Cooking Outside the Box
Members share why the bimonthly Nihonbashi Chef’s Table dinner more than satisfies.
"As long as they focus on the theme, I let them create.”
That’s the no-nonsense direction Yasuharu Nakajima gives his cadre of kitchen talents before they fire up the stoves for the bimonthly Nihonbashi Chef’s Table.
The chef de cuisine’s multinational team throws paint all over the proverbial canvas, developing a multicourse experience for a small group of Members in the American Room’s private dining space.
It’s a simple concept elevated to high art: six or seven chefs, each crafting a dish that reflects their personality and creative oeuvre. When each course is served, its creator explains to diners the idea behind it and how the ingredients tell the story of their culinary roots.
In a standard omakase chef’s selection, each dish leads seamlessly to the next, but the Nihonbashi Chef’s Table is more improvisational jazz than culinary symphony. It’s Nakajima’s theme—be it a straightforward concept like Thanksgiving or a more abstract idea like “colors”—that holds everything together.
Whether crafting a palate-cleansing amuse-bouche, a statement-making entrée or a meal-punctuating dessert, the chefs are encouraged to put their own spin on it.
“Sometimes it works, sometimes there is a clash,” says Antonio Villasmil, the Club’s services manager. “But it’s important to give the chefs that freedom.”
“The dishes are definitely individual,” Nakajima adds. “There’s less flow, it’s more up and down, so that’s why I oversee everything to make sure it still works.”
Belgian Member Renaud Hartert and his partner, Ayaka Hirayama, who spend much of their free time exploring Tokyo’s celebrated culinary scene, are fast becoming regulars at the bimonthly event.
“We are big fans of omakase, where we arrive at a restaurant and don’t really have a sense of what we’re going to see in front us,” says Hartert, 34. “And we enjoy small restaurants, where we can actually connect with the staff and chefs and have a discussion about the food.”
The Chef’s Table proved a perfect match for their tastes.
“We went once, we went twice,” says Hartert, “and now we are looking to go for a third time.”
Intimate, with a maximum of eight diners, the Chef’s Table lends itself to engaging discourse and repartee. And the wine, paired with each dish by the Club’s sommelier, Kyoko Ohno, ensures conversation flows.
“And you do get a lot of wine,” says Hartert with a laugh. “Your glass is always full. It just depends on how fast you want to drink it!”
This doesn’t mean teetotalers are excluded.
“I asked if they could serve non-alcoholic drinks, and they provided a mocktail pairing menu and a non-alcoholic Chardonnay,” says Hirayama, 27. “This has never happened to me before, so it was a very special experience.”
Hartert and Hirayama say the food was equally “amazing,” recalling a polenta-crusted crab cake with bisque aïoli, soy-mint chicken breast and a cloud-shaped citrus meringue tart as standout dishes.
Originally from Taiwan, Member Howard Ho was drawn to the Chef’s Table for both professional and personal reasons.
While “not a hardcore foodie,” he says he is always interested in “trying new culinary experiences.”
“I’d heard so many good things about the Nihonbashi Club that my wife and I decided to give the Chef’s Table a go,” says Ho, 39. “The food was clearly very thoughtfully curated.”
Ho heaps praise on a coffee-crusted tenderloin steak, prepared Chicago style (charred on the surface and cooked to the desired doneness inside) and inspired by the Earth, Wind & Fire song “September.” He enjoyed the dish so much that he asked the kitchen to replicate it for a dinner with business clients.
“But all [the chefs] had pretty unique stories and were able to infuse elements of their childhood meals and experiences into the dishes,” he says. “And what really topped it all off were the wine pairings. They went so seamlessly well with the food.”
Nakajima insists that facilitating creativity is key to the success of the dinner. But Villasmil believes the chef de cuisine’s influence goes further.
“Sometimes dishes are way outside the box, and I have doubts,” he says. “But [Nakajima] always sticks to his guns and says, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ And most of the time he’s right. These guys are geniuses in the kitchen.”
Nihonbashi Chef’s Table
March 14 | 6pm
Words: David McElhinney
Image (l–r) American Room chefs Jerard Untalan, Yasuharu Nakajima and Nobuhiro Fujiwara: Kayo Yamawaki