. People fly in from around Asia, grateful for any seating they can get. Takazawa is 31 years old.
Yoshiaki Takazawa grew up in a family of chefs. His parents still run a traditional restaurant in Tokyo. His cousins from both sides are scattered among various dining establishments in the city. Since he was a teen, Takazawa has never wanted to do anything but cook. At 18 he attended a French cooking school, and learned the skills of European cuisine that had not been a part of the techniques he saw at home. He recalls the first time he watched a dish being lit for flambé as transformative, at least for a while. "I wanted to cook like that," he says, "with a kind of showmanship that made the food unforgettable."
But over time he found that the desire for easy amazement, for culinary pyrotechnics that demanded little more than a match and some Cognac, began to fade. He wanted to focus less on the food and more on the spirit inside the food, trying to push beyond mere flavor into an exploration of spiritual nutrition. The fact that he does so with some of the most incredible tasting dishes is, in his mind, only one way he serves his customers.
There was that amusing, breathless yuppie trope from the eighties—was it Woody Allen or thirtysomething?—that "restaurants are the new theater." And of course being entertained, distracted, and amused is a perfectly fine reason to go out to eat. Then, in the last decade or so, at now unbookable restaurants like El Bulli in Spain or the Fat Duck in England, food became something else again: a science experiment, as chefs made what they called "molecular" cuisine. The results—syringes of basil jelly to squirt on your tongue, ravioli made from gelatinized mint leaves and stuffed with tomato-baked salmon roe, or bacon-and-oyster ice cream—suggested that restaurants were the new laboratories. In his little jewel box of a restaurant, where he cooks from a halogen-lit steel podium, Takazawa provides all the eighties restaurant-as- theater you could ask for. With specialities such as carbonated grapes that pop in your mouth, he can also match the science chefs molecule for molecule. But what Takazawa is pursuing is something deeper, more like the restaurant as shrine, a place where emotion and soul are as important as flavor.
In his twenties, after he had (in his spare time) become the youngest senior sommelier in Japanese history, Takazawa walked away from the kitchen of one of the country's most expensive and highest-profile restaurants to spend a year cooking for wedding banquets. "I wanted to cook for ordinary people," he says. What Takazawa was trying to study at those endless celebratory rituals of life and love was the way in which emotion flavored food; it was the last skill he needed to complete his education as a chef. The sweetness of cake on the day you get married, the bitter bite of a cup of tea on the day your oldest friend dies: Such flavors are unforgettable, as loaded with emotion as they are with taste. It's not going too far to say that Takazawa was trying to teach himself to make food that flambéed in your soul, not on your plate.
When, two years ago, Takazawa finally thought he had learned enough to open his own restaurant, he set out on a pilgrimage of sorts. For six months he traveled Japan, visiting the hunters, fishermen, and family farmers who catch and grow the food he would serve. This is not unusual among the most devoted chefs. But on his visits Takazawa was as concerned with what he could only discover sitting side by side with his suppliers as he was with the taste of the produce and how it looked. "I was trying to see the love they put into their produce," he says. "A fruit that is grown through the spring into the summer—think about the care and concern that goes into that! In some way that emotion is almost more interesting than the flavor. When I use a product like that, of course I want very much to pay attention to the flavor. But I also want to capture the love in the food." Every spring and fall Takazawa closes shop for a few days and travels through Japan with his wife, Akiko, meeting with those same suppliers and seeking out new ones. "Farmers won't send you the best lettuce if they barely know you," he explains. "I want them to want to send me the best, knowing how I will treat it."
On one of these culinary walkabouts last year Takazawa, who mostly serves Japanese wines with his food, visited a festival from Yamanashi, one of the country's winegrowing regions. He went to a small booth and sampled a vintage that shocked him with its jammy taste and unusual rustic bouquet, which could only be described as smelling like leather. "This wine was so good," he says, "I thought to myself, They must be doing something artificial with it. It was hard to believe these people had created a wine that tasted like this. So I went to check on them. You know, you always have to check everything these days. People sell you 'Kobe' beef and it's fake. Or 'line-caught' fish where you can see the bruises from the nets. Anyhow, I went to the vineyard and it was just as they said: a family of farmers who made wine almost as a hobby. I could see when I got there that nothing funny was going on. It was a farm. The wine took its flavor and its smell from the way they lived." Takazawa laughs. "You could not miss the intensity." He bought as much as the family let him and happily serves it alongside some of the costliest meals in Japan.
When Takazawa says he wants the lettuce growers to be excited by what he is going to do, he doesn't mean that they will be excited because he is going to make a salad. Naturally, he will do that. He wants them to be excited because he will create a dish in which diners can feel some of the emotion that the farmers brought to growing it. And sure enough, he does: He packs a dozen leaves into a glass bowl with three yellow tomatoes and flash-baked sweetbreads. Then he covers the bowl with an inverted water glass the size of a child's fist. The inside of the glass is coated with a gelatinous tomato, shallot, and balsamic vinegar purée. Into the dimple at the base of this upside-down glass, he pours a thimbleful of boiling water and adds two rosemary buds. As the buds open in the water, the air above the dish fills with a smell that reminds you of a passing summer rainstorm. The heat of the water, meanwhile, melts the tomato jelly on the inside of the glass, which cascades into the salad leaves. This is Takazawa's interpretation of the traditional French salade de ris de veau. It's delicious, but the joy comes from that mix of smell and sight and taste, from the theater of watching the dish make itself. The lightness in your heart when you begin to eat is the real nutrition Takazawa is trying to deliver.
"People don't really know how to describe eating here," he says. "They often say to me that they tell their friends, 'It's not dinner, it's something else. I can't tell you. You just have to go.' "
Takazawa develops his dishes in the evenings after the guests leave, frequently experimenting from about midnight until 3 a.m. The ideas come from everywhere. "Sometimes he will just sit and stare at a plate, especially when we buy new ones," his wife says. "Then an inspiration takes him over and he quickly solves whatever problem he has been working on." He had, for instance, been wondering how to mix mango with a smoky purée of foie gras. One day he bought some candleholders at a store because they looked interesting and only later figured out how to use them: He poured puréed mango into tin candle bases and framed the mango with a white foie gras purée, arranged in the candleholder to resemble a white-and-orange wax candle but holding the freshness of the fruit and the gamy taste of the foie gras in perfect balance. "He wants to do things no one has ever done before," Akiko says. "He is usually frustrated."
It can take Takazawa months to settle on the right preparation for a dish and then develop the techniques and tools he needs to deliver what he has in mind. He painstakingly tracks down the best suppliers, prepares the dish, and then fits it into his menus—which change nightly. He works alone, with at most one assistant chef to help him. (One of Japan's finest French restaurants happily sends chefs over to work at his side and absorb some of his technique. But Takazawa is so particular about how he cooks that he invariably ends up touching everything himself.) This feverishness is part of what makes the restaurant so exciting. "How long can you keep this up?" I ask him. "I am not sure, truly," he replies. Part of the urgency of people flying from all over to eat at Aronia is the feeling that what is happening in this restaurant is sort of like watching Ali box or Liszt play piano. You know it can't last.
"There is a famous story about the Japanese tea master Sen-no-Rikyu," Takazawa says. "One day, upon hearing that a guest who was coming for a tea ceremony did not like the smell of roses, Sen-no-Rikyu went out to his garden and cut down every fresh rose." This took place, Takazawa explains, in the middle of summer, when the roses were at their most beautiful and most fragrant. But in Sen-no-Rikyu's mind the only thing more beautiful than a garden full of fresh roses was the expression of hospitality in cutting those roses down so as not to bother the guest. And he knew that the melancholy of the lost roses would flavor the tea ceremony in a way far more powerful than the living roses would have.
"You know, even the water I use to cook with is special," says Takazawa. "It comes from Oita, from a special spring there. The guests never see it or taste it directly, but it is part of the flavor of the food."
Takazawa reaches for a piece of mullet roe, dredges it in salt, and packs it into the refrigerator to sit for a week. Later he'll wash off the salt and store the roe for drying. He fine-tuned this method of curing the roe, which will last for a year this way.
One day when Takazawa and I are in Niigata together at one of Japan's oldest wineries, he takes me to his grandmother's house and shows me that he has strung her garage ceiling with the legs of two kinds of Okinawa pigs, preserving them with the flavor of the clear Niigata air and—more important—his grandmother's proximity.
"Try this," he says. He takes an older piece of the roe—known here as karasumi, a Japanese delicacy—from the refrigerator. It's one he had prepared long ago, even before the restaurant opened, before he became famous, before the hundreds of conversations he has had with diners through his food.
We are standing in a simple kitchen and the roe seems like mundane finger food—caramel-colored with the texture of pâté. But the taste is an explosion: brown sugar, butter, a hint of the salt he laid on the roe so long ago. The flavor changes and echoes in my mouth for a minute, like a fine wine. But I am tasting something else, too: Takazawa's own experiences, which stay in my mind even after I've left him behind, starting on the evening's menu. Soul food, Takazawa calls it with a laugh.
My date and I have seats booked for nine o'clock.
Aronia de Takazawa is located at the Sanyo Akasaka Building, second floor, Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo. To request a table, send an e-mail to email@example.com.
Joshua Cooper Ramo wrote about flying the Skeleton Coast of Namibia in the November/December 2006 issue.