"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.“
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.”