The Osaka chef who gave up French cuisine and Michelin stars to find himself
Hajime Yoneda led his restaurant to win three stars in 17 months – the fastest in Michelin history. Then he dropped what he was doing and truly become great.
There are those who follow the crowd, and then there are the rare few who take the road less travelled. Like Hajime Yoneda, who describes himself as "perverse", going where his heart dictates. He dared to be different, choosing to give up a well-paid job as a design engineer at 26 to become a chef.
His years of hard work paid off when he was awarded three Michelin stars in 2009 – all in the span of 17 months – for his French-style cuisine, a feat no other restaurant had hitherto achieved so quickly. But four years later, he once again followed his heart and did the unthinkable: He dropped the French connection to concentrate on his own original style. It was a costly decision – Yoneda lost two of his Michelin stars as a result. But he was undeterred.
Yoneda’s unusual take on life is to constantly explore the balance of nature, earth and life itself. He explained: “I wanted to search for my originality, something only I have.” To do that, he embarked on a search for his roots, going “back to my life before school”. He recalled being in nature, hearing birdsong and watching fishes swim. “How beautiful!” he added.
Refreshed and recharged, the chef found his salve in shellfish: “I find the connection between shellfish and humans interesting”. He remarked that once upon a time, shellfish was something that nobody ate. Only a particular type of people had the curiosity to try it. He adds that these were the “people who survived, spread the word and eventually built modern society”.
The inspiration led him to create his own signature dish Chikyu (planet Earth), a dish representing the land and sea with 110 different vegetables, grains and herbs plated in a circle, and embellished with shellfish foam. He narrated: “There are mountains and clouds. As the clouds hit the mountains, the rain falls, and it becomes [fresh] water. The water becomes the river and runs… through the earth. It runs into the ocean… evaporates to become clouds – it is all a cycle.”
In 2017, this beautiful metaphysical interpretation of life earned Yoneda three Michelin stars. He also made it to French magazine Le Chef’s 100 Best Chefs in the World 2018. But the culinary arts is not the only artistic realm that Yoneda excels in. He also paints. “I really enjoy drawing, [and] when I’m drawing, I don’t have to think about anything else.” This art form allows him to detail concepts, deconstruct them to see how they would fit, and express the final result.
Interestingly, painting also helped to shape his career. He started to paint when he couldn’t get a work permit in France. As luck would have it, a French mayor heard about him, saw his work and told him: “Bring your paperwork to my office tomorrow.” He got his permit to work a week later.
Yoneda likens his work in the kitchen to climbing mountains. He explained: “It is just like hiking in the mountains. You can easily hike halfway up a mountain. But as you approach the peak, the oxygen becomes thinner, it becomes colder. Every time I am at that stage, I think that I can reach the peak soon – but it is so difficult.”
Likewise for his journey as a chef, which he says is “like climbing up a mountain, reaching the peak and realising that there’s an even higher mountain on the other side”. He added, “My career is that process on repeat.”
Adapted from the series Remarkable Living. Watch full episodes on CNA, every Sunday at 7pm.