September 29, 2023

French restaurant connects cuisine with society

Destination Restaurants 2023


Ezo abalone baked in a pastry crust is a specialty of Otowa Restaurant. This Japanese-influenced French dish is made with a Japanese-style stock of kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes, as well as nori seaweed and abalone liver (an ingredient seldom used in France).

Utsunomiya, the capital of Tochigi Prefecture and the home of Otowa Restaurant, can be reached in 50 minutes from Tokyo Station on the Tohoku Shinkansen line. While boasting a number of well-known sightseeing spots such as Futaarayama Shrine and the Oya stone mine, the city is best known for its gyoza, fried dumplings. Utsunomiya’s per-household spending on gyoza is among the highest in Japan, and restaurants specializing in them can be found all over town. In a city famous for gyoza, the presence of a French restaurant in an elegant detached building is surprising in itself, and the fact that this restaurant has been passed through generations and continually upgraded seems almost miraculous.

In Japan, many restaurants serving Japanese cuisines such as sushi and soba are handed down from parents to children through successive generations. But in the world of urban French restaurants, which first gained popularity in Japan in the 1980s, establishments handed down from one generation to the next are still rare. That being said, there are major benefits in creating a restaurant’s history as a family — not only in terms of cuisine, but also in terms of management. And when a restaurant is beloved by local residents, as Otowa Restaurant is, those benefits reverberate throughout the city.

Founder Kazunori Otowa continues to demonstrate his skills as the restaurant’s owner-chef. Otowa trained with the late Alain Chapel (a three-Michelin-star French chef and leading figure of the 1970s culinary scene), Michel Guerard and others. Otowa said, “The restaurants where I trained were, of course, outstanding — but what impressed me equally was seeing the local residents taking pride in their towns, which at first glance looked like sleepy country villages with few attractions. So I decided to open a restaurant not in Tokyo, but in Utsunomiya, the city where I was born and raised.”

Tochigi (French)
Otowa restaurant
3554-7, Nishihara-cho, Utsunomiya-shi, Tochigi Prefecture

Starting with the bistro-style restaurant he launched in 1981, Otowa expanded his business with a deli and restaurant weddings. In 2007 he opened Otowa Restaurant, the guiding principle of which is “local gastronomy.” Having grown up watching their father, Otowa’s children decided to follow in his footsteps and join the world of French cuisine. His older son, Hajime, and younger son, Sou, trained in famous restaurants in Japan and overseas, as their father had, then went to work in Otowa Restaurant’s kitchen. On the foundation of the dishes created by Kazunori Otowa, the restaurant’s course menus have evolved with the addition of his sons’ skills and sensibilities, earning greater acclaim with each passing year.

Otowa’s daughter also brings her skills to the restaurant as server and wedding planner, while Hajime’s partner plays an active role as pastry chef. Thus, the entire family is involved in offering French cuisine that conveys a sense of Japan’s identity. While traveling around Japan and sometimes collaborating with chefs from other countries, the family showcases the appeal of food products from Tochigi Prefecture, and contributes actively to society through food-related projects including food education in elementary schools, in cooperation with local governments, schools and businesses. Nonetheless, Kazunori Otowa said, “We need three generations’ worth of time to do more of the things we want to do.” With a view to passing the baton to the generation to come, Otowa Restaurant continues on its chosen path.


Back, from left: Owner-chef Kazunori Otowa; his wife, Michiko; pastry chef and server Asuka Otowa. Front, from left: Otowa’s older son, Hajime (husband of Asuka), director and head chef; younger son, Sou, manager and chef; daughter, Kana, server and wedding planner and the first Japanese to become a member of the Relais & Chateaux Executive Committee.





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