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How Thomas Frebel of restaurant Inua won over Japanese diners

The former head of R&D at Noma shares what makes the two-Michelin starred restaurant tick.

Thomas Frebel doesn’t watch Japanese TV dramas, so he doesn’t know the extent to which his two Michelin-starred restaurant Inua plays a pivotal role in Grand Maison Tokyo – a highly rated series that was screened over 11 episodes last year.

About two rival chefs who battle each other for coveted Michelin stars, anyone who’s eaten at the Nordic-inspired restaurant would be tickled to see the dishes masterfully created by one of them. Instantly, you recognise the colourful fruit jelly sheet that’s rolled up with flowers into an intensely sweet-tart gummy. Or the crisp, aerated monkfish liver wafer plated dramatically against fossilised fish skeletons.

And the piece de resistance of whole roasted aged maitake mushroom, cooked in its own juices infused with miso and dried pine – so rich in umami that it’s as satisfying as a steak.

“We were approached by (TV station) TBS and we were the culinary consultants for (the antagonist) Chef Gaku, so what you saw was cooked and plated by us in the background,” says the gentle-mannered Chef Frebel. “We got a few extra tables at the restaurant because of that show. But I never watched it.”

A hit TV show, two Michelin stars barely 18 months from opening – not bad for the former head of R&D for Noma who decided to uproot himself from a comfortable 10 year career with the iconic Copenhagen restaurant and immerse himself in the complex, foreign culture of Japan two years ago.

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While there’s quite a bit about Inua (which means ‘spirit’ in Inuit mythology) that’s similar to Noma – the emphasis on locally foraged ingredients, the wizardry of execution, a multinational staff and the energy in the seamless movement of servers and chefs – this is very much Chef Frebel’s own gig, presenting his own interpretation of Japanese ingredients in a dizzying culinary performance.

Inua is about “celebrating Japanese seasonality and ingredients through the eyes of a gaijin (foreigner) with a kind of curiosity and appreciation on a different level”, says the German-born chef whose obsession with Japan began in 2015 with Noma’s headline-making pop-up in Tokyo.

“I left feeling, not unsatisfied, but that I was not done with Japan. I wanted to come back but I wasn’t sure to what extent, and certainly not what it is now. I thought I would come here and work in a Japanese restaurant.”

Then he got wind that Chef Redzepi had been invited to open in Tokyo but he wasn’t keen until Chef Frebel approached him. “I heard him talking about it with Peter Kreiner our CEO and I said that if there was an opportunity in Tokyo, I wanted to do it.” Chef Redzepi agreed, and while the idea was put on hold while Chef Frebel worked on the Sydney and Mexico popups, finally, the Tokyo restaurant was a go.

Inua is Chef Frebel’s restaurant, with Noma as a partner, so he still works very closely with Chef Redzepi who visits three or four times a year. He understands that people see similarities between Inua and Noma, “but that’s because having worked so closely with Rene, there’s a lot of Noma in me but there’s also quite a lot of me that was in Noma at the time I was there”.

While the Japanese may have looked on him as an oddity for being so excited over something as ‘ordinary’ as tofu or udon, that is the heart of Inua’s philosophy. “An enoki mushroom can be as exotic and exciting as a piece of tuna, or maitake can be as exciting as (the more premium) Matsutake. Edamame can be as luxurious as uni. The culture and craftsmanship behind making katsuobushi out of bonito, why not make it with vegetables? ” Inua even got a katsuobushi maker to make a pumpkin version.

“And koji, instead of inoculating it into rice to make sake, why not inoculate udon with it?” Which is how they make an unusual spongy, towel like sheet which is eaten with caviar and blackcurrant fudge.

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With no other restaurant quite like Inua, Chef Frebel concedes that it was an uphill climb to convince diners, especially the Japanese, to see the luxury in (and pay a premium price for) the ingredients used. “But if it was easy everyone would be doing it,” he says. “It’s really important to stick to what you want your guests to experience and what you want your message to be. If you listen to what everyone wants you’d have to serve uni and wagyu. But there are so many amazing restaurants in this city that have been doing that for decades that Inua would disappear very quickly.”

Interestingly enough, because of the fastpaced service and the multi-faceted dishes that come at you in a steady stream, you realise belatedly that there is no animal protein in the menu, apart from a bit of caviar or monkfish liver disguised in a wafer. Yet you don’t miss the meat at all, which is credit to Inua’s kitchen team.

Although duck and deer have appeared on previous menus, Inua leans towards vegetarianism mainly because of the amount of foraging they do and plants they use and also because he himself has been vegetarian ever since he saw the health benefits after he stopped eating meat. “Plus it’s more exciting and challenging to serve vegetables because the plant kingdom is so much more diverse than the animal kingdom.”

With vindication from Michelin and popular appeal from TV, business is growing, and as proof of Japanese acceptance, close to 70 per cent of its clientele is local.

But more importantly, Chef Frebel is where he wants to be, foraging and discovering a whole new way of life.

“What I’ve learned, also with Noma, is that travelling through the eyes of a chef is the best and easiest way to enter any culture on this planet. Because (food) is a universal language that anybody can relate to, and most of the time they have positive memories that they want to share – and that’s essentially what we are doing with Inua.”

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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