On my last trip to Japan, I had the rare opportunity to dine at été, the invitation-only restaurant owned by Natsuko Shoji, a young and talented Japanese chef. I discovered her on social media through colourful snapshots of her cakes, which are inspired by iconic fashion accessories like the quilted Chanel bag. I managed to catch up with her over omakase and a slice of mango cake.
Shoji told me that her dream was always to be a pastry chef and choux à la crème was her inspiration. Though she is now famous in Tokyo for her artful cakes that combine sablé, pastry cream and carefully sculpted fruit she buys at Tsukiji market, her talent embraces both sweet and savory dishes, thanks to an early start at Florilège, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo, when she was 19. By the following year, she was sous-chef.
While she was learning to run a kitchen, she also learned the difficult side of hospitality: the long hours and physical work are demanding on the body, but also on the spirit. When she was 21, Shoji’s father passed away, but she was so busy working morning to evening, that she barely had time to visit him. “I didn’t want the same thing to happen with my mother,” she told me. So, she quit after her third year and went to work as a waitress while she considered what to do next.
As she thought back over her time at Florilège, she remembered how popular the cakes that she made were: people ordered them for birthdays and special events. Today, purchasing a cake is only possible after reserving her four-cover omakase restaurant été. This is Shoji’s way of building a personal relationship with her customers, something that was difficult to do when she was working long hours on the restaurant floor… Now Natsuko Shoji is not only living her dream but is also an inspiration to others!