A Translocal Italian Restaurant in Tokyo
Italian food in Japan has progressed far beyond its association with local creations like “naporitan” and “doria.” Tokyo restaurant offerings now range from authentic regional Italian cuisines to avant-garde fusion concepts. As Taisho University sociologist Keiichi Sawaguchi discovered in his research on Japanese chefs in Italy, one reason for the boom in authentic Italian cuisine since the 1990s was the creation of a transnational institutional pipeline sending Japanese chefs to training schools in Italy (some even teaching in Japanese). This schooling, in turn, came with restaurant jobs in Italy that give Japanese chefs deep experience while also providing many top Italian restaurants with cheap Japanese labor. This pipeline still functions. Many chefs work in Italy for several years, while on student visas. Most return to Japan, bringing both traditional recipes and new culinary concepts with them. With close emotional and personal ties to their former workplaces in Italy, returning chefs are able to create a type of “translocal restaurant,” connecting particular places in Italy to particular places in Japan. One of these is Trattoria 29 in Nishi-Ogikubo, offering a meaty bite of Tuscany in neighborhood Tokyo.
Fine Italian restaurants in Tokyo tended to rely heavily on fish, which is popular in all cuisines in Japan. But Trattoria 29 puts meat right in the forefront, starting with its name, which in Japanese is a pun on the word “niku” (or meat). Although inspired by traditional restaurants in Tuscany, the design at this “meat trattoria” is decidedly modern, avoiding the usual touristic clichés of an Italian restaurant in Japan. The external wall is all glass, the counter space is blank white, and the kitchen is in full view. The narrow space is decorated mostly with photos from the restaurants where the staff interned or worked in Italy. The chef Yusuke Takeuchi operates the restaurant with his wife Mai Arase. Takeuchi does prep during the day and cooks at night. Arase runs the front at night. A friend Mie Yokouchi is in charge of sandwiches at lunch. She comes is in from 7:30 in the morning, until 4:30, and also helps out on busy weekend evenings.
Takeuchi was born in Setagaya, Tokyo and grew up in Kawaba Village Gunma Prefecture, where his parents moved to start a pension. He came back to Tokyo after graduating from high school. “I first went to a computer vocational school,” he said. “Why did I get there? Well, I didn’t have any money, and I was told I could go there with a “newspaper scholarship” [a work-study program for students who receive a scholarship for agreeing to deliver the newspaper]. At first, I was going to go to the culinary school, but first I was told that the culinary school schedule was too busy and I wouldn’t be able to cope with the evening paper delivery. As for computers, I graduated in 1998 and personal computers were a thing then, and the internet was starting up, so I thought it would be interesting. So I decided on that. I kept delivering papers. But when I got in the second year and started to look for a job I realized it wasn’t right for me.”
At that point Takeuchi said, he started looking for other opportunities and happened upon a work-study scholarship with the Ginza Lion Beer Hall. “It didn’t pay as well as the newspaper scholarship,” he said, “but it did pay something. So with that pay, I entered the culinary school in Ikebukuro.”
While he was working at the Ginza Lion, a chance to work in Italian cuisine popped up. “I heard that one of my seniors [sempai] at Lion had gone over to work at an Italian restaurant in Hiro, and when I asked about that, I found out they were looking for people. Well, I like cuisine in general, and I wasn’t intending to specialize in Italian, but I was interested, and that’s how I ended up going over to that restaurant in Hiro. The restaurant was called Appia. It was opened by the former boss of the famous Italian restaurant Chianti in Roppongi. It was actually the same as Chianti. Its logo is a wagon wheel. It is an old Showa-style restaurant, Italian, but they also have curry. So, although it is high class, it still was Japanese-style Italian. I worked there for three years. Then a sempai (senior colleague) who had worked at Chianti came to work at Appia. He had returned from working in Italy.”
Meeting this sempai was an important turning point for Takeuchi. “This guy had come back from Italy,” he said. “I mean the food in Appia was good but what this guy was cooking was completely different. I asked myself, ‘what is Italy really?’ I realized that even though I was cooking Italian food there was so much I didn’t know about Italy. So I saved some money and decided to go to Italy.”
Back then he already knew that he wanted to run a restaurant on his own, but the image he had was the type of restaurant that was popular in Japan at the time. “I liked meat but at the time,” he said, “but I wasn’t really focused on that. I was thinking about opening my own shop, but really an ordinary one, with carpaccio as a starter, maybe a main of fish acqua pazza [poached fish], and we would also have meat. I was thinking of opening that kind of place.”
So Takeuchi headed to Italy. At that point, he had no Italian language skills at all. “I applied to a language school for the first half-year, and I went to a language school by day and worked at a restaurant at night. I didn’t have a work visa. It’s difficult in Italy. In France you can get a working holiday visa but not in Italy. So when I first went to Florence, I happened to find a job where a Japanese chef was working and somehow became his apprentice. There was a job advertisement that he was looking for help. ”
Takeuchi added that Furusawa Kazuki, the chef with whom he worked in that restaurant in Florence is now a celebrated chef with a restaurant Oltrevino in Kamakura.“Oltrevino is a very interesting place,” Takeuchi explained. “The wife is an Italian antique dealer and sells antiques at the store. In Kamakura, there is a wine shop, a shop selling take-out side dishes, the antique shop, and an Italian cuisine restaurant.”
After he went to Italy his image of what the Italian restaurant should be like changed. “When you go to Italy,” he said, “things are really separated. If you are along the coast they serve seafood. But if you go a bit inland the traditional restaurants only serve meat. Of course, if you to go to Rome or Milan, or even Florence, then you will find places that serve both. But from the old days the way they think is that if you want to eat fish, you go to the sea, and if you want to eat meat, you go inland. This was a big culture shock for me. And this ‘meat boom’ had not yet really begun in Japan. But it was after I went to Italy that I began to think, if I want to open my own shop, I could specialize in meat.”
It was an encounter with a master butcher, however, that really awoke his interest in meat. “At the first restaurant I worked at we were using meat from this one butcher,” he said. “The chef there told me about this really unique butcher in the Chianti region. That place was also a culture shock for me. That guy was the eighth generation owner, and that shop had been in business for 400 years. He has a lot of original ideas and innovations. Of course, he has an ordinary meat shop, but he also has a deli, and he has a restaurant. It is really interesting.”
This butcher shop is located in Panzano between Florence and Siena in the wine country of Chianti. The owner is Dario Checchini, who has become world-famous through appearing on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Meeting him was a turning point for Takeuchi. “I didn’t start working there right away. At first, I went from Florence to Bologna to learn about pasta and how to make Bolognese sauce. I was in Italy for three years. … But in my last year, I realized this will be my last year, and then finally was able to go work for that butcher…. Because it was a butcher shop, everything was done from separating the cuts of meat to cooking. In the morning I cut up the meat. It would be about 100 kilograms. The shop was open in the daytime, and I would help there from noon. At night I helped in the restaurant. I did it for about a year.”
“Oh, yeah, meat!” Takeuchi gets excited talking about meat. There are so many ways of preparing it, he learned in Italy. “Like beef tartare – we are not allowed to serve it in Japan now – but if you think about it, there are raw hams that have been aged for years, and then there is tartare you can eat immediately after killing it. The amazing depth of this knowledge depends on how far you go into it. I felt that in Italy. It was good that there was such an interesting butcher shop. Cecchini only deals with beef and pork, nothing else, no birds or rabbit. But for beef, we would use the whole thing from the hooves to the internal organs.” At Cecchini Takeuchi also learned to cook meat using all the pieces of the cow.
It was also through working in Italy that he met his wife, through their mutual friend and current business partner Yokouchi Mie. “The first chef whom I worked for had to go back to Japan because his visa ran out. And, so then Yokouchi Mie came to work at the stove behind me.”
Although he didn’t know at the time, her roommate at the time was his future wife. During this time, he had to go to Japan to renew his own visa, and when he returned to Florence, he met up with Yokouchi Mie. “That day she brought along a Japanese person who happened to share a room with her, and that person is now my wife. It wasn’t that she wanted to introduce us, it just was a coincidence, just someone she knew.”
That meeting was 2006. After that his student visa expired in 2009, he returned to Japan, where his transnational Italian network also now extended to several restaurants run by returned trainees like himself. “There was another unexpected connection,” he said. “I returned to Japan and started work at another restaurant called “Osteria Enoteca Da Sasino. This is a famous Italian restaurant in that region. It was featured in the documentary “Land of Passion” [Jounetsu Tairiku]. He makes his own cheese, own cured ham, own wine, and grows his own vegetables on the land. Other than distilling, he does 90 percent of everything himself. So was this strange chef, and she had just quit working there. So I thought, can I take up her position? I figured I couldn’t open up my own restaurant directly after coming back, so I would try to work at a restaurant that fits my image of a good restaurant.”
“This was a small restaurant with only 20 seats,” he said. “The restaurant that I had been working at in Appia was 80 seats. I knew I wanted to open a smaller place but I had never actually worked in one. I also was also not sure where I wanted to open a place, back in Gunma or somewhere in Tokyo where my wife was from. I know that I didn’t want to open up in an [exclusive] Tokyo neighborhood like Azabu or Ginza, more in a place like Gunma or Nishiogi [where his wife is from]. Since the conditions in the countryside are similar, I decided to get in touch with this guy, and I was able to get a chance to work there in 2010 for one year in 2010. That was at this restaurant in Aomori.”
When opening one’s own place the first step, usually a difficult one in Tokyo, is to find a convenient and affordable location. “At this time a lot of things were undecided,” Takeuchi said. “We first decided to look for a place in Nishiogi. While I was working in Aomori for half a year, I would come back about once a month and we would look around for a place. This was actually only the second place we saw. The location was great and the size was also perfect. It was a completely empty skeleton, so we could make out of what we wanted…. So we really just snapped this place up.”
So Trattoria 29 opened up on February 9, 2011. It was taken up in the media from the very beginning, Takeuchi said. “I'm had always been talking to my wife about opening a strange restaurant like none before…. From the time I opened, we were interviewed by magazines and got good coverage. …. It was nothing we did, but yes, … We were treated well by the media."
Over the years, the menu at 29 is always changing, Takeuchi said, but the restaurant remains committed to meat dishes. “It's an Italian restaurant specializing in meat. For sure. I was never trying to be like an ‘authentic and traditional’ Italian restaurant, but I was doing Tuscan cooking at the beginning of the menu…. But that proportion has been decreasing. Do I have some peculiar items? Sure, the fried rabbit is a traditional Tuscan dish. I am often asked if we using wild game. But actually these are really different. There are two types of rabbit, the ones that are farmed and the wild ones, and these are completely different. … The taste of the domestic rabbit and the wild rabbit are different. The wild rabbit has red meat like venison, completely red meat. The domestic rabbit is more like a chicken. So the one we use here is a bit more like chicken, white meat. But when you go to Italy you will find lots of dishes for both wild and domesticated rabbit. They are different things.”
When you talk to Takeuchi about meat, you are quickly overwhelmed by the depth of his knowledge. Trattoria 29 is most famous for beef, so we asked what kinds of beef he uses.
“In Tuscany you get a T-bone, which includes both the tenderloin and strip. We serve this also but you have to reserve three days ahead of time, and at least one kilo. With a T-bone, if it is less than one kilo it is too thin, and when you grill it, it loses the essence of a piece of grilled meat. We grill it here on the charcoal. The thicker the piece the better, that way you get the aroma cooked into the meat. If you cook small pieces quickly, cooking with charcoal loses its meaning. About four people can eat a kilo of steak. It includes the bone. But you have to reserve three days ahead of time.”
“When I want to cook an Italian style of meat, then I choose one with redder Italian-style meat, like the two at the bottom of the menu. It would have been fine just to have those, but Japanese think a cut with more fat tastes good – of course, they don’t eat as much – so I thought it would better to have several varieties. So this other cut is a rump steak with Japanese style marbling with a lot of fat on it. Of course, rump is a piece that usually doesn’t get much fat, it is soft though, and among the cuts I offer it is the most translucent [with fat]… Still, it is not white, but red meat with white streaks.”
This beef is Australian Angus, Takeuchi said. It is grass-fed, producing red meat with an “Aussie style” wild aroma. He is not able to get Tuscan beef. Some limited imports of brand-name Chianina beef to Japan have begun but it remains very expensive, Takeuchi said. “You would have to charge 50,000 yen for a one-kilo steak here,” he said. “But if you ate it over there you wouldn’t pay that much for it, but you might get a 50,000 yen flavor…. But Italy has a lot of other really good meats, and eventually, they will be importing them. For now, the only T-Bone you can get is American. It is red meat.”
Dinner at 29 is about the meat, of course, but at lunchtime, lighter items are featured. Actually, Takeuchi, explained, lunch is relatively a new thing. Yokouchi is in charge of lunch. She quit her other job four years ago and the couple invited their old friend to come and join them. Yokouchi started up their lunchtime business offering panini.
When Trattoria 29 first started, there were many customers coming from all over the city. But over the years, the business has changed. Now 80 percent of the customers live nearby and many are regulars. It has become a local Nishiogi standby.
The members of Trattoria 29 maintain their strong connection to Italy. “I work very hard so that I will be able to go there every year,” Takeuchi said. There are always certain restaurants I want to eat in Italy. As my wife often says, we go to Italy to ‘tune the tongue.’ We really go for eating. This time we’ll be going to Paris and to Italy. We went to Spain for example, to try out a different culture from Italy. In Italy, there are still many places we have not been to. So we always try to go to some cities we have never been while always visiting our old standby Florence.”
Of course, Takeuchi said, going to Italy is half vacation and half refreshing their sense of Italian culture and cuisine. They also may pick up some new ideas for their menu there.
Finally, when we asked their future plans Takeuchi demurred. “Well, I don't think about it right now,” he said. “As far as we can see, we just want to keep on going as-is. We don't think about doing flashy things.” It seems that he has a strong commitment to Italian meat cuisine, that he envisions continuing in that direction rather than expanding his business.
From our interview, Takeuchi and Arase's curiosity and desire to improve their craft emerge as constant themes, leading them deep into Italian culinary culture, especially the craft of preparing meat cuisine. Over the years they have sustained a deep culinary tie to Italy, particularly to the places where they first studied and worked in Tuscany. They have brought this knowledge, energy, and longing for Italy to the odd little town of Nishiogi, creating a reasonably priced and richly flavored “translocal restaurant” in this Tokyo neighborhood. (James Farrer Dec. 24, 2019).
(interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura March 20, 2019; transcription and Japanese editing by Kimura Fumiko; translation and text by James Farrer; copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved)