Cover Chef Natsuko Shoji

Asia’s Best Female Chef 2022 highlights the women who have influenced her, and how she hopes to inspire the next generation going forward

"What are your dreams for the future?" was a question asked to Natsuko Shoji, chef-owner of Été in Tokyo, in a 2020 interview with Tatler. “I don’t have dreams,” she said. “To be honest, I hate the word. I only have ‘targets’—like being Best Female Chef.”

In February of this year, Shoji hit the bullseye when Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants named her Asia’s Best Female Chef 2022.

The award not only holds personal significance, but Shoji hopes that she can be an example to other women looking to pursue a career in an industry that is so dominated by men in Japan.

“There aren’t many female chefs in Japan, so I hope to be a role model to them, and give them hope that they can achieve anything they set their mind to,” says Shoji, who, on receiving the award, added, “I would also like to honour other chefs who have mentored me throughout my career and inspired me with their craftsmanship and artistry.“

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Shoji's artistry, in particular, is one of the things that has set the chef apart. Her otherworldly cakes have attracted admiration from across the globe, while the refined cuisine she serves at her six-seat restaurant in Tokyo has received praise from the likes of acclaimed chefs René Redzepi and Ferran Adrià.

However, during her journey, fellow female chefs in Japan have been few and far between, and Shoji has had to look further afield for female role models and motivators.

Hong Kong’s Vicky Lau was a mentor to Shoji. On visiting Lau’s restaurant, Tate Dining Room, Shoji says, “I saw there was a space for her child to play right next to the kitchen. I really respect her doing both—being a good mother and running a restaurant, all the while being evaluated by those in the global culinary scene.” Lau’s restaurant received its first Michelin star in 2013, one year after opening, and a second in 2021, while Lau also received the Best Female Chef in Asia from Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2015.

“Thanks to Vicky, I feel like I’ve found a silver lining in the future of female chefs,” says Shoji. “In my time as a female owner-chef, I thought it would be impossible to take time to get married and have a child. But, she achieved it. This has led me to consider how I can contribute to building a support system for female chefs and female kitchen staff.”

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Female chefs internationally have also shown Shoji what is possible. “Although she hasn’t mentored me directly, I’m deeply inspired by chef Dominique Crenn, the first female chef to receive two Michelin stars and who recently gained a third. Her project promoting sustainable eating and environmentally-friendly cooking is commendable.”

Crenn is the inspiration for a recent project of Shoji’s that seeks to show the next generation the importance of sustainability. Launched in collaboration with Shoji’s alma mater, Komaba Gakuen High School, the project has seen the school install a bio-based food waste disposer that recycles and eliminates food waste from both the school's culinary department and its cafeteria. The waste is broken down into organic liquid fertiliser that can be used for the vegetables grown on the school’s farm, which are then not only used in the students’ cooking practice, but incorporated into dishes served at Shoji's own restaurant. In 2020, 4.5 tonnes of food waste were recycled and the plan is for that number to increase to 13 tonnes by 2026.

“I hope to follow in [Crenn’s] path inspiring chefs through environmental initiatives,” says Shoji. “Her attitude to society has had a huge impact on me over the years, too. In Japan, LGBTQ is not a theme openly talked about, but when she came out it gave hope to the LGBTQ community. She is also a breast cancer survivor and wasn’t afraid to announce it when she found out. Having had cervical cancer in the past, I understand how much courage it would take to announce it.”

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Shoji has faced a number of challenges during her culinary journey. Due to the long hours spent in the kitchen, she had to undergo surgery for a spinal disc herniation. And she has faced gender discrimination, particularly when first trying to open her restaurant. “I was just a young female and faced prejudice because of my gender and age so I couldn’t receive a decent loan when I first started. My first shop ended up being a tiny room in an apartment,” she says.

But Shoji’s perseverance and commitment have got her to where she is today. “I resolved to keep creating masterpieces and was honoured to eventually receive acknowledgement and recognition,” she says. “By creating my signature mango tart, a dessert now known worldwide, despite the challenges I faced, I think I have proven that even a young female chef can reach their goals.”

But for Shoji, after accomplishing one thing, there is always a new objective. “Success is a result of self-discipline. It is important that every time I achieve one goal, I set a higher aim. Next, I hope to encourage more female chefs to join the industry by striving to gain recognition on a more global scale.” Target acquired.

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