Several chefs have already been cooking at Il Sale, the restaurant at Poggio ai Santi. This time it is different, though. The two Japanese chefs Shimpei and Sayuri, who have been living and working in Italy for several years, arrived at the Poggio at the beginning of 2020. Francesca and Dominique, the owners of the cosy hotel, said that it clicked immediately between them and the two chefs. They knew from the first moment that Sayuri and Shimpei would be a great addition to Il Sale.
For Francesca, someone needed to understand the kitchen’s nature: Regional and seasonal food, straight onto the table. In the countryside, you don’t know which product you will be able to serve that day; maybe the butcher brought a lovely piece of meat, maybe not. Are the pumpkins ripe? Probably they are, but if they are not, then something else has to be whipped up. Shimpei and Sayuri are great at this. Shimpei said that for him, every part of an ingredient is worth equally much. If it is the carrot itself or the leaves attached to it, the chicken breast or the feet, the spinach or the stems, none of this matters to Shimpei. He wants to make a great dish from each of these.
One evening, we were sitting outside, drinking an after-work glass of wine. I asked Sayuri what it was that fascinated her about Italian cuisine. She said that it is the love to produce and to the seasons. Everything could taste great if sourced in the right way, treated with respect and time.
1. Hi Shimpei, thanks so much for finding the time for me. I see you are busy preparing for lunch, and I must say those green tomatoes lying behind you look delicious. Did you teach yourself all the things you know now, or did you go to culinary school?
I started my journey as a chef in Miyagi, my hometown. There is a culinary school that I visited for one year. After that, I went to Tokyo to learn while on the job.
2. For how long have you been a chef?
I was 19 when I started working at a tough Italian restaurant in Tokyo. I arrived at 7 am and worked until 11 pm. The job was a very hard one. Working as a chef in Tokyo is still not easy, but not as bad as it used to be 15 years ago. I worked at that place for four years, and it made me exhausted. Also, I wanted to find out more about food and experience authentic Italian cooking. After these four years, I became a waiter at a French restaurant in Tokyo, I was tired, but I needed to earn some money.
3. Was that when you decided to move to Italy?
Yes, I was 24 when I came to Italy and started studying in Florence at a cookery school and at a language school to learn Italian. I wouldn’t say I liked that school; there were only Japanese people and almost no Italians. So I looked for a job and found one in Castiglioncello. I started working there after having been in Italy for only three months. I didn’t know a word of Italian. After this, I worked at a Trattoria in Florence for two years, and then, I started working at the Grand Hotel in Porto Venere, where I also met my partner Sayuri. We started working in Milan at a small Japanese restaurant called Saketeca, serving various Sake and small Japanese dishes. It was a great time; I met a couple of chefs and made many new friends. It was a great place to work, but it also made me realise that I wanted to develop my skills in Gourmet cuisine. That was when I went to Ada e Augusto a bit outside of Milan. It was a great and exciting experience, but I wanted to cook even more traditional and regional food. This was when I came to Poggio ai Santi.
4. What a pleasant journey! Did you apply at Il Sale? How did you hear about this magical spot?
It was quite a coincidence, maybe also luck. I went back to the first restaurant where I had worked when I studied in Florence. During that day, Alessandra, who is working at the Poggio, had lunch there. Enrico, the owner, told her that I was looking for a job. She said that Il Sale was looking for a chef, so I met with Francesca and Dominique, and we immediately got along very well. I started at Il Sale in December 2019, and Sayuri joined me in January 2020. I’m cooking together with our precious help Lisa, and Sayuri is responsible for cakes, bread, baked things, breakfast at the moment. You should talk to her about wines, too, she knows a lot about it.
5. That sounds lovely. So what characterises your cooking and the dishes here?
It’s seasonal and regional, and we never use anything artificial. Our produce is never the same. A Ricotta can be creamier on one day and taste more like sheep the other. When being a chef here, you need to use these natural products and learn how to work with them. I love cooking a lot with meat and fish, for example, but I never know what I’ll get on a day. Whatever comes into my kitchen, I’ll try to cook the best from it. If it is vegetables one day, I will make a tasty dish from them. If it’s boar, I’ll make pasta with boar, or I braise it or maybe make something completely different. One piece of meat is not like the other, and you have to adapt here in the countryside.
6. Do you get inspired by someone or something? How do you come up with all those ideas?
I am a lot inspired by staff food. You have many different food leftovers at restaurants, and for me, an incredible challenge is to develop something from all these ingredients. It is a philosophy for me not to see food as a separate entity but to see every part of a vegetable, meat, or fish as equal. I want to make great food from everything, not just the chicken breast or the peas inside a pod, but from everything.
In Japanese kitchens, for example, it is a tradition to start the service by cooking the staff’s meal using leftovers and discards. Like this, you learn how to make the most out of every ingredient.
I give you an example: We have many parts of an animal from which we can make a delicious stock. Instead of treating it like a by-product, we give it the leading role, so the conclusion is to make Tortellini. So we make Tortellini because we have the stock, not the other way around.
7. A true nose to tail approach. Do you see other similarities between Japanese and Italian cuisine?
I think what is similar is the usage of these ‘discards,’ the circular use of ingredients, and cooking along with the seasons. That is what we do in both cuisines. Other than that, preserving is playing a significant role, too. There are also geographical similarities; Both in Japan and Italy, there are some big cities and a lot of small villages. People have access to local and regional produce and need to find ways to optimize their usages.
8. Do you still cook Japanese?
Sometimes, but I would like to go deeper into the history of Japanese cooking. To learn traditional dishes that date back for many years, not what is trendy at the moment.
9. Last one: Do you have a favourite Italian dish?
Yes! Do you know Carrettiera? Pasta, Spaghetti Carrettiera? It is pasta with garlic, peperoncino, Italian parsley, and fresh tomato; it is delicious. I was eating it all the time when I was working in Milan. This dish doesn’t sound difficult to make, but it is essential to have great ingredients. Good quality ingredients bring this dish a whole level up.