Meeting Mister Suzu, the Tofu Master of France
I met with Akira Suzuki, better known as Mister Suzu, who is regarded as the best tofu-maker in France. He told me about his unlikely journey from Japan and becoming a bean curd master late in life.
When I learned that I was going to meet Akira Suzuki—better known as Mister Suzu—I was a little apprehensive about finding myself face-to-face with a sort of tofu guru, one of the rare people on French soil to have dedicated a good part of his life to blocks of soy. Slightly intimidated, I scoured the internet in search of a survival manual that might possibly fill me in on the codes and conduct for an exchange with a septuagenarian Japanese man. I told myself that I was going to have to master some formulas in order to understand the science of this veritable sensei, and to capture the wisdom of a Mister Miyagi of bean curds.
Indeed, someone who signs off their emails with "salutations" could be nothing other than a wise, Zen man—and, in some ways, a little formidable. But a tea was enough to put me at ease with Mister Suzu. Behind his pipe, he's a man who is quick to laugh but likes to play devil's advocate, all while maintaining a contemplative air.
While preparing for our meeting, I was burning to know more about this character, and particularly about the air of mystery that the press have enjoyed painting around his narrative. It's the story of an old, discreet Japanese man who makes the best tofu in Paris from within his garage, and who maintains privileged connections with the big Parisian gourmet restaurants.
Mister Suzu is the founder of Suzu Tofu. This delicacy, which he began making in 2004 in his small home in Bois d'Arcy, is highly sought-after by the soy milk connoisseurs of the capital. In March of this year, he retired from the profession and bequeathed his business to a certain Takayanagi, a pastry chef based out of Man.
He was armed with a calculator—as if he wanted to keep a rational eye on the weight of the past years at all times—as he told me of his long journey from Japan to a Parisian suburb in 1978, well before turning out his first batch of Suzu Tofu.
In impeccable French, Mister Suzu explained that his story had more in common with that of the Japanese immigrant who wanted to remake his life on the other side of the world than that of the all-out tofu fanatic, on a mission far from his homeland to educate Western tastebuds.
Mister Suzu dreamed of becoming an engineer, but a problem with his eyesight prevented him from reaching that goal. He studied English, then French, and later discovered a passion for Latin and etymology. These language studies allowed him to snag a job at a French multinational company in Osaka. "I've had a long relationship with France," he told me, even though he stumbled into the country quite randomly.
In 1979, at the height of the oil crisis, the company where he worked went bankrupt; he collected a severance pay that allowed him to leave and establish himself in France. He was hired by a company that made chemical products in Val d'Oise, where he worked for over 20 years. His wife, who had remained in Japan, eventually joined him in France, where they settled and had children.
But at the beginning of his retirement in 2004, money became tight; the couple's meager pension no longer sufficed. Mister Suzu resigned himself to returning to work. He thought again about his boyhood dream: to become an engineer or an inventor, creating his own product. A close friend suggested that he take a stab at making tofu. At first hesitant to the idea, Mister Suzu finally decided to take up the challenge.
"The important thing is to do it or not to do it," he asserted after I asked him why he chose this path. For him, the important thing wasn't knowing why he went down the path of tofu, but rather when he decided to start. "In the beginning, I knew nothing about tofu," he admits. This may be the reason why he set out to taste all of the tofu available in Paris at the time. He got his hands on ten samples: seven made in Asia and three made in France. Nothing satisfied him, and so he saw an an opportunity. "I said to myself, 'Ah, hold on, here's a possibility. If I make something good, it will be my chance,'" he recalled, laughing.
In order to learn the science of tofu, Mister Suzu returned to his native country, where he met tofu artisans and purchased his first soybeans. "I dedicated two years of my life in total to the development of my recipe," he told me self-assuredly, after carefully verifying the time on his calculator.
Today, Mister Suzu possesses a true grasp of tofu, as if he's done this his entire life. Between two puffs on his pipe, he took the time to explain to me the details: First, you must make the soy milk by soaking the dried soybeans, which are ground before being boiled and strained; after that, you add a coagulant called nigari to the liquid soy. The milk slowly curdles, and when it's ready, it's pressed into a mold.
Mister Suzu explained the varieties of soybeans that he's used, and emphasized the importance of the choice of nigari, which is made from desalinated seawater. He insisted that these two elements considerably influence the final taste of the product. "Only in Japan is soy cultivated differently according to its use. There are different varieties of soy for tofu, for cakes, for soy sauce, for miso, and so on. There are thousands of varieties. In France, we cultivate one type of soy for all uses," he said.
At that point, he decided to reveal to me one of the keys to his success: "I noted everything: the temperature, the cooling-off and coagulation time. The combination of the two is essential." After two years of tinkering and over 200 attempts, he has adjusted the recipe to perfection.
"I started out small," he said, placing his binder on the table. In this binder, he preciously guards all the articles that have been written about him, as proof of his happy past. He recalled embarking on a tour of Japanese restaurants to have them taste his tofu, before OVNI, a journal edited by the Franco-Japanese community, helped him carve a place in the small market of Parisian tofu.
"The opinion of clients is important; they're the ones who appreciate it. And people bought my tofu. It proves that the quality wasn't so bad," he noted, somewhat modestly. Even now, Suzu Tofu doesn't have any real competitor. In Paris, the capital's most famous restaurateurs all knocked on his door at some point, in search of exceptional tofu. Today, you can still find Mister Suzu's tofu at the restaurants of the Hotel Meurive, the Cler, and the Shangri-La. There are other, more prestigious clients, but he pretended to no longer remember their names.
After his modest beginnings, Mister Suzu realized then that the tofu business was a very good plan: "I sold soy milk to five-star restaurants in half-gallon bottles of Volvic. But I marked them up tenfold and they accepted the price without balking." The chefs used his products mainly in sauces and salads, and in vegetarian recipes. Oddly enough, that's not how tofu is used in Japan, where it's consumed raw, cut into cubes, with soy sauce. That observation didn't weaken Mister Suzu's convictions: "This isn't Japan. Here, the cuisine is French!"
Incidentally, the dishes that are served in five-star restaurants don't impress him that much. To listen to him speak, he prefers the cuisine of his country. And he seems to miss it on occasion. In September, he plans to return to Japan with his wife to settle on a large estate in Nara, where he will grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables from the land of his ancestors. Although he knew virtually nothing about it, Mister Suzu became an agricultural and artisanal culture enthusiast several years ago.
Today, tofu seems far behind him, even while he recognizes that he stumbled into it through necessity. Now, he plans to pass his days writing a book.
"We Japanese think from macro to micro," he told me. "We think first of the totality—everything outside of ourselves—and then we move towards the smallest. And after the smallest element, nothing is left. That's where the spirit of Zen is found."
The businessman—who did not let go of his calculator during the entire interview—suddenly appeared to me in a new, nearly mystic light. He continued: "I'm lucky. I am able to understand how the Japanese think in relation to the French, so I get the two points of view. In France, we write the date like this: day, month, year. But in Japan, it's the reverse!"
Quiet and clever, Mister Suzu seems to have found the equilibrium between his native and adoptive countries, between necessity and fate. After a long road, he has finally found Zen. It's fate that led him to France to produce one of the finest delicacies of Japanese cuisine. Enmeshed in both cultures and soon to be back at home in Japan, he may bring along the secrets of making cheese, as it's done in France.
And as for launching a flourishing business for soy milk Camembert, who knows?
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in August, 2015.