Hiroki Yoshitake

Chef Hiroki Yoshitake of the little-known Saga Prefecture in Japan took to the world following his graduation of the Nakamura School of the Culinary Arts, visiting some 40 countries across Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and the Americas. Having studied the cuisine of the world, he arrived in France. It was 2009. He quickly gained some experience at Astrance, a 3-star restaurant known to be the most difficult to get a reservation at in the whole of Paris. In November 2010, he opened the French-Japanese restaurant SOLA in the 5th Quartier in Paris, in collaboration with Youlin Lee, the owner of Sake Bar and Patisserie Ciel. From this grew a partnership with Japan Airlines to provide the inflight cuisine for Business Class and First Class passengers throughout 2013-14. Despite having been opened just 2 years, he has a Michelin star under his belt, and has become one of the most watched restaurants in France’s romantic capital.


“Have you been down to SOLA?”

“Can’t get a bloody reservation!”


Youlin Ly

It’s a conversation often exchanged between the Japanese residents of Paris. That name, Sola, is

a word in frequent usage. A name with a slightly sinister ring. In Italian, or, more specifically, the Rome dialect, it means “deceipt” or “fraud”. My first reaction is, Michelin star or not, I don’t really fancy forking out a load of cash for food served at a restaurant operating with the full-daylight disguise of “fraud”. That was until I became friendly with Youlin Ly.

Youlin is a mix of Tunisian and Cambodian parentage, but lived in Kyoto for many years and speaks Japanese with a flair. Being a fan of Japanese sake and whiskey, he would sometimes take me out for drinks, but always end up surprised at my ignorance of such drinks and it would turn into a lecture of sorts. That’s how we roll. I spoke to Youlin about Sola, only to Youlin to pull back the curtain and turn out to be the owner of said restaurant!

This changes everything! Alright, maybe I will go to Sola then, thought I…

The restaurant is split on two floors. The lower has what we in Japan call “Kotatsu”, tables with the floor beneath hollowed out for leg dangling. You have to remove your shoes and put inside of getabako. This is fairly rare in Europe. The interior is reminiscent of a spa in a top class hotel, a fairly privileged reference I admit. The subtle lighting reminded me of Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay on aesthetics “In Praise of Shadows”. (A literary reference there to complete the image.)

How’s the food you ask? Well, it certainly met expectation.

Local ingredients are balanced with Japanese staples (miso, mirin, soy sauce…) smoothly, without jarring, and eaten with sauces that utilize the flavours of the ingredients themselves. A weird (but wonderful) combination of East and West results. Or something that is neither East nor West. One item was particularly memorable: soup with sliced fish and flowers laid gracefully on the edges. It was a true representation of a koi carp pond: trés Japanese indeed. All parts were laid out delicately on the dishes, but the pansies were especially cute. When the dishes arrived at the table, it was as if we were at a ikebana exhibition with colours bouncing around before our eyes. Sola must only be an entirely new type or cuisine, invented and named by me: Ikebana Cuisine – food that harkens back to the great tradition of Japanese gardening.


Restaurant Sola

Sara Waka: Ciao! Mi chiamo Sara Waka.

Yoshitake: … …

Sara Waka: Gomennasai. That was a little Italian. I’m Sara Waka! Nice to meet you! And you are…?

Yoshitake: Hiroki Yoshitake.

Sara Waka: When I dined at Sola the other night, it was most delicious.

Yoshitake: [unused to Sarawaka overly charming turn of phrase…] … thank you… very much.

Sara Waka: When I saw the food at Sola, and then sampled it, I was overcome with this feeling of experiencing ikebana, so I have, of my own volition, termed the cuisine offered at Sola Ikebana Cuisine!! May I have your thoughts on this new concept?


Ikebana Cuisin

Yoshitake: Ike… Ikebana Cuisine? I’ve never heard that before.

Sara Waka: Thanks. The crockery itself was superb, strong Japanese ware. The decoration very simple, but I felt it was well worked and thought out. The whole thing summoned forth the sense of Kami (the spirits or gods of the traditional Japanese Shinto religion. See “Princess Mononoke” by Hayao Miyazaki for more info on “Kami”).

Yoshitake: You know what, that isn’t the first time my cuisine has been compared to a Japanese garden.

Sara Waka: You do use a lot of flowers? Are they edible?


Sola – plate with pansy

Yoshitake: Of course. Flowers are a type of vegetable when it comes down to it, so all flowers can be eaten [note to readers: this is not true, some flowers can be poisonous. Lethal in fact). That’s what I tell myself at least. I tend to use flowers from vegetables or fragrant grasses, or pansies. Flowers from fragrant grasses tend to have the same flavour as the grass itself.

Sara Waka: After all your travels, why choose France?

Yoshitake: I was making French cuisine even back when I was in Japan. And travelling around the globe for the year, really firmed up that I wanted to make French food. So I came to France when that trip came to a close, but what I did learn on the trip was that I am different to other men of the kitchen. I guess that is a strength though.


Sola – Plates

Sara Waka: What do you mean, tell me, tell me more.

Yoshitake: Asian spices, Japanese soy sauce, Japanese miso and things like that.

Sara Waka: True, you do like to bring different cuisine cultures together. I had soy sauce together with foie gras no less one time I was at Sola.

Yoshitake: Yes, yes. My food cannot be pigeon-holed into a category, something neither French nor Japanese. The name itself, SOLA is connected to that as well.  It means “the sky”, something connected to everything.

Sara Waka: Ohhh, that’s what it means. It actually means ‘to deceive’ in Italiano. That’s why my Italian friends don’t like coming in here. They feel they will be tricked into something. I try to spin in into “yeah, deceived, but in a good way.” Like a surprise party.

Yoshitake: In Spanish it means “unique” right. It’s all good, right.

Sara Waka: Yeah, man. So… what is French cuisine and Japanese cuisine to you?

Yoshitake: Both French and Japanese cusines are born of their surrounding, food that stands on the shoulders of their respective cultures’ histories. But, what I am trying to do is not to use French ingredients and French techiniques simply because I am here in Paris; if anything, it’s the opposite. I’m not too fussed about that. My style is to not be confined to a style.

Sara Waka: Wonderful. So last question… don’t be shocked… may I have a kiss?

Yoshitake: What? A kiss? Now?

Sara Waka: Now.

Yoshitake: A kiss… that’s a bise right. (Yoshitake there showing that he is a trilingual romantic by using the French word for ‘kiss’).

SaraWaka: Exactement.

[It turns out that Chef Yoshitake still goes bright red at the thought of even a kiss on a cheek. Considering the typically French greeting is two kisses on the cheek, he blushes a lot.)

Yoshitake: I don’t know what to say…

Sara Waka: Okay, let’s leave it.

[Laughter then diffuses the awkwardness…]


Chef Hiroki & Sara Waka

Description & Interview: Sara Waka

Translation: BJFox