Locale, a 20-seat restaurant in Meguro’s heart, is as cozy and welcoming as a friend’s kitchen with its broad marble counters full of fresh flowers and vegetables, warm wood tables and chairs, and handmade ceramic dishes. At its center is Katy Cole, a young American chef making a fresh mark on Tokyo’s farm-to-table scene.
Opened last year, Locale is one of a handful of restaurants in the city serving up dishes prepared with seasonal ingredients sourced directly from growers and producers. Cole receives shipments from organic farmers in Kochi, Ehime, and Hokkaido prefectures two to three times a week. She works with whatever they send, a daily challenge to her creativity.
“Sometimes what arrives is not exactly what I ordered,” she chuckles as she slices an avocado in half. “And it’s not like, ‘Oh, I thought these apples were going to look different,’ but more like, ‘There’s no beets!’”
Cole gestures toward the menu written on a giant blackboard on the restaurant’s back wall. “The vegetables arrive at about 2pm or 3pm, and by about 4:30pm I have to figure out what’s going to be on the night’s menu. It requires a different kind of creativity,” she says, splaying the avocado wedges like a Vegas dealer and placing them on top of a piece of toasted campagne.
That creative urge is part of what attracted Cole to cooking in the first place. She was just out of high school with no particular plan and heeded a friend’s suggestion to try culinary school.
“The vegetables arrive at about 2pm or 3pm, and by about 4:30pm I have to figure out what’s going to be on the night’s menu. It requires a different kind of creativity”
“Cooking is very visceral,” Cole says, her hands pausing a moment. “I find I like it more and more as time goes on, too. Maybe part of the draw is being able to manipulate the ingredients yourself into something you can share with others. I feel very lucky,” she comments, passing the plated Avocado Tartine to a staff member before reaching for a bundle of bright green cilantro.
Luck may play a role, but as Locale nears its first anniversary, business remains steady and reviews are good. Success like that also takes dedication, talent, and experience.
Before moving to Japan five years ago, Cole worked at a variety of restaurants, acquiring skills, gaining confidence in her ideas, and learning to trust her instincts. However, it was State Bird Provisions, a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco run by Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, that had the greatest impact.
“Stuart showed us how to create something new and find your own rhythm and flow. I think the freedom staff had to interact with guests, and the way Stuart opened the door for people to have a different kind of experience was very inspiring,” Cole reflects while chopping up cilantro. “One thing I really appreciated later was that Stuart was constantly changing things. When you’re working, it can be frustrating to have things constantly change, especially when they seem fine. But I think Stuart wants to see if he can create something better.”
During a remodel of State Bird Provisions, Cole decided on a whim to visit Japan. Much of her time was spent in Tokyo sightseeing, meeting people, and, of course, eating. One of the places recommended to her during that visit was Beard, the restaurant that occupied the space Cole now calls her own. “I sat right there,” Cole recalls, pointing to a stool at the counter, “and thought how I’d like to have a place like this someday.”
Five years later, that passing thought is reality.
When Cole returned to State Bird Provisions, she realized she was ready for a change but couldn’t find anything that excited her. Eventually, she made her way back to Japan. “That second time, I had this feeling when we were landing of ‘Oh, I’m home,’” she says. “I understood that I wasn’t here to run away again; I was here to stop and go for it.”
Over the following six months, Cole catered dinner parties or did events wherever she could, including a two-day collaboration with the chef at Beard. Eventually, she landed a job as the pastry chef with Garden House Crafts at Daikanyama’s Log Road. While there, she organized a farmer’s market on the restaurant’s terrace and began establishing the connections that would help form the foundation of Locale’s unique menu.
While there are some familiar dishes, a summer minestrone, for example, items are often just listed by ingredient. The pink-hued avocado, yogurt mixed with shibazuke (vegetables pickled with red shiso), and French lentil dish is tart, savory, and refreshing. Katsuo (skipjack tuna) may join roasted cucumber tomato or somen puttanesca, edamame, and pumpkin for a savory treat. Rye tagliatelle and firefly squid or Fukudome pork from Kagoshima with eggplant, sweet potatoes, and peppers are a few other mouthwatering listings from this first year.
“It’s all created with love”
Cole also credits her fellow Tokyo chefs as part of the network that makes Locale possible. “Everyone’s been very helpful and inclusive. People are not trying to hold onto secrets or anything like that. If I eat at a restaurant, and I think the lamb’s really good, they call the farmer and introduce me. It’s amazing,” she says, her hands working a piece of poached tuna into chunks.
For Cole, working directly with farmers is more than just marketing, freshness, or seasonality. She believes the fruits, vegetables, and meats she receives are of a higher quality. There is also a deep admiration and respect for their work. “The way that farmers [in Japan] invest their life in the land is incredible. They’re completely devoted,” Cole pauses to catch her breath, her eyes glistening with emotion, her hands still. “My work is so simple because they work so hard. And it shows,” she says, gesturing to the fresh vegetables next to her. “The taste is incredible. Maybe the vibe people can feel here is that it’s all just created with love. It’s grown with care and with love. That gets passed to me, and I pass it to others. It’s really special.”
For more information, visit www.locale.tokyo
Photographs by Sybilla Patrizia