The first time I tasted one of Chef Natsuko Shoji’s sweet creations, it was at an all female chefs collaboration hosted by Chef Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room in Hong Kong. Not only did it celebrate the power of female chefs in Asia, but it also showcased exceptional culinary talent in one impressive luncheon. The dessert served was Chef Shoji’s Miyazaki mango rose atop diplomat cream and sablé, a rich, luscious yet beautifully bright and refreshing confection that has remained in my dessert dreams to this day. And if you have yet to come across her fashion-inspired and fruit-topped work at her Tokyo-based restaurant Été, you are likely to now, since she’s been crowned the 2020 winner of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef Award — an award presented by Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants and sponsored by Valrhona.
What’s behind the name Été [which means summer in French]?
My name, Natsuko Shoji, means “summer child”. I wanted my business to be successful and [I named it Été] so that customers can know and remember my name easily. I worked at French restaurants and my cuisine is French.
How would you describe your style of pastry and dessert?
Fashion-inspired. You can see my perfectionism, obsession with detail and creative vision in my work. Thanks to the different seasons, I am also able to stick to uncompromising quality, and create figuratively-shaped fruit cakes that embody the artistic qualities of Japanese cuisine.
Why are they inspired by fashion? And do you draw your inspiration from other areas?
My mom has always loved fashion, and that had an influence on me. I love fashion too, that is how Été’s cakes were born. I would say that art has inspired me as well. Artists like Takashi Murakami for example. I remember when I was in junior high, I was so shocked to see his artwork with Louis Vuitton in the shop window. I wished I could work together with him someday. After opening Été, this was one of my goals and I recently had the privilege to collaborate with him in creating a special mango cake and a box of chocolates.
Will you be collaborating with any other brands or artists?
I would love to work with Tomo Koizumi, a Japanese dress/costume designer. I am a big fan of his work — it’s all so stunning and colourful.
When did your passion for pastries come about?
When I was in junior high school, I made cream puffs in home economics class. I thought the way the dough swelled was very interesting, so I made a lot of them at home to give to my friends. They were very excited about it.
Who has been your biggest influence?
Chef Hiroyasu Kawate of Florilége.
What was it like working with Chef Hiroyasu Kawate?
Kawate-san taught me to keep in mind that the guests are top priority — no matter what it takes. The guests deserve the perfect experience every single time. Every day, I appreciate his training more and more, especially as I have my own restaurant now. His training has really helped me. Not just as a pastry chef, but as a chef in general, because I put my heart and soul in my cuisine, just as much as my cakes. It has made me realise the importance of putting guests first, no matter the circumstance.
Do you have a favourite dessert?
Tarts, chocolate, and cheesecake paired with vintage champagne and wines.
What is your favourite ingredient to use?
What does Asia’s Best Pastry Chef Award mean to you?
I’m very glad to have been acknowledged and to have my work recognised. Not only in Japan, but throughout Asia — especially as a female chef.
Do you think the award will help to shine a light on female chefs too?
Throughout my career as a chef, I often get asked about how I feel about being a female chef in a male dominated industry by many of my peers. Many people think that this kind of job is only fit for men because it’s not easy, it’s challenging, it’s physically gruelling, and women are supposed to just stay home and do housework. This is the perception that I want to change. I believe that as long as you put your heart and soul into what you do, no matter how difficult it is, it can be achieved and it can bring a high level of fulfilment. I have loved every single bit of being a female chef and it will be my biggest achievement to have been perceived as an equal to those great male chefs in the industry.
Any plans to expand in the near future?
Not at the moment. It would be really difficult to keep the quality that I have at Été now, if I were to expand. I want to keep perfecting what I have and do it better each day. There is only one of Natsuko Shoji, and I cannot be at many places at once!
This story first appeared on Prestige Online Hong Kong