When in Milan, you must visit restaurant Tokuyoshi. Only a year since opening, it quickly earned its first Michelin star, and we have no doubt that it is destined to keep climbing. Chef Yoji Tokuyoshi brings together the beautiful traditions of Japan and the classical flavors of Italy, offering what he calls “Contaminated Italian Cuisine.” Here’s his story.
Born in Japan, Yoji Tokuyoshi grew up in a small town and came from a long family history of pharmacists – yet he chose a different path for himself. Rebellious and hungry at heart, at the age of 18, Yoji left his native town to face the nation’s capital. He attended a catering school in Tokyo and found work at numerous Italian restaurants in the city. Chefs at those restaurants would tell Yoji of their incredible experiences in Italy, and once again, he found himself hungry for more.
So, at the age of 27, he packed his bags, bought a one-way ticket, and flew to Italy in search of work. After one full week of searching and applying to over 40 restaurants, he found no luck and was ready give up. He was ready to fly back home, when he got a call from Osteria Francescana. He went to Modena the next day.
For the next for 10 years, he worked alongside chef Massimo Bottura as sous chef, and in 2015, Yoji opened the doors to his very own eponymous restaurant Tokuyoshi.
The Birth of Tokuyoshi
Post-Francescana, chef Yoji first traveled the world, witnessing and experiencing the everyday life in places like Japan, Brazil, Portugal, Aruba, Australia and more, and thinking on the opening of Tokuyoshi. Upon return, the journey to open his very own restaurant began.
In pursuit of the mot international city Italy could offer, Milan was the ideal choice. Struggling to determine what his style would be, Yoji admits that although now he knows he is down the right path, in the very beginning he was a bit confused.
So how, we wondered, did he come to develop his concept? “I cannot explain it easily, it just happened,” he says. “I may be still for a while, and all of a sudden, I get a new idea…I try not to force myself. In my experience, the best ones just pop up in my head when I get the right inspiration.
“I think it is important to [note] that I try to fully experience each action, giving full attention to the gesture and the moment – be it getting a coffee or visiting a museum. This state of mind, I believe, is the best breeding ground for a new concept. Paying attention to what’s around me, and paying attention to what’s inside of me, in order to catch it and translate it into a new concept.”
Whether it is the wine or the food, chef Yoji paid careful attention to creating a trustworthy network of producers and farmers to supply the restaurant.
Escargot, he gets from La Bavosa Romagnola. Organic Parmesan from Hombre. Suckling pig from Urbevertus. Saffron from Mastri Speziali. And truffles, butchery, and game from Zivieri Tartufi and Macelleria Zivieri.
Some of these producers came knocking at his door, others he met at public fairs or symposiums, and others he’s had a relationship with since Osteria Francescana. However, for him, these bonds truly began once he visited their grounds himself and saw the way they work and the way they respect the nature and land.
With this network, and with this fresh approach, Yoji Tokuyoshi opened his doors in 2015.
Grandmother Knows Best
His earliest memory with food is, unexpectedly, a traumatizing one. As a young boy he couldn’t stand nor bare the taste of cheese (shocking – we know). But his strict father would “force me to finish before leaving the table, always ending with myself on the verge of crying and unwillingly finishing it all.”
Of course, he eventually came to love cheese – a key ingredient he now often incorporates into his cuisine. His favorite? “Definitely a good 24-month aged Parmesan.”
Aside from the unfortunate memory with cheese, Yoji grew up learning to respect ingredients thanks to his beloved grandmother. From an early age, his passion was moulded and cultivated. “My grandmother has always been willing to share good advice since I can remember. I believe this is key to my vision of cuisine.”
Focusing on each step, walking him through it, and showing him every aspect, she would share her years of knowledge surrounding food. She showed Yoji what would bring benefit to the food, why something had to be done in order to make the flavors tastier, and why a specific gesture was necessary. It was her “need to communicate – almost like a tale – and her willingness to make me understand,” that created his need to perpetuate it.
“What really matters are not the recipes, but the meaning. The love that my grandmother – and all the elders – were putting into the preparation of food.”
It is this love that Yoji applies to his cuisine, today – putting as much respect into the preparation of his food as his grandmother and the elders were putting into the preparation of supper for the family. In this way, he is not trying to replicate the flavors or recipes of his grandmother. In fact, he finds his inspiration “from anywhere but traditional dishes.”
He is carrying on the meaning behind and the respect for food, and with that he says, “we are going to innovate and not just replicate,” at Tokuyoshi.
The unique cuisine Tokuyoshi offers at his restaurant is called “Cucina Italiana Contaminata” – “Contaminated Italian Cuisine.” It is important to note that “Cucina Italiana Contaminata” is not fusion. Fusion is nothing more than the merging of two different flavors.
What Yoji is creating is Italian cuisine – Italian flavors, Italian techniques, Italian ingredients – while bringing in Japanese cultures, gestures, and tradition into the meaning and story behind the dishes and the way you eat them.
One of their more well-known dishes is the Gyotaku Mackerel, which is very representative of their cuisine – the contamination. Gyotaku is an old Japanese tradition that transforms a caught fish into a work of art, by transferring its print to a canvas. It was a way of remembering each fish caught. Mimicking this tradition, Yoji paints the head of the mackerel onto the plate, and lies the rest of the mackerel down to complete the “image.”
To illustrate this even further, chef Yoji explains his philosophy behind two other dishes – Furikake EVO Risotto and Calamaro Pieno di Sè.
Furikake EVO Risotto
“Furikake in Japanese means to spread. Traditionally, Japanese people add crumbled seaweed, spreading it on top of white rice. We think this gesture is the most important part of the dish, and we want to tribute it on our menu while delivering Italian flavor.
So, here we are presenting a risotto mantecato with extra virgin olive oil, on top of which we spread – at the table in front of our patrons – our furikake, made of dried and crumbled roasted guinea fowl, potatoes, tomatoes, rosemary, and garlic.
So, like the Gyotaku Mackerel, we are telling a Japanese story using Italian ingredients. Creating something new, since you won’t find a guinea fowl risotto anywhere. But at the same time, each grandmother in Italy would recognize the taste of our ingredients as classical Italian flavors.”
Clamaro Pieno di Sè (Calamari Full of Self)
“The calamari dish wants to mimic the shape of a sushi dish by basically using the calamari as the only ingredient. Stuffed calamari is quite common and very ancient southern Italian dish.
In our version, we use a Japanese technique to cute the calamari into a hedgehog shape according to a Japanese tradition to enhance the sweetness of its flesh. Finally, not adding eggs or bread lead to a lighter and more actual version of the dish.
We’ve paired this course with Olives and Green Tomatoes juice, which is able to add those notes that complete the dish that are shared by the wine we’ve paired with it.”
One of the many things that stood out to us was were the different kinds of broths paired and served with each dish. Amuse bouche is paired with a broth made with all of the un-used parts of vegetables, brewed for 48 hours, to warm the stomach and prepare the body for the meal ahead. The Hunter and Fisherman dish, consisting of veal, fish, and caviar is paired with a cool and tangy wild berry juice.
Chef Yoji’s reasons for incorporating an assortment of paired broths are two-fold: the first, of course, is to add more flavor in a liquid form. Second, is to invite patrons to stop for a moment, sip the broth as a classical Japanese gesture, and to “pay attention to the food, the liquid, the textures, their scents, and overall taste,” says the chef. “I do believe food deserves the right time to be enjoyed.”
Plates and Plating
All of the dishes you’ll find at Tokuyoshi have been designed and custom-made for chef Yoji. While in the process of opening the restaurant, Yoji met the artisan behind Japanese porcelain maker Project Arita. Both falling in love with the idea of working together, they began “Project Arita for Tokuyoshi” to create beautiful vessels.
When it comes down to the container for his food, chef Yoji expresses that he does “see the ceramic simply as a container of the content…I keep in mind which dish I want to present, and then I design around it the ceramic.”
How does he approach plating? His philosophy mirrors that of his cooking style – “Subtraction.” Just as he removes parts of a recipe or parts of ingredients that are not adding to the final dish, he follows the same approach when it comes to his plating, “Removing all that isn’t essential to the dish.”
A New Beginning
Towards the back of the restaurant, growing out of its beautiful emerald green wall is a single sprout – an art piece by Marcantonio Raimondi Malerba. This sprout is the Tokuyoshi logo and is representative of a new beginning, the fresh start of a new adventure ready to grow.
Water & Earth
Japan & Italy
Japanese cuisine is effortless only to an inattentive eye.
Ancient traditions are mixed with the utmost respect for the ingredients
still always capable to deliver limpid flavors like only water does.
The Italian one is to us better represented as earth,
because rather than a single origin its cuisine has his roots deeply
connected to each and every local terroir.
Each dish is the result of that perfect balance,
that we tirelessly seek between these two elements.