Baking is an art form, and the sentiment could not be more accurate for Natsuko Shoji, who has been named Asia’s Best Female Chef 2022 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
In 2020, the pastry chef expanded her Tokyo-based tart shop Été to include an exclusive six-seat dining experience. The concept is revered for its innovation and as the birthplace of one of Tokyo’s most sought-after desserts.
Shoji talks to Hospitality about the beginnings of her culinary journey, career-defining dishes and inspiring the next generation of women in the industry.
Natsuko Shoji first stepped foot in the professional kitchen at Florilège, a French restaurant in Tokyo. She was promoted to sous chef within three years, but it wasn’t long before she decided to go it alone. The chef opened Été, which means summer in French, in Shibuya.
“I was 24 when I first opened Été,” says Shoji. “I thought it would be really hard to [open] a restaurant business because I was inexperienced, I was not famous, I was young and I was a female cook. It meant it was going to be difficult hiring staff and finding customers, so I started Été as a unique tart shop.”
Any concerns were soon quashed once Shoji began making and selling a mango tart, a dessert that has gone on to receive acclaim from customers and industry peers. “I wanted to make something people would instantly recognise as my creation,” says the chef. “I made a tart in [what] looked like a square jewellery box. I truly believe my signature dish was the starting point of my success.”
The tart features three different layers including crispy, butter-rich sabret topped with diplomat cream and the dessert’s trademark rose made of mango slices glazed in syrup. Like many of Shoji’s creations, the dessert was inspired by her interest in fashion. Customer requests have also been a defining factor for some of Été’s other prized creations.
“My cooking style is inspired by fashion and art, and I’ve designed my restaurant in an haute couture style,” says the chef. “I’m also inspired by the diners who come to my restaurant; many of my signature dishes were requested by them.”
An example is Été’s strawberry cake, which draws inspiration from Louis Vuitton’s Damier print. The cake features Yuki-Usagi white strawberries from Saga and red Sakura Momo strawberries from Tokushima.
It wasn’t until last year that Shoji saw an opportunity to create a dining experience for her tart shop’s existing customer base. “After the success of Été’s cake business, I started serving food for my cake customers only,” says Shoji.
“It’s like a special invitation to fashion events. After you become a local customer, you get invited to dine at Été’s private restaurant.”
Guests at Été are met with aesthetically pleasing dishes that some would say look too good to eat. For Shoji, taste and visuals are equally important. “I believe in creating collections that are not only delicious to eat, but are visually beautiful,” she says. “The reason why I call each dish or dessert a creation or a collection is because I want them to be seen as a work of art.”
Fashion and food don’t often come together, but the concept has certainly put Shoji and Été on the map. “I see this as a great opportunity to show the world my new and unique strategy of combining fashion and gastronomy,” says the chef. “I hope we can make the fashion community more aware of what’s going on in the food industry and reach a further audience.”
Receiving the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef is a monumental achievement for Shoji and marks the achievement of a long-time goal. “I’ve learned that if you create a masterpiece, you will eventually get acknowledgement, regardless of the size or location of your restaurant,” says Shoji. “Even though I faced many obstacles as a female chef, I am proud to have proven people wrong by racking up achievements.”
Inspiring other women to join the industry is another motivator for Shoji. “There aren’t many female chefs in Japan, so I hope to be a role model and give them the hope that they can achieve anything they set their minds to,” she says. “I hope to encourage more female chefs to join the industry by striving to gain recognition on a global scale.”
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