Baking is an art form, and the sentiment couldn’t be more accurate for Natsuko Shoji, who was named Asia’s Best Female Chef 2022 by Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants.
In 2020, the pastry chef expanded her Tokyo-based Summer Pie Shop to include an exclusive six-seat dining experience. The concept is revered for its innovation and as the birthplace of one of Tokyo’s most sought-after desserts.
Shoji talks to Hospitality about the beginnings of her culinary journey, the defining dishes of her career, and inspiring the next generation of women in the industry.
Natsuko Shoji took her first steps in the professional kitchen of Florilège, a French restaurant in Tokyo. She was promoted to sous chef within three years, but soon decided to go it alone. The chef opened Eté, which means summer in French, in Shibuya.
“I was 24 when I first opened Summer,” says Shoji. “I thought it would be really difficult to [open] a catering business because I was inexperienced, not famous, young, and a cook. This meant it was going to be difficult to hire staff and find customers, so I started Summer as a one-off pie shop.
All worries were quickly put to rest once Shoji started making and selling mango pie, a dessert that won acclaim from customers and industry peers. “I wanted to do something that people would instantly recognize as my creation,” explains the chef. “I baked a pie [what] looked like a square jewelry box. I truly believe that my signature dish was the starting point of my success.
The pie has three different layers, including a crisp, butter-rich sabret topped with diplomate cream and the dessert’s signature rose made of syrup-glazed mango slices. Like many of Shoji’s creations, the dessert was inspired by her interest in fashion. Customer requests were also a driving factor for some of Summer’s other popular designs.
“My cooking style is inspired by fashion and art, and I designed my restaurant in a haute couture style,” explains the chef. “I am also inspired by the guests who come to my restaurant; many of my signature dishes have been requested by them.”
One example is Summer Strawberry Cake, which is inspired by Louis Vuitton’s Damier print. The cake includes white Yuki-Usagi strawberries from Saga and red Sakura Momo strawberries from Tokushima.
It wasn’t until last year that Shoji saw an opportunity to create a dining experience for his pie shop’s existing clientele. “After the success of Summer’s cake business, I started serving food for my cake customers only,” says Shoji.
“It’s like a special invitation to fashion events. After becoming a local customer, you are invited to dine at the private restaurant d’Été.
Summer customers are greeted with aesthetically pleasing dishes that some would say are too good to eat. For Shoji, taste and visuals are equally important. “I believe in creating collections that are not only delicious to eat, but are visually beautiful,” she says. “The reason I call every dish or dessert a creation or a collection is because I want them to be seen as a work of art.”
Fashion and food don’t often go together, but the concept certainly put Shoji and Summer on the map. “I see this as a great opportunity to show the world my new and unique strategy of combining fashion and gastronomy,” says the chef. “I hope we can make the fashion community more aware of what’s going on in the food industry and reach a wider audience.”
Receiving the title of Asia’s Best Female Chef is a monumental achievement for Shoji and marks the achievement of a long-standing goal. “I’ve learned that if you create a masterpiece, you’ll end up being recognized no matter the size or location of your restaurant,” says Shoji. “Even though I encountered many obstacles as a female leader, I am proud to have proven people wrong by racking up the accomplishments.”
Inspiring other women to join the industry is another motivation for Shoji. “There aren’t many female chefs in Japan, so I hope to be a role model and give them hope that they can achieve whatever they set out to do,” she says. “I hope to encourage more female chefs to join the industry as I strive for global recognition.”
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