Written by Mika Apichatsakol
“The Japanese Issue”, August-September 2023
One hails from Niigata and creates exquisite French cuisine out of the best Japanese ingredients. Another comes from Fukuoka and lives to bring joy through ramen and a little bit of humour, while a third chef from Gunma makes some of the purest sushi Bangkok has seen and tasted. In discovering the stories of three of the city’s prominent Japanese chefs, we realise that, despite each of their uniqueness, they share many traits and ideas in common—most significantly a deep-rooted passion for their work.
A fixture of Bangkok’s Silom Road, Lebua is one of Thailand’s most elite dining destinations for tourists and residents alike, housing several award-winning bars and restaurants within the skyscraper. Among the multiple fine dining experiences to be had here, however, one restaurant on the hotel’s 65th floor is a curious one to be covering in our Japanese issue. Mezzaluna is Lebua’s long-standing French fine dining venue, where for the last eight years, Japanese chef Ryuki Kawasaki has been leading the kitchen to critical success and acclaim.
Growing up in Japan’s Niigata Prefecture in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Ryuki decided he wanted to become a chef and after high school moved to Tokyo to study French cuisine in culinary school. The school, Tsuji, had an outpost in Liergues, France, enabling the aspiring chef to complete the latter half of his education in France, along with an invaluable internship at the iconic Restaurant Paul Bocuse of the celebrated late French chef.
On pursuing culinary arts and French cuisine specifically, Ryuki says, “My love for cooking comes from my mother and my grandmother, whom I would often help in the kitchen when I was a child. In high school, I was also inspired by the television show, Iron Chef, to really pursue cooking as a career. I was drawn to French cuisine in particular because it was something new and unfamiliar to me. With the cuisine I grew up with, we tend to keep things simple, removing all the unnecessary elements and using established seasonings, such as miso and soy sauce. In contrast, French cuisine starts from zero, and you have to keep adding and adding to build up flavours. This difference was interesting to me.”
Returning to Japan upon graduating from culinary school, Ryuki immediately found work at Robuchon in Tokyo, but after five years, Europe came calling again. From 2002 to 2009, the young chef worked his way up the kitchen ranks in well-known establishments in Paris and London before receiving the opportunity to work for Pierre Gagnaire at the Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas, where he would eventually become a head chef. After five years in Vegas, in 2015, Ryuki moved to Bangkok, joining Lebua as chef de cuisine of Mezzaluna.
Despite his previous leadership experience, Mezzaluna was the first time Ryuki was handed the opportunity to develop the cuisine direction for a restaurant. “When I was coming to Lebua, I had asked management, ‘What are you looking to do?’ But they came back and asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’” recalls Ryuki. “I had never received this kind of opportunity to showcase my own style because I had always worked in restaurants with a prominent chef’s name and therefore identity attached to it. But here, I was encouraged to explore my strengths and my identity as a chef.”
The style of cuisine at Mezzaluna is undeniably French, however, Ryuki uniquely brings his Japanese culture to the kitchen table in the form of raw materials. “What sets Mezzaluna apart is our concept of presenting diners with the best-quality ingredients from mainly Japan and some from Europe. The reason we don’t use local ingredients or imported ingredients that are commonly found in other restaurants is because we want to give diners a truly special experience that can only be found here, at Mezzaluna.”
In addition, Chef Ryuki’s seven-course menu at Mezzaluna changes every three months to highlight seasonality, except for one course that remains a constant signature: the Niigata Murakami Wagyu Beef, showcasing premium beef from Chef’s own hometown that is produced in a very limited quantity.
Much like this wagyu, the rest of the ingredients curated for Chef Ryuki’s seasonal menus are of the finest quality and typically very niche in choice, such that they often seem exclusively available at Mezzaluna. Using just the first course from Mezzaluna’s most recent spring tasting menu as an example, the Sakura Masu Mi-Cuit highlighted fresh cherry trout from Japan, brined and sous-vide with olive oil and herbs, served on Court Bouillon jelly, and finished with salted lemon and smoked bonito oil, pickled shiro udo (Japanese spikenard), and garnishes of Oscietra caviar and borage leaves.
With this level of sophistication guaranteed in each and every course at Mezzaluna, Ryuki’s precision, technique, and creativity have frequently been singled out by reviewers, including those of the Michelin Guide, which has awarded Lebua’s “half-moon” restaurant two stars consistently for the last six years.
When asked about the challenges of creating new, stellar menus regularly, Ryuki says that perhaps one important thing to be mindful of is that a single dish cannot be exquisite on its own but rather has to work together with the other dishes to make a whole experience, or what the chef refers to as “the flow”.
Looking back on two and a half decades in the kitchen, Chef tells us frankly that he feels the same as when he first started. “I love cooking. I love being in the kitchen. This is why I’m still here,” says Chef Ryuki. “Passion is a prerequisite for this job.”
For our next Japanese chef, we head to a restaurant on Sukhumvit 26 that has absolutely no signage out front, save a wooden plaque left humorously blank. There is actually a sign just inside once you enter, a neon triangle which tells you that you have indeed arrived at the famed “No Name Noodle”.
The small restaurant of ramen chef Shinji Inoue seats exactly seven diners at the counter and has one separate private table, which can seat four. Opened only a year and a half ago, No Name Noodle has established quite a reputation for itself amongst Bangkok foodies for being something of an exclusive experience. Almost like scoring Taylor Swift Eras Tour tickets these days, getting a reservation at this reservation-only restaurant proves to be a challenge. Bookings for the week open online on Sunday at 9am sharp and typically sell out within an hour or two. Then from Tuesday to Sunday, the restaurant then serves exactly 58 bowls of ramen daily—an expansion from the previous 35 bowls a day—between the hours of 11am and 3pm.
When asked about the strict cap on service, Shinji responds, “Because love is not precious when you give it out to too many people.” He elaborates that quality control is something that is crucial to his business but not easy to do when dealing with precious imported ingredients from Japan. No Name Noodle’s exact output is a reflection of the maximum number of bowls of ramen that can be made daily without any flaws.
“The most important thing to me is the deliver on my promise of perfect ramen to the customer,” says the chef.
Hailing from Fukuoka, which incidentally happens to be the birthplace of Japanese ramen, Shinji’s love for noodles began in early childhood as he closely observed his mother operate her ramen food cart, known as yatai in Japan. Fast-forward to today, he now calls himself the Ramen Entertainer— Mentatainer for short—and a quick glance at Shinji’s active personal Instagram account (@ramenshinchan) provides the best explanation for this title. In between mouthwatering images of ramen are entertaining reels highlighting the chef’s extroverted character and Japanese humour. It both surprises and makes so much sense to us to learn that prior to immigrating to Thailand that Shinji worked as a professional comedian and entertainer in Japan for quite some time.
The story of No Name Noodle nonetheless goes that four years ago, Shinji travelled to Bangkok for leisure. As a lifelong ramen lover and connoisseur, he tells us that he searched high and low for a dedicated ramen outlet owned and operated by a fellow native Japanese but alas was unable to find one on his trip. This unexpectedly set off a trigger, and upon his return to Japan, the gears for what would eventually become No Name Noodle were already in motion.
“I wanted to make authentic Japanese ramen in Thailand as a present to diners here. As for ‘No Name Noodle’, I wanted to strip away everything, from the name to the branding, and put the focus solely on delicious ramen,” says Shinji. He continues, “My work here is sharing this precious gift with my customers, which is why my restaurant is set up the way it is, so that people can not only taste but also see how their ramen is being made and receive an explanation. As ramen has such a long tradition and is a staple of Japanese cuisine culture, it is not a simple thing but rather complex.”
If you are one of the lucky ones able to secure a seat at No Name Noodle, you’ll be able to try shop signatures like Shio Soba and Shoyu Tsuke Soba. Each bowl of ramen is said to incorporate over 30 ingredients, including various types of salt and soy sauce, imported from Japan. These days, the restaurant is also offering seasonal specials such as Shirasu Don (whitebait ricebowl) and Toro Toro Kombusui Shio Tsuke Soba, made with kombu from Hokkaido.
So what makes good ramen? “Love, love! Passion!” exclaims Ramen Shin Chan. Indeed, when searching for ramen restaurants in his own spare time, the chef is less concerned about the type of ramen being served but more interested in who’s making it.
As for what’s next for the Mentatainer and No Name Noodle, the chef tells us that he is carrying on in his journey of serving both good ramen and the knowledge behind the craft to his diners. Chef is currently setting up an additional see-through preparation space for showing customers how ramen noodles are made. “For the last year, I’ve been teaching my customers about shio, shoyu, and dashi—elements of the soup,” says Shinji, “The next year will be dedicated to komugi and mizu (wheat and water), or in other words, the noodles.”
Perhaps even more inconspicuous than No Name Noodle is the workplace of our final chef in this trilogy, Masato Shimizu. Masato’s award-winning namesake sushi restaurant is truly tucked away in a tiny offshoot alley on Sukhumvit 31, marked only by a modest wooden door and small wooden plaque with two kanji characters: Masa-to. Behind the door and past a charming waiting area is the elegant stage for the chef to present his vision of “pure sushi plus good service” to customers.
Sushi, in its purest form, comprises mainly rice and fish with minimal seasoning. But within this seemingly basic framework of cuisine hides a labyrinth of technique and nuances which distinguish the good from the average and the best from the good. Everything, from how the fish has been sliced and the ratio of rice to fish, to the exact temperature or amount of pressure applied makes a difference to taste— these examples really just scratching the surface of the art of sushi and the amount of experience a chef like Masato has accumulated.
Similar to both Ryuki and Masato’s local industry friend Ramen Shin Chan, Masato fell in love with his craft at a young age through family introduction. His uncle was a sushi chef who would often come by Masato’s parents’ house and prepare sushi for the family. Realising early on (as early as kindergarten) that he wanted to become a sushi chef, after high school, Masato moved from his birthplace of Gunma Prefecture to Tokyo to pursue sushi chef training. There, he received an opportunity to train and work under the protege of a venerable sushi institution, Yoshino.
In 2002, the ambitious young chef decided to expand his horizons, leaving Japan for New York. He landed the position of head chef at Jewel Bako, a well-respected sushi establishment in East Village, Manhattan and eventually, at the age of 29, became the youngest New York City chef to earn a Michelin star. After Jewel Bako, Masato opened 15 East Restaurant with a well-regarded chef and restaurateur, Marco Moreira, that also became a star catcher.
After over a decade in the States, in 2015, Masato and his Thai-Japanese wife decided to move to Bangkok, where Masato quickly resumed doing what he does best: opening a world-class sushi restaurant. Nearly eight years, one pandemic, and one more Michelin star on the chef’s belt later, Sushi Masato is a legend within the Bangkok haute cuisine community, serving highly-coveted omakase and à la carte sushi for lunch and dinner six days a week.
It’s no question that the demand for omakase sushi is at an all-time high in Bangkok, with over 100 restaurants in the city offering the service. As an establishment which has no doubt played a significant role in inspiring this cuisine trend and also setting a high standard for it, to say that Masato appreciates the craze would be an understatement. “I love it! Our numbers keep going up and up. It’s definitely a good thing.”
Speaking to the chef about sushi in general, Masato tells us that his favourite fish is “whatever is in season”, resounding the universal love the Japanese have for seasonality in their cuisine. He also shares that his style of sushi is not packed too tightly, leaving a decent amount of air within the bite to ensure that it melts and unravels perfectly in the mouth.
But Chef is adamant that the sushi itself is not everything. “Sometimes service is more important than food,” he says. When asked to define his meaning of “good service”, Masato tells us he views it as a “sense sixth” for customer needs, like remembering that a particular customer always prefers sparkling water and having the beverage ready to be served as soon as the customer sits down. “On that note, good timing is also a big part of ‘good service’,” says Masato. “It’s a kind of service that you can’t quite put your finger on.” An invisible hand, if you will.
As someone who seems so content with what he’s doing, we ask Masato about where he sees himself in the future. To this, he brings up the well-known example of sushi master Jiro Ono. “Jiro never talks ‘goals’, and I’m the same. I want to wake up when I’m 80 or 90 and still be inspired and happy by what I do. Sushi is my life, and I love it.”
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