Son of a railway worker and a housewife, chef Luca Fantin took his first steps in the kitchen according to the most classical Italian culinary tradition: first with the teachings of his grandmother Anita, before going on to enrol at the Hotel and Catering school in Treviso and then with some of the greatest celebrity chefs, including three-starred Heinz Beck, in whose company he was all set to address new horizons.
But destiny had other things in mind for him: at just 29 years of age, in 2009, the Bulgari Hotel management wanted him in Japan to run the Ginza Tower restaurant of Tokyo, where he is the only Italian chef with a Michelin star to his credit.
Together with other three experienced Japan-based chefs - Yoshiaki Takazawa, Thomas Angerer and Zaiyu Hasegawa – he has been selected as the jury for the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 local competition in Japan. He will be tasked selecting one young finalist from 10 shortlisted regional contestants to represent the region at the Grand Final in Milan in 2018.
We met him at Care’s – the Ethical Chef Days, where he had brought with him an ingredient that well represents his culinary philosophy: bottarga.
Not all chefs of Italian origin who have relocated abroad manage to preserve their identity and settle down well in their new country. Can you tell us about your own experience?
I have changed a bit since I arrived in Tokyo. At first, when I accepted the position, I was obsessed by ingredients: on one hand I had been brought up to believe in the importance of local produce and yet I thought I could only do Italian cuisine using Italian products. The choice was between local and Italian products. In time, I realized that one has to be flexible and settle for the right compromise. And that is what I have done.
The result is a mingling of Italy and Japan: can you give us some examples to make the concept clearer?
As I said before, I used to get many ingredients shipped over from Italy and then I questioned the sense of importing Cinta Senese suckling pig to Tokyo. So, I started to focus more on the local markets and producers. I discovered a fascinating world and a very high level of quality. Now I can count on good productions of artichokes, puntarelle and a radicchio that is very similar to that of Treviso. The flavours are unadulterated because there is no pollution and the slight differences they have compared to our own vegetables are not a defect but, on the contrary, an invitation to try out new pairings. On Mount Fuji, I have even discovered a mushroom variety very similar to porcini! The only exceptions to local products are Carnaroli rice, Felicetti pasta, extra virgin olive oil and Grana Padano cheese: these are matchless and I continue to import them from Italy. Furthermore, I have started to produce many Italian ingredients myself: one example is actually mullet roe bottarga – salted very lightly and left to marinate in a ham stock – which I have brought with me to Care’s.
After 7 years, can you say which elements the two cuisines of Japan and Italy have in common?
Four climatic zones and four seasons, as in Italy, attention to product freshness and quality: these are the elements they share. Bear in mind that Japan can boast the most efficient postal service in the world and this is essential for ensuring product freshness: they send me a photo from the market on whatsapp and if I am interested in that particular type of fish, I order it and within a few hours it is in my kitchen.
Is there any particular cooking technique you have picked up in Tokyo?
Unlike western preferences, in Japan fish is eaten with a very firm and resistant flesh, rather than being served tender and easy to chew. For this reason, I have learned the ikejime technique, an ancient method for processing fish respectfully and less cruelly to preserve the quality and consistency of its flesh intact. It consists in inserting a steel needle at an exact point between the eyes through the brain and into the spinal cord to provoke immediate cerebral death. It is a method they are now starting to use in other parts of the world.
And what is your approach to meat?
It must be said that the Japanese are very moderate and health conscious eaters, so obesity is uncommon. There is no intensive breeding so meat does not have such a bad reputation. Neither do the Japanese eat raw meat, but I have learned to appreciate a red cow breed of excellent quality, called aka – ushi, and I use it regularly in my cuisine.
You will be part of the Japanese jury in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition for a third consecutive year: how important are these events in the career of a young chef?
For me, it’s always a great honor to be part of the jury and I feel it’s a wonderful opportunity for all young talents coming through kitchen that want the opportunity to express their emotions and their creativity. Competitions and challenges are essential for professional growth and S.Pellegrino Young Chef also serves as an occasion for young chefs to both meet and get to know some great professionals from around the world.