Saturday, January 02, 2010

Asafumi Yamashita - The Celebrity Gardner, Who Makes $150,000 A Year

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Asafumi Yamashita runs his fingers delicately through a bushy green tomato vine, plucking handfuls of blueberry-sized fruit. The bright red micro-tomatoes, bursting with potent, sweet flavor, will soon be on their way from Yamashita's greenhouse in the French town of Chapet to legendary Paris restaurants Pierre Gagnaire and l'Astrance.

Yamashita is a celebrity gardener, one of a select group of small producers who supply some of the world's top chefs. A stark contrast to giant agribusinesses, micro-entrepreneurs such as Yamashita thrive by offering personal service and exquisite products that chefs can't find elsewhere. "Asafumi's Japanese vegetables taste so sweet they're almost fruit-like," l'Astrance head chef Pascal Barbot says. "His vegetables are truly unique."

The Japanese-born Yamashita, 56, found his place in this exclusive club almost by accident. He first came to Paris at age 22 to study French at the Sorbonne, staying on for a few years before returning to Tokyo to start an import-export business. But he quickly grew restless. "I craved tranquility, the open air, something less mundane," he says.
Backyard bonsai

Returning to France in 1989, he set up a bonsai-growing business in his backyard in Chapet, about 30 kilometers northwest of Paris. He chose bonsai because his father had raised them, and because the miniature trees "were all the rage in Paris," he recalls. Besides selling bonsai, he rented them to hotels and restaurants, including a Japanese restaurant called Benkey. He became friends with Benkey's head chef, who suggested that he start growing Japanese vegetables that weren't available locally and supplying them to Japanese restaurants.

With an initial investment of only $500 to buy seeds from Japan, he planted his first crop in November 1996, including such vegetables as komatsuma, a kind of spinach, and hatsukadadikon, Japanese radishes. Within a year, he was supplying 12 Japanese restaurants around Paris.

But Yamashita soon set his sights on a new clientele. "I believed my vegetables were Michelin three-star quality," he says. "I was determined to sell them to cooks who would know how to prepare them and let their true flavors come alive."

Yamashita gained entrée to the elite world of haute cuisine four years ago through his friend Yuzo Uehara, a Japanese chef working in Paris. Uehara had trained Christian Le Squer, now the head chef at Ledoyen, one of only 10 Paris restaurants awarded Michelin's highest three-star ranking. Armed with an introduction from Uehara, Yamashita arrived at Ledoyen's kitchen bearing a basket of his homegrown vegetables. When Le Squer tasted one of Yamashita's fruity white turnips, or kabu, he was floored. He hired Yamashita on the spot as one of his regular suppliers.
Keeping It Small

After that, Yamashita's reputation quickly spread by word of mouth. "I never did any marketing to gain new clients," he says. His business now grosses about $150,000 a year, supplying vegetables to seven clients: six Michelin-starred Paris eateries and one local Japanese restaurant.

Yamashita could easily expand his operation, which consists of six greenhouses on an acre of land behind his house. He has a waiting list of prospective customers, including the in-house restaurants of swanky Paris hotels Le Meurice, the Bristol, and L'Hôtel de Crillon.

But he wants to keep the business small. He has no employees, preferring to garden alone and with his wife, Naomi, and making an annual trip to Japan to select seeds for the next year's crop. "I can only produce so much in my backyard, about 80 to 90 kabus and 30 kilos of vegetables a week," he says. "The restaurants end up fighting over my vegetables."

Fighting—and paying dearly. Yamashita's micro-tomatoes cost a mouthwatering $40 a pound, while his komatsuma sells for $13 a pound, and his kabu for almost $9.
Garden Cubism

Staying small allows Yamashita to give his clients the personal touch, delivering vegetables to restaurants himself rather than using a distributor as most producers do. The arrangement also gives him a chance to rub elbows with some of the world's best chefs—and sometimes advise them on how to prepare vegetables. "I once told Pierre Gagnaire to stop slicing my kabus and cube them instead so they could retain their sweetness," he recalls. "He listened to me and now serves them that way."

Now he's starting to develop a following among discriminating French diners. L'Astrance chef Barbot recently called Yamashita to place a big order for micro-tomatoes at the request of a special client. "It was none other than Catherine Deneuve," he says. "Apparently her granddaughter adores my tomatoes."

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