When I first heard about Den in Tokyo a few years ago, three images stuck in my mind—a precious chihuahua named Puchi Jr., a dish called Dentucky Fried Chicken served in a red-and-white box that looked suspiciously like one from that famous American fast food chain, and a young chef with spiky hair and a mischievous grin. These images didn’t quite fit the mold of the serious, tradition bound kaiseki or sushi master considered the pinnacle of chefdom in Japan. But it turns out Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa, yes that young chef with the spiky hair, has managed to become Japan’s chef of the moment. He’s at the top of the heap of what is arguably the most intimidating concentration of master chefs in the world.
Den won the Best Restaurant in Japan award for the second year in a row at this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, recently held at the Wynn Palace Macau. We got the chance to sit down with Hasegawa the day before the grand announcement of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2019. At that point, he didn’t know yet that he would retain his Best Restaurant in Japan award (albeit he would drop to No. 3 from last year’s No. 2 ranking), and that he would also receive the all-important Chefs’ Choice Award, sponsored by Estrella Damm, the only award voted on by his chef-peers in the 2019 list.
During the course of our conversation, with the personable Noriko Yamaguchi (a crucial part of the Den front-of-house team) ably translating for us, Hasegawa managed to break down stereotype after stereotype of what a “superstar” chef is perceived to be.
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“Don’t you think, in the world, there are so many people who can cook better than me? With better technique?” he asks. If so, how then did this not-so-good chef (at least according to him) get to the top of his profession? It may have started with a pretty unconventional life and career. His mother worked as a geisha at a traditional high-end ryōtei restaurant, and every morning, he would eat the leftovers his mother brought home from work. Hasegawa muses, “I just thought, to make something so good is a very cool thing to do.” That early exposure to the finest Japanese cuisine eventually led him to enter the trade, working at various Japanese restaurants, including the very same one where his mother worked.
The big break came when he decided to strike out on his own at the age of 29. When I asked him what was good about starting so young, the 39-year-old shares, “A lot of people would give (me) a lot of advice. Sometimes a customer would say ‘this doesn’t taste good,’ but they would come back to try it again. In that aspect, I’m lucky to have been given all this advice. I think if I had started a bit older, I probably wouldn’t want to listen to them. It’s good to start young when you can still change.”
And change he did as Hasegawa strayed from the rules-bound style of kaiseki, while still managing to respect its centuries’ old traditions. But even more than the food, what Hasegawa stressed again and again was the importance of addressing guests’ needs, making them feel welcome when they come to Den. That customer experience is a central part of what makes Den so successful and so well loved. Hasegawa elaborates, “A restaurant is not just a place where you eat, it’s a place where you create memories. So if you eat something that is good, you probably don’t remember it that well. But if you eat when you’re relaxed and happy, you remember it better. So I wanted to provide a place where people can just enjoy food and be relaxed…We pretty much say up front that there are no rules.” If that means eating with your hands, licking your fingers, or not being good with chopsticks, then that’s fine by him.
That feeling of welcome and comfort is extended even during the usually stressful ordeal of trying to snag a seat at Den, one of the most sought after tables in Tokyo. Even then, the front-of-house team, including his wife Emi, try their best to ease the stress for guests calling to make a reservation. He and his team went as far as role-playing the arduous reservations process during the #50BestTalks event presented by Miele the day before the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony. Hasegawa brought his team onstage, with Yamaguchi playing the “desperate” diner who calls 200 (yes, 200!) times before getting an answer on the other line. But once she got a reply, the Den team demonstrated warmth, courtesy, concern, and even empathy, with the express intention of “seeing a smile” on the other end of the phone, according to Hasegawa.
So why is it so hard to get into Den? Despite its popularity, Hasegawa keeps the restaurant small at just 20 seats, for the purpose of maintaining a level of service and attention not possible if the team served more guests. During his talk, he explained that he and his team go through the reservation list every day to address the preferences of each and every one of their guests, whether they’re regulars, first-time customers, old or young, or visitors from another country. He may plate the dish in prettier fashion for a woman guest, give a bigger portion to a younger guest, and perhaps slightly adjust the flavors for guests visiting, let’s say, from the Philippines, based on what he knows about the taste preferences of Filipinos.
Hasegawa boils down this approach to: “You cook for the person.” He elaborates, “In a month, we (have) about 400 people, so if you think of cooking for 400 people, it’s different than cooking for one person 400 times. But what I do is I think of cooking for one person, but 400 times. So it’s very, very personalized.”
It’s no wonder that Den won the Art of Hospitality Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017, thanks to the attention he and his team give to their customers. Hasegawa shares, “We have a really good relationship with our guests, (they’re) almost like friends. So people who keep coming back to us, we build that long-term relationship with them. Some of them can tell me what they like and what they don’t like about our dishes … And the more often they come, because I understand their taste better, so the theory is (our food) should taste better every time.”
Throughout the interview, Hasegawa never really talked about his own capabilities or his personal accomplishments, but rather always highlighted that Den is successful not just because of the chef. He admits, “Just one person, it’s nothing special. But what’s amazing about Den, if you really want us to say it, one thing we’re proud of is that we have the team.” And that team includes his beloved Puchi Jr. of course.
Since Den opened, it has earned accolade after accolade, rapidly rising up the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list to this year’s No. 3 ranking, and currently listed No. 17 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. With its two Michelin stars and the long line of people trying to reserve a table, have such outsized expectations daunted Hasegawa at all? He replies coolly, “We’re not that nervous. We just do what we do, and we just try to do our best. And even when people make a reservation, if they’re making it because we’re on the Michelin Guide or because we’re on the (Asia’s 50 Best) list, when they come, all we want them to do is relax, not to think of all these (awards).” Then he adds with that impish grin of his, “You give them enough alcohol, that’s the technique of Den! Motto motto motto!”
Den photos by Shinichiro Fujii, Jesto
Zaiyu Hasegawa photo by Andrea Fazzari
Asia’s 50 Best photos courtesy of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant