Michelin-Starred Ode and SAKE HUNDRED — A Pairing that Defies Expectations
In December 2019, SAKE HUNDRED starred in a special pairing dinner at the innovative modern French gastronomy restaurant Ode in Hiroo, Tokyo.
Ode has garnered high praise along with a Michelin star for its risk-taking approach to modern cuisine that disassembles conceptions of what gastronomy should be. It’s also a Tokyo institution, having ranked among Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2020.
Just 24 guests participated in this exclusive event. Now, SAKE HUNDRED brand owner Ryuji Ikoma and Ode chef-owner Yusuke Namai, one of East Asia’s top talents, look back at the momentous 2019 occasion, talk the new side of sake and explore Ode’s Michelin-winning approach.
Revealing a New Side of Sake
Ikoma: Thank you, Namai-san, for collaborating with us at the pairing event last year. I’d love to reflect on that occasion. What were your impressions of SAKE HUNDRED at the time?
Namai: I thought it was a very interesting sake. It inspired me to look for ways to explore its full potential. I decided to build a pairing menu for the event that paired with SAKE HUNDRED’s entire range in a sort of broad and even-keeled way.
Ikoma: I remember, when we were planning this, telling you we’d done two pairing events before. You suggested we try something totally different this time — something you couldn’t do at a more typical pairing event. That boldness was really impressive to me.
Namai: I thought it would be great to present something that’s more interesting than standard pairings. Something that would really surprise the guests and stick with them long after they’d gone home.
Ikoma: The pairings certainly surprised me! When I’m tasting sake pairings, I can often imagine the chef’s thought process in matching certain sake with certain dishes.
But at the Ode event, it really surpassed my imagination. When I realized you were pairing the main meat dish with our dessert sake, Amairo, that was completely unexpected. That dish was really something else though — just an amazing pairing.
Namai: Thank you!
Ikoma: The flavors really went against my expectations, but were also very intuitive. Seeing that with Amairo, it was like watching your own child show off a talent you never knew they had.
On Creating a Brand Identity
Ikoma: It’s clear a lot of thought and attention to detail goes into the dishes at Ode. It’s clear there’s a goal in mind, and the methods and ingredients are chosen to realize that goal in its purest form. What was your thought process in creating Ode as it stands today?
Namai: Firstly, I’m always conscious of keeping everything consistent from a variety of viewpoints. That applies to everything from the interior design and the dishes, through to our way of thinking. There’s a meaning to everything, and that meaning should hold even when it’s all sort of collaged and spun together.
With that said, it’s not so much about scrutinizing every little detail. When we ask the question, “Is this indicative of Ode?,” the answer comes naturally. That feeling of everything just naturally “being Ode” is something we strive to keep.
Ikoma: You must have a pretty clear image of your goals for things to naturally fall into place like that. Is it safe to say the things you want to deliver to your customer are equally clear to you?
Namai: It’s clear. But it’s important to be flexible for your customers. When I build a dish to my idea of perfection, I may still make minor changes just before putting it out based on what I feel a particular customer might like or dislike.
Customers vote with their wallets. They might tell the chef they had a great meal and it was delicious, but if it isn’t to their taste, they may not come back. Operating a restaurant is a day-by-day piling up of elements that form your brand identity, which in turn gets customers to feel more connected to the experience you’re providing. The more customers you have that feel that way, the greater degree of freedom you have as a creator.
Ikoma: I really felt a sense of absolute perfection in everything Ode put out, so that’s an unexpected answer. It seems that the way Ode “should be” is informed by customers, your environment, rather than being determined from the start. Are you consciously trying to evolve your food and your worldview?
Namai: It’s something we’re constantly thinking about, yes. What can you create when you take into account these differing ideas of quality and value, flavors and needs? I guess I’m trying to challenge myself. It’s the reason I try out different dishes every season.
We’ve got to fine tune our idea of what Ode is to us along with what others’ idea of Ode is. Something that’s surprising and outside of expectations is only relatable to the guest if it’s done with intent. You’re constantly fine tuning to that end.
Ikoma: In other words, you’re trying to stay in line with your guests’ idea of Ode while trying new and exciting things. I think SAKE HUNDRED is very similar in that sense. We’ve got our own philosophy for our brand, but we’re always thinking about how best to get that out to the world.
Mr. Mineaki Saito, formerly the vice president of Hermès International and the president of Hermès Japan recently joined our team as brand advisor. He’s said that the job of a brand is to symbolize the customer. In other words, we have to make SAKE HUNDRED a part of the identity of SAKE HUNDRED fans.
To that end, you have to be consistent as a brand, so you can provide something your fans can truly believe in. That’s why it’s so important for a brand to balance taking on new challenges with maintaining its values.
Namai: That’s very similar to our experience. You have to take on new challenges while still meeting the expectations your fans have of you. That’s a hallmark of a very persuasive brand, I think.
Ikoma: Right. if you’re just coasting, you’re not exceeding expectations. But, if you’re going too far afield, you’re not a stable presence consumers can get behind. You need to find a balance of delivering something your fans understand, but that’s still exciting.
Namai: Exactly. A motto I live by is, “You don’t need to take three steps forward.” You can go a half step, one step at a time. You’re trying to feel out that perfect spot, rather than running around blindly. You're proposing something that’s a little bit ahead of the curve but not so far ahead your fans don’t want to come with you. I really take that balance seriously.
“The Potential of “Japan-origin” Cuisine
Ikoma: I understand you’ve done some big things abroad as well. What do you think are the strengths and challenges of a Japanese chef, from your perspective of international experience?
Namai: This also touches on branding in a way. I think Japanese restaurants still don’t quite understand their own strengths and how to announce them. They’re inwardly-focused. There’s a shortage of people who can see things from the guest’s perspective and act accordingly.
Ikoma: I see. How about strengths?
Namai: With Japanese chefs, there’s a richness and delicacy to their senses. And not just in terms of flavors, they really get down to the finest details. And they can visualize the end result — what the flavors will be, how it will be eaten, the textures, even serving temperature. Of course, it’s not just Japanese chefs who do this, but I think they are particularly skilled at it.
Ikoma: There’s a parallel to sake there. The value of a sake is often from its most delicate and subtle details. When you think about the value of raw ingredients and the role they play, wine is certainly a more complex animal. You’ve got red grapes, white, you’ve got skin-on, skin-off. Sake, on the other hand, is made using just three ingredients: Rice, water and koji. All these many thousands of types of sake, therefore, are differentiated in these other subtle nuances.
The problem, of course, is that many of these different sake varieties are almost too subtle in their differences. What we’ve done with SAKE HUNDRED is deliver a select lineup of sake that are all distinct from each other. This is important for differentiating our brand in world markets and getting people to recognize SAKE HUNDRED from among so many others. Our bottles are subtle and delicate, yet each boasts a unique character that sets it apart.
Namai: That’s very similar in the world of cooking. You’ve got to have a concept and a stance, but it’s got to be easy to understand.
At international events we’ve participated in, the important thing wasn’t for people to accept Ode in its entirety. It was for a wide audience to learn about us and really just to create a space where the attendees could enjoy themselves. So, we have our own identity and values, but we don’t want to turn people off, so we consult with local chefs to help us adapt.
Ode and SAKE HUNDRED are similar in that they share a drive to take on new challenges while remaining true to their core principles. Both are founded on the idea of maintaining integrity while consistently offering the new and exciting.
Chef Namai recently devised a seasonal pairing menu to highlight SAKE HUNDRED’s newest offering, Shirin. This selection of dishes managed to surprise and delight with its upending of textbook culinary conventions. In our next article, we’ll explore this unexpected delight in detail.