"What do you think that dish is?" asks a team member who, like most of the staff at Den, plays dual roles as a cook and server. Her question immediately gave me pause.
"I thought it was cod," I reply sheepishly. "Is it?"
"Well, kinda," she responds with a mischievous grin. Her English was perfect, and she later interpreted our conversation with chef Zaiyu Hasegawa, so the tone of her response left little doubt that something sinister was afoot.
At Japan's No. 1 restaurant, guests share long tables that stretch across the length of the restaurant, and four multi-lingual Asian millennials—two men, two women—sit to the right with a camera to film much of their dining experience. The alpha of the group, who's likely a YouTube star or other form of social media influencer, makes several guesses himself. None were correct. The cook/server finally says something to him in Japanese, and his head drops.
Turning to me, he laughs, "You just ate a bowl full of cod sperm."
The culinary term is milt, or shirako in Japanese, and technically it's the male genitalia filled with sperm. So what I actually just ate (image on right) was sperm-filled cod balls, which definitely was not on my bucket list.
"If I told you that ahead of time, you might not have tried it," the cook/server says with her mischievous grin now transformed into a full-blown smile.
Den chef Hasegawa—who, I must awkwardly admit, knows how to make testes taste great—is the culinary equivalent of a '70s rock star that doesn't play by the rules. Signature dishes include Den-tucky fried chicken wings in a makeshift KFC takeout box and a "moss" dessert (image below) served on a garden trowel atop a newspaper that boasts a hidden message via several circled letters. In fact, take a closer look at the salad image up top, and you'll find an insect. Epitomizing the restaurant's award-winning hospitality, the staff even wrapped our chopsticks in PRØHBTD-branded paper they made themselves.
Den, which earned its second Michelin star in 2018, jumped 28 spots to No. 17 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list to earn the Highest Climber Award in 2018, and it's arguably the favorite to top Asia's 50 Best at the awards ceremony in March. After a Saturday night dinner service at the Tokyo-based restaurant, PRØHBTD spoke with chef Hasegawa about bowing before toilets, the magic of mushrooms and why he served me cod testicles.
So I have to ask, why serve cod milt [semen]?
This is a very common ingredient that we use in Japan, so I think people here don't really think of it that way. They consider it to be just another common ingredient. We had the experience of a lot of foreigners who just cannot eat shirako. I think the idea of it can be really off putting for them. Usually, especially in traditional restaurants, the shirako is served in a way where people know exactly what they're eating so the restaurants don't try to disguise it. Have you had it before, or is this your first time?
I think this was the first time, but I'm not sure what I'm eating a lot of the time in Japan.
This is what it usually looks like, almost like brains.
Using his cell phone, the chef holds up an image of shirako that looks equally (and maybe ironically) like both testes and brains.
No, I had never eaten that before.
This [dish in the photo] is a very typical way of serving shirako, with a little ponzu sauce on it. I knew a lot of foreigners probably wouldn't eat the dish like that, so we disguised it in the form of tofu, which is very foreigner friendly. Everyone's had tofu before. We didn't tell you what it was because we wanted a bit of a challenge so you would taste it, and if you like it, then we tell you what it is after. That's how I get you to try something you probably haven't tried before or probably wouldn't have tried otherwise.
What was the best reaction from tourists after you told them what it was?
What makes me happiest is when people say, "Oh, I usually don't eat [cod testes] elsewhere, but because you made it like this, I can eat it easily." Usually we get comments like that. They tried it before and didn't like it, but they like our version.
For me, the dress code is Puchi. That's my version of black tie. It looks good, right?
Absolutely, but it was still surprising. To what extent do you see yourself as a rebel?
The only rule we have at the restaurant is that there is no rule. So going against the norm doesn't mean we're trying to break rules, it just means we don't have rules.
I don't want to impose all these rules on a person, so I make it flexible so that I can make everything tailored to the person. We want people here to be relaxed and feel at home, and I guess rules are probably one of the things that traditional restaurants usually impress on people. So you have to eat in silence, you have to be really careful with the chopsticks, you want to watch how much wasabi you put on your sashimi… it's a trap. We don't have any of that. You can eat with your hands. Until the sashimi [course], you're still using your hands. You don't have to worry about anything when you eat here.
It's similar to the analogy of playing soccer. When you start, you probably play with no rules, so you build that interest first. When you have that interest, you remember the rules because you want to enjoy it more. Do you know Massimo Bottura? He's the chef at Osteria Francescana in Modena [Italy].
We went there during a break with the staff, and everyone was playing soccer. They were huge on soccer. I was like, "I've never played. I don't know the rules." Massimo told me, "Just kick the ball!" I guess it's a similar idea. If you have no rules, you can just enjoy it, and then you make the rules for yourself if you want.
Do you see yourself as a rule breaker outside the kitchen, outside the restaurant?
I'll take that as a yes.
For example, when everyone was studying in school, I was at the back [of the class] like this.
Chef Hasegawa makes a motion like he's goofing off and not paying attention.
So what do you think?
Talking about breaking rules, what do the mushrooms symbolize?
I point across the dining room floor to an art image of psychedelic mushrooms along with a physical replica.
I love mushrooms, I love picking mushrooms. You probably know I have a lot of books here, and a lot of them are mushroom books in different languages. Whenever we travel abroad, we always try to buy books about local mushrooms. Even if you cannot read the book because it's in a different language, it's so nice to see pictures.
Do you know about those mushrooms?
Aren't those the ones that get you high?
Yes. Magic mushrooms!
And you have it, you feel like... (laughs)... it's my favorite. Talking about breaking rules.
That's why I asked.
Usually, in Japan, you cannot eat them, but sometimes I will mix them into the rice and serve it to customers.
With a pretend look of concern on her face, the interpreter puts her hand over the recorder and asks, "Wait, is this being recorded?"
We need to make another reservation with a special request.
Yes, for the mushroom course. Come in autumn!
We ate at a few kaiseki restaurants in Japan, and one of the restaurants explained they put wood planks in the doorways to force guests to duck their heads. They said it means everyone is equal inside the restaurant.
Ah, what restaurant did you visit that explained this to you?
Kashiwaya in Osaka.
It's a tradition coming from the tea ceremony. Back in the day, there were samurai with swords or weapons, and when they duck in, they couldn't get them through, so they had to leave all their weapons [outside]. That way, when you go into a space, you're very relaxed, and you're ready to be friends. It gives you this kind of environment. It's a place for you to relax and enjoy yourself.
Well, you specifically added the wood planks at the door to the toilet.
Are you trying to say everyone's equal on the toilet?
It's because you want to be the most relaxed when you're in the bathroom! We're all friends in there. It's very, very private so it's somewhere you can totally relax. And yes, it's also a bit of a joke.
When you were 18, you worked at a restaurant with your mother.
But apparently you never spoke to each other in the restaurant. Why?
My mother didn't get me the job. I earned the position myself, so the staff and restaurant never knew that we were related. I even had a different name. Usually for a geisha, even if she's married, she has to say she's single. Being a geisha is a bit like being a celebrity. I guess if you have fans and they know you're married, they're very disappointed. It's a similar idea, which is why we never told the restaurant that we were mother and son. To everyone there, we were both just normal staff, like colleagues.
Was she ever looking over your shoulder to make sure you were doing a good job?
Ha! My mom would never really talk to me or even look into my eyes, so we had no interaction at all at the restaurant.
You've said you want to talk through your food. What are the most important messages you want to communicate?
My main message is that Japanese food is not difficult to understand. It's very easy to appreciate, so I just want people to enjoy eating Japanese food. It is very straightforward. I've been to several restaurants that make you think about the concept, the dish—so much thinking going on just to appreciate one dish—but all I want is for people to think, "Oh, this is delicious." It's that simple.
Also, we work with a lot of farmers, vegetable suppliers and wheat growers who produce a lot of the products we use. When they produce, when they farm, when they catch their fish, they also have a message for you… that they want you to enjoy it. So that's already the base of the message, and we're passing that message on to you.
We just want people to really enjoy it and think, "Oh, I had a great time. I enjoyed myself." That's the best thing that you can get from the experience here. That's what Den is all about.
No matter how much you move kaiseki cuisine in new ways, what single characteristic of traditional Japanese cuisine do you want to make sure continues to be present in all the dishes?
The very, very, very basic is dashi, which is a stock made from bonito flakes. For me, if there's no dashi, it's not my cooking. But that's only from the cooking perspective. The other thing is the term omotenashi, which people sometimes translate as Japanese hospitality. It's trying to anticipate someone's needs before they even ask for it. That type of thinking is also very, very traditional Japanese. You're almost like a mom cooking for your children. You want your children to eat what you have made and get a lot out of it. That's why for me, you can never cook better than my mom.
Outside of food, what do you like in terms of music and art and other interests?
I like nature, I love fishing, I love going to the mountains to pick mushrooms, and also going to karaoke.
What is your go-to karaoke song?
They're all Japanese songs.
No Rolling Stones? No Beatles?
I usually sing different songs, but the final song is usually "We Are the World."
He starts to sing "We Are the World" and then starts to laugh.
We have a few drinks, so that's how we do our team building.
In 2007, you opened Den at age 29. Within Japanese tradition, is it more difficult to open a restaurant when you're that young?
Everyone told me not to do it, but my mom said, "You have to do it." The reason being, she said, "You have to do it because even if you close after a year, you're young enough to work somewhere else." She said that, so I thought, "I cannot close my restaurant!"
How did more traditional Japanese chefs react to the ways you started modernizing kaiseki?
The presentation of our food doesn't look traditional, so people very often think it's not even Japanese. My thinking was that a lot of the younger generations in Japan, as well as foreigners, don't really go to kaiseki restaurants anymore because they think it's very serious with a lot of rules. And if you're served something like that, you're probably like, "Wait, is this shirako?" and you probably wouldn't want to eat it. So they have all these impressions of Japanese kaiseki, and I wanted to change that.
I wanted to make it easier for people to understand it better. I actually really like the traditional style so I wanted to make sure people can appreciate the technique and the flavors. Everything I do is traditional in terms of the seasonings, in terms of the technique, so it is very traditional Japanese. The presentation is what's different.
For example, your first course today was the monaka, so you had baked sweet potato, which is similar to a kind of Japanese dessert with sweet potatoes. Then we have some Japanese pickles inside, and the foie gras is marinated in miso, which is also a very traditional method of marinating fatty fish or meat. Everything you had today was traditional.
You have an open kitchen. How does that allow you to better watch the diners and see what they like, what they don't like and how they're responding to certain dishes?
A lot of traditional restaurants also have an open kitchen, but usually you can only see the main chef. You can't see anyone else. You've probably been to some kaiseki restaurants and saw just one main person doing all the plating. You can't see any other kitchen staff. In the same way, when [the cooks] make a dish, they don't know who is eating it because they're all what you call "back of the house," right? You can't normally see the customer. You don't really know who you're actually making the food for.
What makes you a chef is not just making a plate, not just making a dish, because anyone can do that. What makes you a chef is the ability to serve it and then watch how the person enjoys it or how he or she appreciates what you have created. To me this is very important. I also think it's important that customers can see the people who made it for them. We can see you, you can also see us, and guests have a lot of conversations together with the staff, not just with me. If we see how you eat a dish, we can ask, "Oh, did you like it?" The staff can say, "Oh, we talked to the person so we can work harder to make [him or her] happy." It has that personal connection to it.
Also, for the customers coming to Den, I don't want them to just see me and taste my plate. At this restaurant, we also have stages [cooking interns] who are quite young and just starting out in their careers. Probably some of [the staff] in the future will open their own restaurants and become chefs, and it's good for all of them to have that kind of connection with the customers.
Den is not just one person, it's everyone working together to make it Den. If it's just me, it's not Den.
Are there any events coming up worth noting?
Next year we're traveling quite a bit. From the end of February to March, we're going to Russia for the IKRA Festival in Sochi. Then we'll be cooking with Vladimir [Mukhin] from the White Rabbit [in Moscow]. We're also talking to The Chairman in Hong Kong about potentially doing something together in March, and we have plans to go to New York and Italy, but nothing is concrete yet. We also have friends in SingleThread [in Sonoma County, California], and we're talking about doing something together. [SingleThread chef Kyle Connaughton] loves Japanese donabe cooking, and he speaks Japanese really well.
What about Los Angeles?
I've never been to Los Angeles. I want to go! I've only been to Shake Shack, not In N Out! We went to the Shake Shack at Madison Square Park [in NYC], but we were wearing In N Out t-shirts. We crashed the party!
Photo credits: World's 50 Best Restaurants, Den Restaurant and David Jenison.