A young Japanese chef blends tradition and innovation and brings smiles to diners’ faces and joy to their hearts.
In the regimented world of Japanese high culture, every single move is ritualised. The contrasts of digital lifestyle and technology and the rarefied air of hush-hush tatami rooms still fascinate visitors and locals alike. Zaiyu Hasegawa, the gregarious chef-patron of Den restaurant, has bridged the best of both realms into one. Currently, Zaiyu Hasegawa’s Den is No. 2 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and crowned the Best Restaurant in Japan.
Born and bred in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Zaiyu recalls, “My mother was a geisha. She worked at Uotoku Kagurazaka, a ryōtei (high-end restaurant), and often brought home some leftovers in a bento box. She’s also a good cook and taught me. So I thought it was cool to be a chef. When I was 18, I learned to how to cook traditional kaiseki at this restaurant.”
Originated in Kyoto, classical kaiseki represents Japanese multi-course haute cuisine that varies from ornate styles of the court and the samurai to restrained ways of the temple and the tea ceremony. This intricate culinary culture is an aesthetic form of edible art that balances flavours, textures, colours, seasons, presentations, and vessels of food. In the modern world, most find it distant and structured. On kaiseki, Zaiyu says, “I like the seasonality of kaiseki courses because there are varieties of tastes, textures, and methods—sour, salty, soup, simmering, steaming, grilling, and rice dishes, which arrives at the end with some side dishes.”
In 2007, Zaiyu at only 29, opened Den in Jimbocho district where he gave a creative spin to the classics focussing on tastes as much as joy. On the concept of Den, he explains, “It’s kaiseki that you would enjoy eating. I started Den because where I worked was very traditional. Younger generations don’t go to these places anymore. It’s like going to operas; they don’t understand it. More foreigners visit Japan, and I want something new and easy for them and the younger crowd. I love and understand traditional techniques and hope that others will understand kaiseki too.”
However, the path to glory doesn’t run smoothly, Zaiyu reminisces, “When I opened the restaurant ten years ago, it was tough. There weren’t many people there in the beginning. Some days no one would come. No one knew about me, and I didn’t even know what to serve. I had many memories of the hardship and learned my lessons. But after that, customers gradually came and returned. I was happy about it. I try to keep the momentum alive.”
Three years later Den received its first Michelin star and the second one in 2013 which was eventually docked and reinstated in 2018. In 2016 Den was relocated in Jingumae area at a larger premise, where it deservedly earned the Art of Hospitality Award for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017. This reflects the traditional Japanese philosophy of wholehearted hospitality, omotenashi. Den embraces this idea and makes diners feel like a part of a family.
Embodied in selflessness, modesty, and humility, kaiseki practitioners have a deep admiration of the seasons and warm thoughtfulness towards customers. The central principle is to convey respect and making guests feel special and at ease. This means chefs strive for excellence in every detail. Zaiyu’s playfulness and unique hospitality style make dining at Den relaxing and memorable. He enthuses, “I want it to be fun and happy, with a sense of humour. It’s because these kaiseki restaurants are silent, too serious and formal. No one talks. I want people to relax. They can use either chopsticks or their hands to eat. Forget the rules and etiquette. Just relax, enjoy, and lick your fingers. When you’re happy, you enjoy eating better. What I want customers to remember is that they had a great time at Den whether the food is yummy or not.”
He continues, “This is like cooking for a family. My team and my customers are my family. In the past ten years, what I’m most proud of is seeing my customers through their life stages. They got married, have children, and come back with their kids. It’s heart-warming to see that. I enjoy working with my team. They make it fun to work. We all come up with new dishes, and I get inspirations from everyone every day, like customers from abroad or a German intern who cooks a stock based on his country’s ingredients. It’s a privilege to meet new people.”
On favourite things, he muses, “My favourite season is autumn. I like picking mushrooms from Mount Fuji and enjoy the change of foliage. The ingredients are so flavoursome, like fatty sanma (Pacific saury or mackerel pike) cooked with rice. I seasonally select produces and pick vegetables from my sister’s farm. I have friends who are ceramicists and textiles artists from different regions. Their nice works are inside Den. My hobby is fishing in Tokyo Bay after work every day. Sometimes I catch some sea bass.”
Zaiyu humbly concludes, “I love and have great respect for tradition because, without it, you cannot have innovation. I learned everything from Chef Nobu Hagiwara whom I deeply respect. He passed away, and I want to do something to honour him. I want to educate people about kaiseki in both traditional and modern interpretations. I dream of bringing diners to the next level.”