Five minutes with France's haute couture veggie farmer

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Five minutes with France's haute couture veggie farmer

Hidden at the edge of the suburban village of Chapet, 18 miles northwest of Paris, Asafumi Yamashita’s garden produces the most sought after vegetables for Paris gourmet restaurants. The city’s best chefs, including Pascal Barbot from l’Astrance and Eric Briffard from Le Cinq, await his weekly crop. Yamashita grows about 40 varieties of vegetables—turnips, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants or spinach—on a 10,000 square feet field behind his simple home.

Yamashita, 56, is just as discreet as his address, but he savors his reputation as Paris’ haute couture gardener. He returns to his native Japan every year to pick the best seeds, and he tends to his produce with fatherly care: For example, he makes a point to grow the perfectly shaped cucumber—exactly 8-inches long—required by three-Michelin star chef Pierre Gagnaire.

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What brought you to France in the first place?
I first came when I was 22. I was an artist. I studied at Ecole du Louvre and I played drums. But I knew the history of art would not feed me. I went back to Japan and got into import-export business and came back to France at 40 and started growing Bonsaï. Madame Chirac was one of my customers.

Top chefs battle to serve your produce in restaurants. What makes your vegetables so special?
The quality is consistent and the taste is always the same. I grow the quality I want to eat myself, the level that is necessary to cook excellent Japanese cuisine.

Considering the demand for your products and your limited supply, how do you choose which chefs to work with?
It depends mostly of the chef’s personality. His personality will reflect his cooking philosophy. And I have no interest in selling my turnips to a cook who will make duck with turnips—it’s too banal. I prefer to sell them to geniuses like Pierre Gagnaire or Eric Briffard who are much more creative.

I’m eating one of your eggplants now, and it’s so good, even raw. Why can’t we find French eggplants like this?
It’s grown from a special seed from Japan which is very tasty. The French eggplant will soak up water and oil but it won’t have any taste. It won’t be good raw.

How do your vegetables compare to those of the famous Joël Thiebault, who is also very much in demand?
Thiebault grow many varieties, that’s his strength, but there isn’t not much difference with the vegetables you buy at your local market.

What’s your greatest satisfaction in your job?
When a chef comes and tastes my vegetables I can see a change on his face— that he is coming up with recipes at the same time he is tasting.

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