Shinobu Namae's entry into the culinary world wasn't "fancy." It was purely a question of survival — "I needed to earn money," he said with a laugh.
"The easiest way to get a job for a university student then was to be a dishwasher. That's how I started my career."
It wasn't long before Namae was "tossed" onions and garlics to peel in his free time at the restaurant. Though it wasn't glamorous work, he enjoyed it.
"There are not many jobs that give an immediate reaction in response to your work. If you serve delicious food, you can see it on the customers' faces," he told CNBC Make It.
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"It's very, very beautiful work to be in the kitchen and see people happy."
Thus began a love affair that would see Namae working his way up the ranks in the kitchens of Japan and England for seven years before opening L'Effervescence in Tokyo 13 years ago.
The restaurant, which shines a spotlight on Japanese produce using modern European culinary techniques, has since been awarded three Michelin stars — for three years in a row.
Most recently, Namae was awarded the "Icon" award for his contributions to the food world at the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2023 event. His restaurant was ranked 44th in the list.
The 50-year-old chef tells CNBC Make It about his culinary philosophy and what motivates him to keep learning.
From politics to food
Before he fell in love with cooking, Namae studied politics at Keio University in Tokyo — a field he said has parallels to the food world.
"I have always been very interested in humanity and what makes us human … Politics is all about understanding the relationship between people, communities and nations," he said.
Being in the food industry has helped him deepen that understanding. Food cultures may vary, but what's universal is the desire to connect with others and feel joy through food, he said.
"We can amuse ourselves through our ability … to consume or serve fancy food in a great atmosphere," Namae said.
"But it is a skill to feel for others and make others feel they're cared for. That's a very important part of being a chef in a restaurant."
That's why he believes it's the "fundamental ability" of humans — not just chefs — to care for something that will bring a person to greater heights.
"That is the starting point for my job as a chef: If we do not care about ingredients, we don't cook well. If we don't care about our staff, we don't have a strong team and we will be in trouble," Namae said.
"If we don't care about the customer — when a chef just cooks what he likes or she likes … the business won't be successful."
Ethics of gastronomy
That "fundamental ability" is what drives Namae's focus on ethical and sustainable gastronomy — which also "starts from care," he said.
Though he's working in a closed kitchen in Nishiazabu, Tokyo, Namae said his mind travels "much wider" to major crises around the world and considers their impact on our food resources.
"Most people get narrow-minded because they are focusing on techniques and details [of dishes]. These are beautiful things, but we also need to take care of our surroundings too," Namae said.
That's why all ingredients used in L'Effervescence — right down to its soy sauce — are sourced from 100 local farmers, producers and hunters.
Namae's sustainable ethos also comes through in his signature dish "Fixed Point" — a whole turnip with no part wasted, slow-cooked for four hours, with brioche, ham and parsley.
The chef's passion to reduce fine dining's impact on the climate led him to get involved with WWF Japan on initiatives to reduce illegal fishing.
Most recently, he graduated from University of Tokyo with a master's degree in agricultural science.
But even after all that he has achieved, Namae says the work to understand humanity through food is never done.
"If I could I would like to continue working like the legendary Jiro-san, who is still behind the counter making sushi even at 97 years old," he said, referring to the world-renowned chef Jiro Ono, who was featured in the documentary film "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
"To never stop discovering — that is the hard part as a chef, but also a very, very exciting thing."
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