An accomplished chef, Natsuko Shoji, was recently awarded Asia’s Best Female Chef , by the World’s 50 Best organization, for her French restaurant Été — impressive for a 32-year old. Été is a play on her name, été being French for summer (natsu in Japanese). In 2020, Shoji was the first Japanese woman to be awarded Asia’s Best Pastry Chef by the same judging panel. Serendipity and people have helped during pivotal points in her life — from a junior high school teacher to a connection with a high school alumnus. She is now paying it forward through her work both in and out of the restaurant. The celebrated chef presented at TEDxWasedaU in June, and spoke about her distinctive business model and her role as a female entrepreneur and restaurateur in Tokyo.
Été is situated in a residential area not far from the Yoyogi-Uehara Station’s shotengai. As a bonus, located on the other side of the station is Fleurs d’Été — Shoji’s new venture which was established in 2021 specializing in luxurious cakes topped with seasonal fruit. To get a coveted reservation at Été (the restaurant), diners must first purchase a cake and then they are able to request a reservation.
Her restaurant is located on the first floor of a residential building. The entrance is a door, almost obscured, in a large black wall with a small Été sign. At the front of the shop is a large Takashi Murakami sakura tree print with the dining room, a narrow space with a rock garden and a bonsai statue behind glass. Shoji, sporting an Atsushi Nakashima sleeveless black apron with thick beige accents, sat down to discuss her career with TW .
Congratulations on your latest award, Asia’s Best Female Chef and #42 on the Asia’s 50 Best List. It’s a wonderful achievement. How do you feel about receiving this award?
I am grateful to my staff, family and the diners for their support.
Can you please tell us about your culinary background before starting your own cake shop?
In junior high school we made choux cream. I made a lot at home and gave them to my friends. They said that I should open up a choux cream store and that started me down the culinary road. I attended Komaba Gakuen High School which has culinary classes.
I started training as a pastry chef at Michelin-starred Le Jeu de l’Assiette in Daikanyama before going to work at the two-Michelin-starred Florilège with chef Hiroyasu Kawate. I was introduced to Kawate by my high school teacher as he is an alumnus of Komaba Gakuen. At Florilège I was the only female on the team. Following that I worked at the Sheraton Miyako Hotel Tokyo, which was a great opportunity to learn service for high-end clientele. I opened my first cake shop Été in 2014.
How did you start your business?
I wanted to start my own restaurant but I was only 23 so it was hard to get a loan. Hiring staff, especially older male staff, was difficult. I set aside my dream to open a restaurant and focused on making cakes topped with seasonal fruit. I developed my brand Été and created a following with my cakes. One year later I was then able to open my restaurant under the same roof, Été. I think there’s no one else doing anything like this.
Do you have any signature dishes?
Two of my signature dishes are a large brioche bread that I slice at the table and an uni tart.
Tell us about your wine list.
There is no list. The clients are invited to select what they want to drink from the cellar which is mostly French wines. It’s like being at the home of a chef for dinner, so it’s fun for the guests to select for themselves. Of course, if the clients prefer, I am happy to procure special wines in advance.
Has your business been affected by the pandemic?
Prior to coronavirus, about half of my guests were from overseas. Because it’s only one seating per night I was able to continue my business. I am fortunate to have strong ties with my guests so the pandemic has only reaffirmed the bonds and support of my clients.
Did you have any female chef role models?
No, I had no female role models. I think I am a new role model for young female chefs.
Are you mentoring any up-and-coming female chefs?
Twice a year I return to Komaba Gakuen High School and teach in the culinary program. I have three staff working with me, between here at Été and the cake salon. Two of my staff are alumni of Komaba Gakuen.
Are you doing any work with Sustainable Development Goals?
For the past four years I have been working with Komaba Gakuen to recycle food waste, both from the culinary program and the cafeteria. The bio-based system produces organic fertilizer which is used for a garden near the school. Students take care of the garden and harvest tomatoes, eggplants, bell peppers and other vegetables that are used at the school. We are now recycling four and a half tons of waste a year from both the school and Été.
How do you spend your free time?
I spend my days off visiting my clients.
Where do you find inspiration for your menu?
From art, fashion and my travels. Most recently I went to Abu Dhabi where I could enjoy Lebanese cuisine.
If a friend of yours came to Tokyo, where would you recommend them to dine?
Sazenka in Minami-Azabu for Chinese, Sézanne at the Four Seasons Marunouchi for French and the pastry shop Asterisque in the Yoyogi-Uehara neighborhood. Nata de Cristiano in Yoyogi has amazing Portuguese egg tarts.
How did you pick the Yoyogi-Uehara area for your restaurant?
I love this quiet neighborhood. It’s peaceful and near Yoyogi Park. It’s also not too far from my home.
What hurdles did you have to overcome to start your business?
Procuring a loan at a young age was difficult. The fact that it was hard to hire male staff older than me is a reason why I started to teach at Komaba Gakuen so that I could help mentor students.
I was sorry to hear about your father passing away when you were only 21. How did that affect your life/career?
I had been working at Florilège for three years when my father passed away. I quit the job and stepped away from the kitchen.
What sparked your return to the kitchen?
A client from Florilège asked me to make a wedding cake. Creating the cake I realized how much I enjoy being in the kitchen and the positive feedback was the incentive to return to cooking. It was time to open my own restaurant.
You’ve had some health hurdles to overcome.
While working at Florilège I had a herniated disk and was in the hospital for a week after surgery and then recovered for a month at home.
Since opening Été I have been speaking with one of my clients about a health issue. They introduced me to a very famous doctor who diagnosed cervical cancer. Luckily it was caught in the early stages.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I hope to continue mentoring young women to become chefs. Now that I have my brand I want to use it to help support female chefs.
Could you tell us about your TedxWasedaU talk you gave in June?
My talk was about the lack of female chefs in Japan. I hope to help lower the hurdle by mentoring more women chefs. I spoke about my business model, of creating something — for example a cake, that is like a piece of art and creating a brand.
3-23-1 Nishihara, Shibuya-ku
Fleurs d’Été (patisserie)
1-35-2 Uehara, Shibuya-ku
Feature image by Anna Petek