The night couldn’t have gone any better for chef Yasuhiro Fujio. Having already picked up the Acqua Panna Taste of Authenticity Award, voted for by 21 of the best chefs in the world, it was only a few minutes later that he was on stage to hear his name read out again, this time as the winner of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 competition. Months of gruelling practice, a tough regional final and an even tougher face off against 20 other hungry and talented young chefs had all come together on one night in Milan. But he was nervous. “I’m a little bit scared, but I’m going to turn that fear into courage,” said the 30-year-old sous chef from the two-Michelin-star French restaurant La Cime restaurant in Osaka, on collecting his award.
Not that he has anything to be nervous about. He had wowed the Seven Sages, the Grand Jury of world-class chefs tasked with choosing the next S.Pellegrino Young Chef, with his dish centred on the ayu fish, through which he hoped to convey the “mentality of Japanese food” and the beauty of his country’s nature, by playing with taste, texture and temperature. Indeed, Fujio is just the kind of chef Brett Graham, one of the Seven Sages was referring to, when he talked about the future of gastronomy being “in safe hands.” But Fujio couldn’t have done it without the support of those closest to him.
“My head chef at La Cime, my family … it isn’t just about cooking, it’s been tough. Before [S.Pellegrino Young Chef] maybe I was more self-orientated, but I know I stand here because of people’s support and I appreciate this very much,” he says.
Top of his list of thank yous of course was his mentor Luca Fantin, the Tokyo-based Italian chef who Fujio credits with helping him understand how his dish might be judged. “How he looks at Japan and his views were so important to me. The judges are not Japanese, right? They come from all over the world, so his advice gave me a different point of view. That changed the dish,” he says. Not that Fantin wanted him to be anything other than himself: “I want him to represent Japan. I don’t want him to make French cuisine, or Italian cuisine, or Chinese cuisine. Every time I spoke with him, I said, ‘You are Japanese and you will come here like a Japanese chef.’”
Fantin wasn’t all unrelenting positivity though. Before the final, he was preparing Fujio for the worst. “Before the show, he was telling me, ‘You’re not going to win,’" says the Japanese chef. “It’s true, it’s true!” says Fantin candidly. “Today I saw the competition. The food looked very nice. I didn’t know if we were at this level, I was not sure.” Neither was Fujio: “ I wasn’t confident at all. I tasted some of the other chefs’ dishes and they tasted really good. I did the best that I could do … You can’t be any more than yourself – be yourself and cook from the heart.”
Staying true to his philosophy and his country is what paid off for Fujio in the end, says Fantin, but even as the biggest moment of the former’s culinary career commences its long journey into sinking in, he’s still anxious. He wants to be a “great chef, the kind of chef people admire,” but is all too aware of the attention and pressure of being S.Pellegrino Young Chef. “People will pay more attention to me, so I have to behave,” he jokes.
Well, maybe tomorrow. Now it’s time to party.
Watch the moment Yasuhiro Fujio was announced as the winner of S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 below.