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IN CONVERSATION: YOON & NATSUKO SHOJI

On The Intersection of Food, Fashion and Art

When an award-winning chef and acclaimed fashion designer meet, what do they discuss? AMBUSH® designer YOON and chef Natsuko Shoji explore the intersection of fashion, art and fine dining in a dialogue on innovation, the viscerality of beauty and staying in the present.

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In a monochromatic interior, the unassuming location of restaurant été is more akin to a private speak-easy. Art is central here, with a garden at the rear acting as a canvas to showcase outdoor sculptures — the space itself is like a private art exhibition. Nature’s palette from the garden also differs with the changing seasons, alongside the restaurant interior updated every season, the place is almost like a living thing.
Wearing a vivid pink and lime green set up (a recent AMBUSH® x Nike collaboration) YOON arrives to été, the restaurant led by chef Natsuko Shoji, who in 2020, was awarded Asia’s Best Pastry Chef by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Chef Shoji welcomes YOON with a seasonal white peach tart, freshly prepared from the kitchen. The tart holds mesmerising natural shades of pink hues, whilst the white peach gives out a scent as if to imagine the fresh peach has awoken from a deep slumber. 
YOON and chef Shoji discuss the intersection of fashion, art and fine dining, opening up about the new era, exploring the viscerality of beauty, innovation in their industries and staying in the present.

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Shoji: With a bold originality like no other, your creations always blow my mind. I totally adore them. I’ve been hoping to ask you, what is the source of your inspiration?
YOON: My source of inspiration often comes from nature. One of the thing is, my cat. He is a Russian Blue, with silver-gray fur and light lime green eyes. That color combination is natural-born perfection, nature gave it to them. I am so inspired by them, and it changes my perception of the color gray — as I actually didn’t like it before! Nature is incredible. If you look at nature carefully, the answer is always in there.
Shoji: I agree, I’m also inspired by the color combination that comes from nature. When I create a cake for my customers, I always put a fresh rose or flower in a matching color. For this white peach cake, I found a white rose with pink lime in the petal. I’m amazed how it can have such natural shades of colors.
YOON: Exactly. On the other hand, I’m also very interested in photography. Essentially, I think nothing in the world is new, but as I get more experiences, in retrospect I see a creative formula. But still, I always aim to find how to express things in a brand new way. For that, I hold a certain point of view which rediscovers new angles in things and opens up my sense of values. The camera is the perfect tool for that. Through a viewfinder, even in Shibuya, the town I’ve been living in for 20 years, looks vibrant. It’s almost like ‘muscle training’ of the brain. I take pictures of it’s incredible color palette, something fun for me, not for showing others, just for my collection. I often get inspiration from these pictures.

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Shoji: It’s the same for me when I go to a place I haven’t been for years. Recently, I visited an aquarium, from the recommendation of a customer, and was really impressed — different from ordinary ways. While watching a sea otter cracking shells, I was thinking, what will be the cuisine like, which activate different parts of the brain that we usually don’t use very often, and which gives these kinds of excitements!

I’m not sure I could do it this year or not, but I came across the idea to make a “beach concept restaurant” at été. Spreading sand all over the floor, so the diners can enjoy their food by bare foot. Aloha shirts or swimsuits would be the dress code. Fashion gives me a lot of ideas. Recently when I visited the AMBUSH® workshop in Shibuya, I found a cool flask (pocketable container for whisky) made with STANLEY. I love this playful idea, and imagined that it would be nice to put champagne inside. It gets me excited.
YOON: Actually I myself use it a lot too, maybe more than anyone! [laughs] I put tequila inside and am always carrying it. From a business aspect, it's important to think about whether it sells or not. Although, being creative, sometimes I feel like by making things half joking also gives me excitement. Even if, in the end, not many people might buy though!
Shoji: The feeling of excitement is a very important factor for my creation, too. At été, we make collaboration cakes with various artists. By adding an essence from a different world, the cakes I’ve been making look different, something I’ve never seen. This change excites me and I’m almost addicted to the feeling.

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YOON: Most of the companies in the design industry usually do the marketing well and follow the rules of a ‘best selling formula’ then make items. But personally, I get butterflies from the things which we made that were not related to marketing, but with a personal feeling. Music too — in the end, I prefer to listen to the music which has a solid melody line.
Shoji: Since we are creators, maybe we’re more sensitive to receive someone’s emotion put into the creations. I’m also impressed with the detailed handworks of Haute couture, it also heavily overlaps with my culinary philosophy. As the ingredients of farmers grow with the sweat and tears and turn into a cuisine, then it will be the blood and flesh of the diners. I find the beauty in this circulation.

Clothes as well, people who made fabric, finished by an artisan. When I wear clothes, I feel like I’m wearing the ‘essence of life’ and want to express it beautifully.
YOON: Our job might directly relate to the circulation of lives. I’m always thinking to create better things and naturally, the creation brings me another step, almost like a living thing. I also believe that when I create happily and carefully, people also receive that feeling. I would like to pass on that positive energy from my work. It’s almost like a circulation of energy through each creation.

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Shoji: Passing the positive energy through living creations is interesting. I understand the importance of positive energy, but to be honest, I’m not in a good mood very often. For example, I’m upset when I’m so passionate to make a certain thing but without thinking, a supplier easily refuses and says “we cannot”. But I feel, all of these feelings are beautiful. My cuisine is an aggregate of energy, so even if it is a negative feeling, I somehow feel beautiful. I find beauty lives inside that.
YOON: I often get annoyed, too [laughs] However usually there’s no choice, but to rationally consider the causes one by one and solve each of them. I feel like my life is driving on a highway towards a large target. If I’m distracted from driving in the speed I would like to drive my life, it irritates me. Yet, the large target isn’t something like being the “No.1 designer in the world”, since I’m a realist. Especially, as now is the time we can’t foresee the future, we don’t have to fix one ideal goal.
Shoji: I actually have specific goals. I would like to have more “passports” which express me in a short sentence and connect me to the world, just like receiving the award for “Asia’s Best Pastry Chef” last year. I feel these passports would bring me up to the next stage. Still, to treat my diners well with delicious food is my most essential focus. Because of COVID-19, I feel the bond between people is more important than ever, so my cuisine is more customer-oriented, haute couture style. Do you find something because of this crisis?

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YOON: What I’ve learnt is, there is no need to put energy on uncontrollable things. In jewelry making, I make a mold, and if there’s dimensional distortion for 0.5mm it doesn’t work. So originally, I’m a person who calculates backwards, but this crisis told me that even if I had planned perfectly, that life doesn’t always go that way. So I’ve decided to focus more on each work in front of me, in the ‘present’. If I accumulate the ‘present’ thinking to “do better work than before”, when I look back in retrospect, the dots in the past all connect to each other. From this, I can then see the path I took.
Shoji: Hearing that is a great relief. Whenever I’m asked what my goal is 10 years from now, I always answer specifically, but sometimes I’m worried whether I really can achieve it or not. But as you said, just focus on what’s in front of me correctly, and that will be the path connected to the goal that I’ve been looking at.
YOON: Exactly. No one knows, suddenly, we might pass away tomorrow. Not being restricted by the future and by just focusing on what's in front of us, allow more freedom for the ‘present’. This is what COVID-19 taught me. Anyway, it is only human beings who appreciate fashion and fine dining, and to feel a sense of beauty and tell someone — and to cherish it. We are so blessed to have the freedom to choose the job we love. Well, I cannot vouch for “human beings only”, the universe is enormous! [laughs]

Text: Kyoko Nakayama

Images: Houmi Sakata

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