'Flavour wizard:' Japanese chocolatier conquers Belgium

'Flavour wizard:' Japanese chocolatier conquers Belgium


As Easter draws near, he is readying for another big highlight of the chocolate calendar

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BRUSSELS (AFP) – When Yasushi Sasaki moved from Japan to Belgium at the age of 19, he spoke not a word of French and had no clue what he would do with his life.

Last month, at the age of 52, he was named Brussels' chocolatier of the year by the prestigious Gault&Millau food guide -- no small triumph in a country that considers itself the homeland of chocolate.

"Whenever I go home to Japan and mention Belgium, people say to me 'Ahhh.... chocolate!" Sasaki told AFP.

Dubbed a "flavour wizard" by the food guide, Sasaki conducts his experiments in a little workshop behind his store, in the Brussels commune of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre.

"Chocolate? From the moment I chose the profession it became my whole life," he said. "It's a hobby, a job, a pleasure."

"I knew nothing, I started from scratch. But I think I made the right choice."

Originally from Nara, near the city of Osaka, Sasaki draws inspiration from his homeland -- but with a light touch. Not all Japanese flavours sit well with a chocolate ganache or praline.

"Green tea is very strong and marries very well. So does yuzu," the citrus fruit, he explained as he doled out tips to his team of young Japanese staff.

"Kaki and mandarin -- nope."

Sasaki selects his suppliers with care. The green tea for instance comes from Kyoto, where he orders directly from a cousin who works in the sector.

With cocoa prices soaring, he is also careful to control costs.

"We are artisans but we are also businesspeople," he said. "To keep working as artisans, we have to sell what we make."

Sasaki may have learned the trade in Brussels but he does not consider himself heir to a Belgian tradition. "I have my own way, my own taste," he said. "I know my strength is my own way, not copying other people."

Today, Sasaki exports his creations back to his home country, where sales peak around Valentine's Day, the chocolate moment of the year in Japan.

As Easter draws near, he is readying for another big highlight of the chocolate calendar.

Much as he is delighted to be honoured by Gault&Millau, Sasaki would have one word of advice for the guidebook -- to tip off its laureates before going public, so they have time to prepare.

"It's a huge impact all of a sudden," said Sasaki, whose turnover suddenly jumped by 20 to 30 percent.

For now, though, Sasaki has no plans to expand. "I've been making chocolate for years. I'm just going to keep making good things, doing my thing," he said.