The driven entrepreneur, chef and cake designer gets candid about being focused on the right goals

Natsuko Shoji, the newly crowned 2020 winner of the Asia’s Best Pastry Chef Award, is the young and talented female chef behind Été, an exclusive, six-seat omakase restaurant in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighbourhood, whose stylish cakes designed to look like jewellery boxes has earned her quite a reputation.

But hidden behind her fine fashion sense and model-worthy looks, the ambitious entrepreneur endured a tough climb to the top, struggles that she admits inspired her to push herself harder.

“I was 23 years old when I opened my own restaurant (in 2014); I took out a policy on my own life and took a 10-million-yen loan from a government fund,” she shares. “I was determined to kill myself if I failed, so my mother wouldn’t have to shoulder my debts.”

Her love story with the culinary world started as sweet as any girl’s dream of becoming a chef. She was just a teenager in junior high school, when she attended a cooking class at her school. She had made chou a la crème and fell immediately in love with cooking.

She went on to major in the culinary arts at high school, after which she worked for several restaurants, before joining Florilège (now a two-Michelin-starred restaurant that is also ranked seventh on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list) as a sous chef when it first opened in 2009. “We were running the kitchen with only three people, including chef-owner Hiroyasu Kawate, so it was tough,” she tells, noting how they would often work until midnight.

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Rude awakening

Another reason Shoji felt needed to work so hard was to earn enough to support her little sister who has an intellectual disability. But she admits how she ironically ended up too focused on her work.

“I was living with my family, but I didn’t realise my father had been hospitalised, and I wasn’t with him when he died,” she laments. Though aware of the seriousness of his condition, she felt she had to prioritise her work at the restaurant. It was only when she was at the morgue to see her dead father that the “ice-cold” realisation hit her. She knew that if she kept on working the same way, she would do the same to her mother. And that’s when she decided to leave her job at Florilège.

She worked other industries until a regular customer of Florilège who loved her cakes asked her to create her wedding cake. She quickly realised how much she missed cooking, how she could not think of doing anything else. She started a catering business and, little by little, the business grew, and she became determined to open her own place.

Shoji admits she still feels sorry for leaving chef Kawate so suddenly, noting how unprofessional she must have appeared. “He might not forgive me, but as his disciple, to get the title of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef is something I can dedicate to him.”

Fashionably forward

It's not difficult to see how Shoji also draws inspiration from iconic fashion houses and designer handbags. Her strawberry cake, for example, takes its cue from Louis Vuitton’s Damier print. Another of her signature cakes is the rose-shaped mango tart that’s presented in a square box; it comprises a sablée cookie base, vanilla bean custard and mango slices shaped as rose petals.

She also likes to use Yuki Usagi strawberries from Saga, red Sakura Momo strawberries from Tokushima, and white Shimizu Hakutou peaches from Okayama. “For me, Japanese seasonal fruits are like the precious stones,” she explains, and they are essential to her creations, which is also why she is very careful about even the slightest change in the flavour. These would be heavily dependent on the area the fruits are grown and the seasons. She adds that other considerations, such as how the fruits are cut for easy consumption and their presentation are just as essential to her creations. 

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“I love fashion, too,” she declares, before expounding on the similarities between working in fashion and the culinary arts, in particular the long creative process, which includes the making of trial versions of the final products. Both, she says, look glamorous, but are tough industries to work in.

One might even add that dining trends are changing as quickly as trends in fashion. In fact, Shoji believes the restaurant of the future will adopt a more “haute couture” approach, with a stronger focus on the individual diner. It also helps, she notes, to have an iconic chef who is always at the restaurant to cook and host diners.

When asked what her dreams for the future are, Shoji replied with a smile: “I don’t have dreams. To be honest, I hate the word. I only have ‘targets’—like being Best Female Chef.”

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