How a chef with no customers built one of the world’s top restaurants

The answer? Serve soup made out of soil. A brilliant lesson in brand strategy.

Soup of the Soil | Photo: Narisawa

As a professional in the creative industry, I find the world of chefs and cuisines directly relevant to what I do—brand strategy and creative direction. Being a chef, especially a gastronomy chef, is a highly creative act. In addition to that, running your own restaurant is like being a creative and running your own creative agency or consultancy. By running, I mean really running the business, i.e. looking at spreadsheets and worrying about the payroll, etc. One has to be the one to come up with the ideas AND make ends meet at the same time.

Yoshihiro Narisawa is one of Japan’s top chefs who has been ranked in the World’s Top 50 Restaurants list consistently since 2009. Chef Narisawa calls his style “Innovative Satoyama Cuisine.” It’s not quite Japanese, French, Italian, or any other style you’ve ever seen. At the heart of it, it’s gastronomy meets sustainability.

Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa | Photo: Narisawa

Imagine different scenes from nature, say, a little stream with fish swirling around or a bed of moss on a fallen tree trunk, recreated on a plate with the most innovative cooking techniques using only the most organic and sustainable ingredients. For his distinct innovativeness and inventiveness, He and his restaurant Narisawa have received numerous awards: the Most Influential Chef at the 2010 Madrid Fusion; the highest score awarded at the 2013 British Sustainable Restaurant Award; and the aforementioned World’s Top 50 Restaurants Award.

Chiayu Sweet Fish with Sakura | Photo: Narisawa
Satoyama Scenary and the Essence of the Forest | Photo: Narisawa

Chef Narisawa, after eight years of training in Europe from the tender age of 19 into his late twenties, opened his own restaurant a month after returning to his motherland Japan. When he did so in the mid-1990s, he opened his restaurant in the countryside, not in Tokyo. It was an unusual choice, but he had a strategic reason.

Quite young, completely unknown, in a remote location and without the word of mouth of social media we have today, Chef Narisawa barely had any customers for the first two years of his operation, he now says with a laugh.

So how did he go from an unknown young chef to one of the world’s top chefs?

Based on my interview with him for the Creative Mindset podcast ( Apple Podcast | Spotify ), there are essentially four steps in his brand strategy—however intentional or unintentional it may have been—I observed from Chef Narisawa.

1. Develop your conviction.

After his training in Europe which he says was quite brutal at times, he knew how to cook almost anything. He had also witnessed that there were people who would be willing to travel to remote places and pay a high price to enjoy high-end food, or gastronomy.

Combine that with the kind of ingredients he could find in Japan; he developed a firm conviction that he could create a kind of cuisine that would be in so much demand that people would travel a long distance for it.

2. Differentiate.

Odawara was the location Chef Narisawa chose for his restaurant. It’s at least an hour from Tokyo, and if you take a taxi, it’d cost over 40,000 yen / $300. Not exactly the most convenient location for customers to get to.

Chef Narisawa did this for a few different reasons. One was to save costs, especially at the beginning. Everything is cheaper outside of Tokyo so it’s less taxing on a business. Two, he would have good access to fresh ingredients, particularly seafood. Three—and this is the most important— he wanted to be physically away from any other restaurants.

If you’ve been to Tokyo, you know it’s a city of food. Like retail, a good location for a restaurant is important in building its business. However, Chef Narisawa didn’t want location to be the reason for customers to come to his restaurant. He wanted his customers to find it with some effort.

3. Cater to a particular audience.

This leads to point #4, the audience. In addition to the remote location, Chef Narisawa’s food wasn’t everyday food at an everyday price point for everyone. In other words, it was for a certain type of people who were willing to travel AND spend a few hundred dollars on a meal.

Even though he could cook a meal that almost everyone would enjoy, he decided to cater to a particular audience by differentiating with his own style, location and price point.

4. The product is the message.

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by the Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, the dawn of the golden TV age. In Chef Narisawa’s case, his medium may be the restaurant. But that’s not the message.

It was sometime in the early 2000s, a customer of his strongly suggested to Chef Narisawa to visit a farmer in the countryside. This farmer was one of the few farmers at the time who had rejected any pesticide or agricultural chemicals in growing their produce. When he tasted this farmer’s vegetables, it was a rude awakening for Chef Narisawa: for the farm’s produce to be healthy and organic, it was really the soil that first needed to be healthy, to the point that one could eat it.

And this brings us back to the Soup of the Soil.

This has become one of Narisawa’s signature dishes, made by chopping up burdock root, pan-frying it with the soil, then simmering and straining the resulting mix.

The point of this dish wasn’t so much the shock value. It was, and still is, the message Chef Narisawa wanted to convey: for us to enjoy food, we must first take care of the environment from which the ingredients come from. The Soup of the Soil was the embodiment of that thought, and the message of sustainability permeates through his entire menu. The product is indeed the message.

When he opened his restaurant, he didn’t necessarily have a clear message nor his brand just yet. Over time, he developed both steadily and deliberately. Without much marketing or advertising, Narisawa became one of the top restaurants in the world.

If you happen to understand Japanese, you can listen to my conversation on this topic in The Creative Mindset podcast:

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