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A Nordic touch in Tokyo

Interview with former Noma chef Thomas Frebel

The German-born chef Thomas Frebel’s dedication to finer cooking has been a life-long affair, leading him from the Black Forest in Germany to Tokyo’s bustling streets after an important stint in Copenhagen. Cutting his teeth at a series of gourmet restaurants in Germany, Frebel eventually arrived at noma, only to follow René Redzepi’s food-enterprise to Japan for their much-hyped pop-up in 2015. Falling in love with the country’s superior sense for everything quality, Frebel decided his adventure had just begun, launching his very own restaurant Inua in July 2018, featuring a mouth-watering menu that revels in Japan’s most delightful ingredients with a Nordic sensibility. We paid Frebel a visit to learn more.

You grew up in the former DDR, correct?

Yes, I’m born in December 1983, and I spent the first part of my childhood in the former DDR, where I don’t really have many memories beyond hanging out with my cousins in my grandmother’s garden, picking plums and apples and strawberries. I always loved to play soccer, and actually wanted to become a professional player when I was a kid. I played in the highest youth league at that time but unfortunately was not good enough to make it a career.

What inspired you to start working as a chef?

I don’t think there was so much an inspiration as much as it was a decision out of need. When I had to decide on a profession after quitting soccer, the unemployment rate in my hometown was around 20%. At that time, my father owned two little bistros, and the hope was to take over those little bistros at one point – and that’s why I decided to become a chef. Shortly after I started my apprenticeship, he decided to sell those bistros, and with that, the opportunity was gone. But at that time, I read a book by the chef Egert Wetzegman where he looked back at his career, describing not only his dishes but the journeys he pursued through his profession: traveling around the world, cooking in different countries, in different cultures. I was completely blown away by his account, and said to myself: “I will never be rich enough to be free financially, but if I become good enough as a chef, I’ll be free through my work, and I’ll be able to travel the world.” Good chefs are always needed everywhere, as are hard-working people.

Who were your mentors along the way?

There are many, but really, all the head-chefs I used to work with even as an apprentice. Gohren Mahas, an old-school German head chef; Heinz Weman, because he pushed me to my limits at a young age; Klaus-Peter Lund, a three-star Michelin chef, who taught me how to think creatively for the first time; Joachim Wiesler, for teaching me how to manage people; and lastly, René Redzepi [Head Chef] and Peter Kreiner [CEO] of noma, for teaching me what it means to be creative, to dream big, and what it takes to run a business.

What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced when opening Inua?

To be honest, as a German control freak, I think the biggest hurdle was to simply let go and to understand that I need to trust the people I’ve decided to work with. I don’t have a voice in Japan because most of the people here don’t speak English, and I don’t speak Japanese (yet). It’s about trusting that your colleagues have the right words to express your emotions and your feelings, not only to suppliers but to guests and the people you’re working with, in order to get the best possible results.

Where do you come up with your best ideas?

The best idea for Inua happens when I’m not at Inua. I consider Inua a big bubble, and as the head chef, I’m always in the middle of it. That means that you cannot oversee everything: you cannot always see what is behind you, what is above you, or underneath you. The biggest moments of inspiration I had for Inua were always when I was away from Tokyo: when I was on research trips, or in Copenhagen, and I was able to see Inua as an enterprise, as a company, as a brand, from afar.

How come you decided to open a restaurant in Tokyo – what’s special about Japan?

First, I think there is no other culture and no other place in the world with such high expectations and appreciation for food, but on top of that, it is simply about what Japan offers in terms of culture and ingredients – from the tropical fruits and vegetables of Ishigaki Island in the South, to the best seafood from the near-arctic conditions of northern Hokkaido, and all the berries and herbs from the highlands. In addition to that, it’s about the people you meet along those journeys, listening to their stories, and learn how families across generations have dedicated their lives to perfect this one little thing. It’s just too mind-blowing and too interesting to miss out on.

Except dining at Inua, what are your best tips for Tokyo?

I think the best you can do is to go on your phone and start off at a fixed point where something excites you, and once you’ve reached that point, turn off your phone and simply get lost. Be completely open-minded and let the wind guide you, from restaurant to restaurant, shop to shop, sake bar to sake bar, and everything in between, because that’s what the city is all about: finding your own way.

What’s next for you and Inua?

I don’t know exactly – if I knew, I would tell you, but it’s maybe also a little bit too early to say.
To keep it very simple, what’s next right now is the next menu, and then we take it from there.