Turnips – that’s what turned the eyes of the world towards a modest farm in the village of Chapet, 50km to the west of Paris. More specifically, it was the kabu, a Japanese white turnip. Although this variety is admittedly sweeter and softer than most European turnips, it is still difficult to believe that this most humble of root vegetables propelled a Japanese farmer to the highest reaches of French gastronomy.
Today, Asafumi Yamashita fends off calls from the media on a daily basis. He’s been profiled in everything from the New York Times to Grazia. His vegetables end up on the plates of the greatest three-star Michelin chefs in Paris: Pascal Barbot at L’Astrance and Pierre Gagnaire at, well, Pierre Gagnaire.
But that’s just the list of chefs that he works with. Don’t forget those he doesn’t supply. Laurent Delarbre at La Tour d’Argent was on the list, but when the chef changed last year, the restaurant lost its vegetable supplier at the same time. He is also on record as refusing to work with both Alain Ducasse and the late Joël Robuchon. This is because he will only work with chefs who are fully present in their kitchens, so he can chat with them when he drops off his produce twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays.
‘Many chefs are good at theory and at technical knowledge,’ he tells me as we meet one sunny September Friday, just a few minutes’ walk from the Champs-Elysée. ‘But not many truly appreciate the taste of the food they are preparing. The ones who do are the ones I want to work with.’
This is haute couture vegetable farming. Yamashita selects which produce is perfectly ripe in that season and on that particular day, and he sells it to the chefs at a price that he sets. (Think 10 times your average vegetable budget, and go up from there.) All of this means quantities are necessarily small. His delivery van is a Suzuki Splash, a car that looks pleasingly like a root vegetable – it’s possibly the least glamorous vehicle you can buy. This gives you a better idea of Yamashita than the media acclaim and the prices he charges.
You’ll get an even better idea when you arrive at his farm. Set in a leafy backstreet as the village of Chapet turns into slightly straggly countryside, it is about as far from Michelin-starred polish as you can imagine: a former hunting lodge, apparently, but a decidedly small one if so, with an unobtrusive sign out front and simple whitewashed walls. A huge fig tree stands to one side, a sprawling vine growing Japanese table grapes, and a sign saying, in English, French and Japanese, ‘Beware of the bees.’ Honey production is a new thing this year, with the first few pots being snapped up immediately by the Amir of Qatar at his Paris residence, where the temporary chef de cuisine is Sylvain Sendra, ex-Itinéraires and – you guessed it – another Michelin-starred client.
The vegetables are set on a sloped field behind the house, perhaps 0.2ha in size, with rows of corn, sugar peas, green beans, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, carrots and cherry tomatoes – around 50 different varieties in total, some in plastic tunnels, others with bird netting, others in greenhouses. All are grown on land that Yamashita tilled and farmed himself, from scratch.
He wasn’t born into this and has no relatives who worked in agriculture. His mother was an artist, his father a timber merchant, and he studied history of art in Paris before specialising first in growing bonsai trees and then turning to vegetables 15 years ago, aged 40, learning through trial and error and with a great deal of patience. Once a year he returns to Japan to find new seeds, but he chooses not to grow specific Japanese varieties.
‘People ask me what is my secret, whether it is love for what I do that makes the difference. I reply that you don’t need love to grow vegetables. Love is too unstable an emotion for this. To really grow great produce, the motivation needs to be higher: you have to do it for its own sake.’ As we walk through the farm, he gestures to the ground. ‘The soil here is heavy with clay, complicated to work, north facing. This is in no way the ideal for growing anything. And yet… It needs close attention, which may help. The most important thing for attaining quality is knowing how to anticipate the needs of the plant, and knowing how to wait. There is a similar philosophy with bonsai perhaps, but there is a world of difference between growing and eating. For me, the focus of everything is on the taste. You need to be steady, to remain constant even as the weather changes, as your mood changes.
‘Since I began,’ he continues, ‘the approach of the great chefs has moved on. Vegetables are no longer just an accompaniment to a piece of protein. Previously they were a condiment in Europe, in a supporting role, but now the best chefs realise they have a power all of their own. If I have played a small role in that, I am happy.’
You can visit Yamashita’s table d’hôte at which his wife Naomi cooks Japanese recipes with his vegetables. La Ferme Yamashita is open weekends from May to October.
Chemin des Trois-Poiriers, 78130 Chapet, France. +33 1 30 91 98 75