If there’s one chef who is guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face, it is Zaiyu Hasegawa. Whether he’s serving his signature salad containing a carrot with cut-out eyes and mouth, or waving goodbye to diners with his Insta-famous dog, Puchi Jr., in his arms, Hasegawa always has a trick up his sleeve to make sure customers leave not just having enjoyed the meal, but having had a brilliant time.
In recent years, Hasegawa has earned the respect of his peers for his signature combination of flawless food and a hospitality style that won his restaurant, Den, the Art of Hospitality Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017. Together with his team, which includes his wife, Emi Hasegawa, the chef has transformed the perception of Japanese fine dining, creating ‘fun dining’. This style reduces the sense of formality and stuffiness traditionally associated with Japan, replacing it with quirky mid-meal conversation starters such as the signature Dentucky Fried Chicken, presented in a spoof cardboard takeaway box adorned with Hasegawa’s – or sometimes the customer’s – face.
But that’s not to say Hasegawa’s cuisine is all gimmick and no substance – his cooking is of the highest standard and technique, incorporating his own childhood experiences into elegant dishes such as the donabe-gohan, a claypot-cooked rice with wagyu beef or seafood. His cooking has won him accolades including the No.3 spot – and The Best Restaurant in Japan title – on this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the Highest Climber Award at No.17 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list 2018, and two Michelin stars.
What stands out most about Hasegawa is his personality, which comes through in his hospitality style and his food, as well as the warm greeting his gives to each and every one of his fellow chefs when he sees them. For a cook whose language skills are limited to Japanese, he manages to make each individual he meets – whether diners or fellow chefs – feel completely special. It is his warmth and sense of humour, as well as his exceptional cooking skills, that have earned him the respect of his peers, and thus, this year’s coveted Chefs’ Choice Award, sponsored by Estrella Damm.