Behind the mountains, picturesque beaches along the coast and terraced rice fields that compose the landscape of Niigata Prefecture, on a small hill on the outskirts of Nagaoka, there is simple white wooden building, catching the eye of all curious passersby. There are stone steps leading through the building’s gates, followed by a gentle slope, and a rear scaffolding creating the perfect place for nature to meet human creation.

Shimada Jinjo Elementary School was established in Shimada Village, Mishima District on June 26, 1897. Since then, it has been passed down and protected from generation to generation within the Wajima area for 105 years. The wooden school building and gymnasium were built in 1945, but in March 2009, the school was closed due to the opening of Washima Elementary School.

Former Shimada Elementary School. Image via Washima Tout Le Monde

Today, after careful renovation, Wajima Tout Le Monde is a unique complex with a restaurant (Bague) and a baker’s workshop (Harmonie). WA in Wajima means “harmony with all”, or “tout le monde” in French – something close to the concept of “inclusive togetherness”. The core idea is that different people of different generations feel the “power to live slowly” when they come together to this place. Wajima Tout le Monde is an authentic cuisine that is not bound by the format of French cuisine. The restaurant menu exhibits a cooking style which maximizes the characteristics of local ingredients. Therefore, the contents of the menu are constantly changing with seasonal ingredients and reflecting harvest conditions.

Washima Tout Le Monde today. Image via Washima Tout Le Monde

Sochi Nakazawa is a Bague Chef de cuisine well known by many French-Japanese cuisine lovers. The Nagaoka Review team met him for an interview that immediately turned into a pleasant chat with a charismatic and hands-on gentleman, friendly and extrovert, as you would imagine his character should be – someone totally dedicated to his art.

Our menu has the characteristics of local ingredients. It is a cooking style which reflects the total originality of the seasonal ingredients and our harvest conditions. This is the main reason for which we value the origin of local production for local consumption, which is kind and considerate to both customers and nature.

Bague Chef de Cuisine Souichi Nakazawa. Image via Bague

NR: Chef Nakazawa, can you please share some of your thoughts about Bague, how did you get involved, why did you think about French cuisine, and how did the idea of running a restaurant by making use of the old school building come about?

SN: In May 2012, we started with the ideas of ​contributing to the creation of social value, in terms of sustainable employment for the elderly, the socially disconnected and the disabled, and also the creation of economic value, in terms of creating jobs for everyone, under the guidance of the Nagaoka Sanko Elderly Welfare Association. Wajima Tout Le Monde was founded in the Wajima area of ​​the city of Nagaoka and has carried out employment support activities for persons with disabilities under the Comprehensive Support for Persons with Disabilities Act.

The story of this place is unique. During a conversation with one of my close friends, he mentioned to me that he would like me to open a restaurant here and support people with disabilities through the restaurant business. At first, I was a bit worried by the idea, but, at the same time, I was very impressed by the concept. So, I told him: “If you want me to have a real restaurant there, I would like you to participate.” The reconstruction of the building began right away, and in July 2012, the Bague restaurant was opened. Since the opening, the vegetables used in Bague have been local produce by almost 100%. Our vegetables are produced with utmost care – they were grown with careful attention, hope and desire for a better, more sustainable, and more inclusive world.

Our ingredients speak the language of their creators, and they tell the stories of their journey into existence. We want to convey a unique and totally local taste and feel to our customers through our food preparation.

Discovering Bague. Images via Washima Tout Le Monde

I returned to Niigata after about 12 years of absence. During this time I worked in a hotel and restaurant in Tokyo, and I had been deeply immersed in French cuisine for almost 19 years. I was thrilled when Bague was published in the Michelin Niigata Guide of July 2020. I will not forget that moment.

This is probably the first restaurant created with the assistance of people with disabilities in our area – this is how we support continued employment. It all started with a lot of collective courage and hopes that we would be evaluated in this way together, regardless of our differences.

Michelin Guide Niigata 2020. Image via Washima Tout Le Monde

We want to express our gratitude to our customers, everyone involved in the Bague dream, our customers and our people. I would also like to express my deep appreciation to the producers who have been delivering delicious vegetables from the very beginning of our project, the livestock producers who been providing us beautiful ingredients, and the people involved in fishery, distribution, and logistics.

We will continue to do our best to make our customers happier than ever before. We look forward to welcoming you to Bague!

NR: What is the connection of the SDGs?

SN: I heard this from our farmers: although many of their products are raised correctly and are perfectly good for consumption, traditional buyers would not purchase them because of various product size issues. We find this to be one of the biggest food issues of our times – vegetables and fruit would not make it to national distributors simply because of their irregular sizes. There are many ways to use irregularly sized product in modern cuisine. We hope that our restaurant will play a role in minimizing product losses and contributing to social issues, such as lack of successors in local agriculture, by connecting our cooking directly to the revenue of our producers.

NR: How did the Nagaoka University of Technology raise the fish presented on the restaurant menu?

SN: While we were looking for local ingredients, Hamaman Foods Co., Ltd. from the Nagaoka city, a wholesale and processing manufacturer of food products, mainly for marine products, presented us their fish – a longtooth grouper, or “kue” in Japanese – that the Nagaoka University of Technology is growing on a trial basis. I tried it right away and I found it to be an excellent quality fish, so I used it for our 9th-anniversary dinner.

We are not limited to the cities of Nagaoka and Izumozaki. Still, we face serious problems, such as the problem of successors in the fishing industry and fish resources. When I thought about what I could do as a restaurant so that Nagaoka University of Technology’s attempt could help our fishers, I decided to go there myself and talk to our fishermen and help them expand their awareness of alternative food production and their community networks.

NR: What is your future vision?  Are there any new projects that you want to launch or get involved with?

SN: First, we want to create a place where our colleagues with disabilities can live independently – this is one of our core business purposes. To that end, we want to further raise the awareness of Bague within the region and at a national level and work together as a team so that our customers will be more delighted than ever, pleasantly surprise and feel at home here.

NR: Can you share with us your thoughts about the Nagaoka local community?

SN: In response to various social challenges, such as population decline in Nagaoka, as a restaurant, we are committed to discovering and introducing local resources, increasing customer appetite not only for our food, but also for our way of living, and promoting local consumption, while helping create a living habitat as attractive and inclusive as ever possible.

More information about Washima Tout Le Monde you can find here

The main photo via Tout Le monde
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Ana Damaschin

Ana Damaschin

Senior Researcher, The Nagaoka Review