Chef Daniel Calvert is now one of the top-rated chefs in all of Tokyo. Which places him high on the list of top-rated chefs, globally. It’s fitting, considering how many miles he’s covered to arrive at his own kitchen at SÉZANNE. The acclaimed artisan was born in Surrey, England, spent significant time plating cuisine in London, Paris, and Hong Kong, to say nothing of an admirable stint working under Thomas Keller at Per Se in Manhattan.
“I wanted to work at the French Laundry but they never accepted me, so I ended up there instead,” Calvert jokes. “It wasn’t too bad of an arrangement [laughs]—New York or Yountville, I’ll take New York.”
Either way, it was all mere preamble to the French restaurant he now helms beyond the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi. In just two and a half years here, he is cultivating his highest accolades yet: Two Michelin Stars and now the top-rated eatery in all of Japan, according to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants (which announced its most recent ranking in late March; SÉZANNE placed 2nd overall).
How does all of that success affect Calvert? Well, it certainly hasn’t seemed to undo his sense of humility. In an exclusive interview with Forbes the talented tastemaker reveals that he’s most happy when he’s keeping his guests happy. And that there’s great value to the Japanese concept of kaizen: continuous improvement—as well as in the combination of chicken and chardonnay.
Below he goes into detail on this particular pairing, along with more general thoughts on how food and wine ought to match. He also admits, once and for all, what Michelin recognition really means for most chefs.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on all the success. So, how big of a deal are these awards? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about them?
Daniel Calvert: “I think, as a younger chef you place a lot of stock in accolades. I don’t want to generalize, but for me, personally, it was a driving force for where I wanted to work and who I wanted to work for. It’s even a driving force on where you want to live. You choose cities to work in based upon whether they have a Michelin Guide or not. I think that’s a pretty fair statement for many cooks. Nowadays it’s less about vindication and more an indicator of how you’re doing and how your guests are enjoying the experience and how it’s being received; that’s the most important thing. You can’t take anything too seriously. But if you’re getting two Michelin Stars you must be doing something pretty good. If they’re not giving you three stars, maybe you need to do something a little better [laughs]. And for 50 Best it’s more of a finger on the pulse of what’s en vogue. It’s not a definitive list of best restaurants—that would be impossible, anyway. It’s more of a zeitgeist of what’s going on around the world in any given moment. And this is a great sign that we’re making an impact in Japan and that people in the region are talking about us.”
Talk about menu development and how elements come together.
DC: “The most important thing is to remain seasonal and relevant. I think Japan is hyper seasonal. The ingredients are in season sometimes for two weeks or even sometimes you get one batch or shipment of something very small. So the menu has to be flexible and we have to pivot very, very often. Sometimes throughout the day. I don’t look at it as a single menu that’s being developed. It’s more of a cycle that follows that season—chasing the seasons throughout the year. We start off in January and bit-by-bit something falls off and is replaced as it becomes available. I’m not an R+D guy, I don’t sit for hours testing a dish a thousand, million times throwing away all this good work and good product. As soon as we get something, we get it onto the menu however we can and then just tweak, tweak, tweak.”
Right. And according to Japanese culture, I believe, there are a lot more than 4 seasons, yes?
DC: “I think there’s something like 24! So there is not a short term project. This is a lifetime of education. You only get such a small window to work with them, you have to spend each year figuring out and documenting how you can do it better next year.”
It seems like that touches upon the Japanese concept of kaizen, and always finding ways to improve upon your skill.
DC: “It’s absolutely that. We’re making a certain sauce this year, but I know that when I come back to it again, I’ve had a whole year to absorb how we’ve done it. There’s a constant absorption of information and material and then you synthesize it into the way you do things.”
Do Japanese cooking techniques work their way into the compositions at Sézanne?
DC: “We are a European restaurant in Japan. That’s the most important thing to remember. The guests who are coming in are coming in for European food in Japan. With that said, we do use umami. We subtly integrate making dashi. I season my food a lot less than I used to in Europe because we use these to bring out the flavor. The gentle prolonged cooking of a clam for three hours, for example, rather than the reaction of a clam, which would result in a heavier product. That lends itself well to French cuisine because if I can really harness the essence of a clam surely that’s going to make my Vongole sauce better.”
Talk to us about the art of food and wine pairing. What are you hoping a wine does when it goes up against one of your dishes?
DC: “It’s a constant conversation with [sommelier] Nobuhide Otsuka. We’ve been working for two and a half years now. It’s up to him to understand my palate. And the most important thing for me is to allow him to be as creative as I am in the kitchen. I want to give him that freedom. As for what I look for in a pairing, I look for compatibility instead of any kind of polarization. Some sommeliers try to find things that are contrasting. I want people to find something complementary. Also to concentrate on the sauce. If it doesn’t complement the sauce then you’ve lost the whole pairing. But it has to be delicious. That’s all I care about is delicious—and original.”
So a delicious wine is always going to go well with a delicious dish?
DC: “Absolutely. Don’t give me any of the cheap shit [laughs]. Give me some of the good stuff.”
Do you have an all-time pairing that you always fall back on?
DC: “We have a dish on our menu—the drunken chicken, poached in yellow wine. And there’s a fantastic pairing, that I think is a perfect pairing. But unfortunately you just can’t get enough of this bottle to have it. It’s a chardonnay from Jura. It is by a man called Jean-François Ganevat, one of the master winemakers of Jura; very natural, biodynamic style. With all the hype behind him, there’s no bottles left. There are other chardonnays from Jura that work, but that would be my number one pick. In fact, when I created that dish this was the wine in my mind. It was basically reverse-engineered. The pairing is so good, I could sit in Jura, have a glass of wine, half a chicken and a bit of compte and that would be a wonderful meal. ”
It seems to be a signature item. How did that come together?
DC: “I lived in Hong Kong for five years and I used to eat a lot of Chinese food there. It’s marinated in vin jaune — an oxidized French yellow wine which is fermented in an open barrel. It’s almost akin to a Shaoxing wine, from China, which is where this dish originally came from, in Shanghai. We wanted to replace it with something a little less sweet. We source the chicken from Nagano and let it marinate for one week and poach it for about 20 minutes. It could seem a little like fusion. But the crossover between the French and the Chinese actually it works so well, it could be a classic French dish. And I hope it will be. That shows you that there’s still availability to take inspiration from somewhere else and create a new classic.”
Are you into pairing sake with any of your dishes?
DC: “That’s probably a bridge too far for me in Sézanne. I know that our sommelier likes to put a couple on every now and then, but it’s difficult for me. I try to stay within the realm of European wines.”