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Mads Refslund, world-famous chef, takes on Tokyo

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Smooth, cool tatami mats create an L-shape around tea master Makio Udagawa, who emerges quietly from a discrete entrance. His post behind the teahouse bar is sunken so that he stands at eye level with the seated guests, and when he bows he presents a freshly shorn head. The room's only light source is a trio of candles in iron holders.

Despite the austere setting, Udagawa's demeanor is buoyant. Quick to laugh, he points out elements of the room, where everything is designed to oblige the guest. A classical poem — waka — about the autumn moonrise hangs in an alcove. Written in the 17th century by Japan's 111th emperor, Udagawa displays it to welcome his guests of honor for the evening: Danish chef Mads Refslund, a pioneer of New Nordic cuisine, and chef Shinobu Namae, of Tokyo's lauded L'Effervescence.

Refslund is in town on a food tour in anticipation of his new restaurant, opening in Brooklyn in 2017. It's his first time in Japan, and he's interested in the kinds of traditional Japanese cooking and hospitality that can inform and inspire his own venture. "The more I become aware of Japanese food the more I see that my own food is related," he says. "Very clean, very simple. No polluting the food. The ingredients speak for themselves."

Japanese food

Namae has taken his guest to meet Udagawa, the tea master who personally trained L'Effervescence's staff on matcha green tea and its etiquette, to his invitation-only teahouse tucked away on an unassuming residential street in western Tokyo. "There are so many great kaiseki restaurants, and they all originated from the tea ceremony," Namae says. In medieval Japan, a tradition began of serving light, fresh fare in order to pad the stomach before taking a strong and thick green tea called koicha. Udagawa's cha-kaiseki differs from modern kaiseki aesthetically in the structure of the courses, and in the relationship between host and guest, though the food served is very similar.Earlier in the day, Refslund had been advised by Namae to wander the gardens at the Nezu Museum, a former private residence turned gallery and arboreal sanctuary. A late summer swelter had followed a week of rain, but the distinct, citrusy scent of kinmokusei — sweet osmanthus — signaled the onset of autumn. Inside the museum, Refslund studied the collections of Buddhist art and tea ceremony paraphernalia that the museum is known for.

For much of his career, Mads Refslund was a journeyman. Like many young chefs, he moved from kitchen to kitchen early in his career, to ply and hone his trade. Unlike many young chefs, he apprenticed at Copenhagen's Formel B, co-founded Noma, and earned his first Michelin star within a year of opening MR, which closed in 2010. Refslund did brief stints at some of the best restaurants in Scandinavia before running the wildly popular Acme in New York City, further reinventing the so-called "New Nordic Cuisine" that he popularized at home and abroad. After the museum, Refslund met up with Namae at Commune 246, an open-air collection of semi-permanent food stalls and communal seating in Tokyo's swank Omotesando neighborhood.

The chefs' resumes are simpatico: Namae's L'Effervescence debuted at No. 25 on San Pellegrino's list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants in 2015 and earned its second Michelin star the same year. Both Refslund and Namae champion local and seasonal vegetables and emphasize the human connection to the land through food. When Noma decamped to Tokyo from Copenhagen in the winter of 2015, it was Namae who helped Refslund's old friend and Noma chef René Redzepi source local ingredients.

But while their philosophies may be similar, the chefs differ in their approach. Namae recently renovated L'Effervescence and is redoubling efforts to train his waitstaff. "The front-of-house culture is now dying in Tokyo," he says. Refslund rejects that formality. "I'm tired of this wall between front and back of house," he says. "Who's the best one to explain the food? It's you. It's the cook. So that's what I want to do. That's the direction I want to go."

Tonight, Refslund is receiving a lesson in how tea masters break down that wall. As the first course is served at Udagawa's tea house, a studious look crosses Refslund's face. Three precisely spaced dishes sit atop a black lacquer tray. "What should I eat first?" he asks. Namae instructs Refslund to begin with the rice and miso soup, because they must wait until the sake is served before eating the tai (snapper) sashimi topped with chrysanthemum petals.

"So many rules," Refslund says..

"The eating and exchanging of sake are based on deep, deep hospitality," Namae replies.

Udagawa pours sake into shallow saucers that must be held with two hands, to show respect, and carefully, to keep the broad surface of liquid from spilling. Receiving this offering demands attention to the sake and to the act of drinking it.

Namae tells Refslund that the hot, thin soup of summer barracuda and autumnal matsutake mushrooms "represents the transition of the seasons." The simply prepared ingredients, from the Japanese eggplant to the gingko nuts, all tell a similar story. Namae and Udagawa keep a running explanation of the cultural concepts that contextualize the meal. The Japanese veneration of the seasons and the animism of native Shinto beliefs are discussed at length. Refslund is a model student.

In particular, the waste-not concept, called mottainai, resonates with Refslund. The final bite of the cha-kaiseki meal reflects this culinary prudence, as the chefs use a single slice of takuan, yellow pickled daikon, to wipe up the last remaining grains of rice from their lacquered bowls. Over the course of the evening, what initially seemed like so many rules reveal themselves as a carefully orchestrated dance, a two-part performance in which Refslund has unwittingly played his part.

Japanese food

The tea ceremony begins after the meal. Udagawa wordlessly takes up a bamboo whisk and four-hundred-year-old tea bowl. Then comes the slow rush of hot water being poured into the bowl, which Udagawa promptly hands to Namae, who sips before passing it to Refslund, who does the same. "Wow," he says, "that's very intense." The thick koicha is luminous, a brilliant green paint against the dark ceramic. A second round follows, along with miniscule higashi, sweets made with rice flour and sugar, to offset the tea's bitterness.

Soon the sounds of a rattling cocktail shaker fill the small room. Udagawa explains that Japan's cocktail culture, though imported from the West, has been heavily influenced by the tea ceremony. Udagawa has "combined the idea of bar and teahouse," making his clandestine tearoom "almost like a speakeasy."

cocktail sake

Several rounds of distinctive cocktails follow, from shiso sake-tinis to an eye-popping blend of chartreuse and fresh matcha. Udagawa offers three varieties of dried natto (fermented soybeans) as snacks. Refslund is impressed.

Noticing the three candles have burned down to stumps in their holders, Refslund refuses an offer for one final cocktail. As he begins clearing glassware, Udagawa mentions that he was recently ordained as a monk of the Rinzai school, one of the three main Zen Buddhist schools in Japan. Refslund becomes animated. It's rare enough to meet a tea master of Udagawa's stature, let alone one who moonlights as a monk. Udagawa explains that his curiosity of the intellectual and spiritual realms drew him to Zen practice. Refslund relates, commenting that the frenetic world of high-end dining so easily distracts from simpler things. "I really just want to be in the moment," he says, "to just enjoy and not think about anything else."

Photography by Irene Herrera.

This content was originally published on Meridian

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