There are chefs who start their careers in pursuit of status, and some who start with a passion for learning more about their craft every day.
It’s the latter who often fill the ranks of the elite, led by a thirst for knowledge that pushes them out of their comfort zones and beyond the ordinary. They start with a mindset of success, because every bit of information gained is an accomplishment that propels them forward.
About 100 diners were able to experience the creations of one such chef when Yu Sugimoto, executive chef at Japan’s famed Imperial Hotel Tokyo, brought “The Imperial,” a five-course tasting menu, to the Halekulani for one night. The dinner took place at La Mer restaurant Thursday, in celebration of the Imperial’s 130th anniversary, part of a 20-year sister relationship between the two luxury properties. It was the only anniversary event set outside Japan.
SUGIMOTO STARTED his career in 1999 in the kitchen of Les Saisons, the main restaurant in the Imperial, founded in 1890 at the request of the Meiji emperor to entertain the increasing number of Western visitors to Japan. There, the royal family has welcomed statesmen, royalty, celebrities and businessmen over the generations.
Despite his enviable position, Sugimoto felt there was much to learn outside Japan. Les Saisons welcomed visiting chefs for collaborative dinners, and in 2004 Sugimoto found himself working with a guest chef from the prestigious Le Bristol Paris. “I saw everything, the ingredients, the beautiful plates, and at that moment decided to go.”
Sugimoto quit his job and moved to France to learn all he could in the nation that codified the techniques of cooking.
He started at Michelin-starred restaurants in Brittany, and in 2006 became head chef at Hotel Le Meurice in Paris. He was able to work with such luminaries as Yannick Alleno and Alain Ducasse. After executive chef roles at Restaurant L’Esperance in Burgundy in 2014 and The Square in London in 2016, he returned to the Imperial Hotel in 2017 and became its executive chef two years later.
Asked if he ever got nervous serving the Imperial’s illustrious patrons, his answer was a resounding “no.”
“I don’t think about that. I’m happy learning every day and creating new dishes for customers to enjoy.”
Even so, he preferred toiling for diners in France and his native Japan, than those he encountered during his year in London. “In London I had difficult guests. Very picky, with so many special requests. In France and Japan, the chef decides.”
Where many chefs versed in French and Japanese styles now create fusion menus, Sugimoto defines his style as modern French, and he works with the philosophy of using traditional methods to express the essence of his ingredients.
At La Mer, the ingredients he used were primarily sourced locally. The only item fundamentally Japanese was nori pan, a dense rustic dinner roll incorporating fresh river water seaweed harvested in Shinagawa.
GUESTS RECEIVED a beautiful introduction to Sugimoto’s work with an appetizer of lime-accented aspic as light as foam, stuffed with Dungeness crab meat that had been tossed only with a bit of tarragon, lemon and olive oil. Flavors were light, but easily discernible, from the sweetness of the crab, to the bright touch of lime. The chilled jelly was encircled by a pour of green pea puree.
The richness of ossetra caviar on a scallop tartlet followed, the dish finished with crisp slices of asparagus, asparagus mousse, fried capers, mizuna and gold leaf.
Then came a show-stopper. Guests were shown the potful of bundled fennel fronds that, back in the kitchen, were used to flavor a flambe of oven-roasted lobster.
A second entree of confit veal chop followed, accompanied by airy pommes souffle and sauteed spinach and garlic in a crispy artichoke fondant.
For dessert, what appeared to be a full-size black truffle was actually a dark chocolate truffle shell filled with minced apple compote. Sugimoto mixed savory with sweet by interspersing thin slices of earthy black truffles with dark chocolate squares, white chocolate “feathers” and milk chocolate mousse.
Although I left full, dinners like this often leave me wanting to see and try more. The same was true in the kitchen, where Sugimoto said he encouraged some of the local staff to visit his kitchen in Tokyo, perhaps an opportunity to follow in his footsteps and satisfy their own quest to learn from the best.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.