Model case 20

Grateful for “Humbly Receiving their Lives,” Creating a Meat Culture in Tokachi.

Established a Chef-Centered Integrated In-House Meat Production System by Linking Up a Food Chain Divided by Industry


 Gibier refers to the meat from hunted wild birds and animals. It developed as the traditional fare of the nobility in Europe. The gibier served in restaurants in Japan today has mostly been imported from Europe. Achieving a stable supply in Japan has lagged due to a lack of workers and the difficulties in establishing butchering, processing and hygiene management systems. A newcomer to the meat industry, ELEZO, has taken up these challenges with some new ideas.
 ELEZO is based in Toyokoro, a town located in the southeastern tip of the Tokachi area of Hokkaido. It has established an integrated in-house meat production system that is focused on wild game. This system entails ELEZO’s own production and hunting, carcass aging and distribution, charcuterie (processed meat products) production and restaurant divisions. They continue to offer “cuisine that reveals the background of its ingredients, such as how they were raised.” The restaurant in the Toranomon area of Tokyo and the auberge (French inn) that was completed in 2022 have received wide acclaim, attracting many visitors from abroad, all without advertising or promoting itself in any way at all.

Chapter 01

Appreciation for Life Lost in Pursuit of Efficiency

 Everyone in Obihiro, the hometown of ELEZO’s president Sasaki, knew his family’s restaurant. Although his original aim was to become a pro hockey player, he decided to help out in his family’s business when he was in high school. After graduating from a cooking school, he trained at restaurants and luxury hotels in Tokyo to hone his skills in a higher level environment and develop them faster than anyone else. He then returned to his hometown in 2003 to work for the family restaurant.
 The catalyst for creating an “integrated in-house meat production system” was an Ezo deer that a hunter and regular customer of the restaurant brought in. He helped with the butchering himself and said “I was deeply shocked to witness the transformation of a life into food.” “Everyone survives by receiving the blessings of nature, but by the time food reaches the consumer, it is impossible to see how it got there, due to the division of labor and making it all so efficient. I felt foolish for presuming to take on the responsibility of being a chef, who gives the ultimate expression to the food, without understanding how it got there. And I strongly felt a culinary culture could not be viable without giving thought and appreciation to that gift of life.”
 Japanese are conscientious in saying “ITADAKIMASU” before eating, and of the feeling of giving thanks for the gift of life. “I wanted to create a food culture that conveys the background its of ingredients.
 So, how should I accomplish that?”
 At the age of 24 at the time, Sasaki envisioned himself as the chef being the starting point of creating an integrated, in-house production system that would connect all the stages of a meat distribution system. “I thought that by linking everything from the hunt to cooking, and conveying the background of the ingredients to the customer, I could make them value all the contributions–from the hunter to the butcher.”
 Restaurants in Japan that offer gibier mostly import it from Europe and the only ways to acquire domestically produced gibier are to purchase it from specialized trading companies or to contract directly with hunters. When Sasaki sent a butchered Ezo deer to a chef in Tokyo who trained him, the chef was happier than he had imagined. And people around him urged him on, saying “you should send it to other chefs who are having a hard time getting good gibier.”
 That is how in 2005 he took on the unprecedented challenge of establishing a food chain for meat, with the chef at its hub.

Chapter 02

A Revolutionary Food Chain, Established to Cherish Life, Wasting None of It

 The food chain ELEZO has established consists of 4 divisions: Production & Hunting, which is responsible for hunting and the production of livestock and poultry; Carcass Aging and Distribution, which sells raw meat wholesale, exclusively to restaurants that share the ELEZO philosophy; Charcuterie (processed meat products) Production, which processes parts in less demand into foods like terrine and salami, adding value and selling them in department stores , select shops and via its own website; and Restaurants, which directly conveys the background of its ingredients and ELEZO’s philosophy to customers in the form of cuisine.
 In order to satisfy the quality standards of its restaurants, the perspectives of chefs is reflected in the Production & Hunting division by setting demanding rules, such as on the age of animals, where they are shot, and time to transport them to processing facilities. This is a breakthrough compared to conventional ways, where every hunter was on his/her own. Despite some opposition to the new initiative, more and more hunters agreed with ELEZO’s concepts and the company is now working with 30 hunters.
 In addition to the hunting, in 2007 ELEZO started raising animals such as cross-bred pigs, shorthorn cattle and mallard ducks.
 The manager of the farm, Mr. Misawa, said the “farm’s production style embodies gibier. Pigs are normally shipped after 6 months, but ELEZO’s cross-bred pork is raised slowly on a diet of local potatoes and vegetables for a year and half, to make the meat tastier. They are exercised on a slope, which develops their muscle fiber and imparts an excellent taste,” he said with a smile.
 ELEZO LABORATORY was built in 2009 in Otsu, Toyokoro-cho, Tokachi. All the operations can be completed in this HACCP-certified facility, including the butchering, heat treatment and aging processes. Mr. Kaneko was previously a chef and manages the facility. He explains some unique characteristics of the chef-centric approach, “We don’t simply provide meat. We actually go to our member restaurants to understand their concepts, clientele and the visions of their chefs. With the faces of the various chefs in mind, we make suggestions, such as “For this kind of meat, you should go to this restaurant.” In this way, we leverage the special characteristics that result from being chef-centered. “
 When they were establishing this integrated system, they intentionally ignored other successful models so we could create our very own. Some 15 members of staff have congregated in Tokachi from all over Japan and from overseas to support ELEZO’s vision. They all live together as a family, tasting the ingredients for themselves and constantly thinking of how to make it even better. 18 years have elapsed since the founding. They face “life” up close, both frankly and respectfully. This sustainability is another strength of ELEZO.

Chapter 03

First Japan, then the World.
Creating a Food Culture with the Like-Minded.

 The auberge ELEZO ESPRIT was born in 2022 as the culmination of the 1st chapter in Mr. Sasaki’s vision, the creation of a food chain that links life to cuisine. It is a five-minute drive from the laboratory and stands on a small hill with a lighthouse and sweeping view of the Pacific. The lack of TVs or clocks in the room makes it a special place to taste ELEZO’s cuisine in the natural surroundings of Toyokoro. They don’t do any particular advertising or publicity. However, tourists from the world over visit–from Europe, Asia, Oceania and the United States.
 It would be a shame if our customers left just saying “Well, that was delicious.” Our goal is get them to think about the life bestowed on them via our food, and to understand ELEZO’s efforts,” said Sasaki, with an eye to overseas markets as well.
 The wines served at ELEZO ESPRIT are produced by an Australian winery that shares Sasaki’s philosophy and are made from grapes to complement ELEZO’s meats.
 “Australia is one of the biggest meat producing countries in the world, but just like Japan, many people along the food chain do not see the rewards. In future, we would like to provide ELEZO’s knowhow in Australia and work together in creating food culture. The fact that Japanese knowledge and skills are in demand overseas is a source of strength both for Japan and for us.”
 Mr. Sasaki was the first Japanese person awarded the “Friend of Queensland” award by TEQ(Tourism & Events Queensland ) in recognition of his efforts in holding food events in Brisbane and in Japan.
He has also started producing leather bags using hides in his pursuit of “not wasting a single bit of meat or one drop of blood, and making the most of life.” Plans are also afoot to establish an academy for training young people to further strengthen Japan’s meat industry. The 2nd chapter in ELEZO’s vision is already underway.

 “Our aim is not to expand the company, but rather to create a food culture,” says Sasaki. 18 years have elapsed since the founding. The number of restaurants working with ELEZO has grown year by year, with some 300 across Japan at present. The food culture ELEZO has created via its beliefs is spreading both in Japan and overseas.

 ELEZO’s base of operations is located in Otsu, Toyokoro, on the southeastern edge of the Tokachi region. The land is blessed with a bounty from both the ocean and the mountains. Although the government promoted the development of Hokkaido in the Meiji era, this is the only place where a private group has pioneered the development. It seemed the perfect place for ELEZO to carve out the future of “food” with its very own hands. The courses served at the auberge include seafood and vegetables from the town of Toyokoro and ELEZO engages proactively in local collaborations, such as via involvement in the local “Fine Products Creation Project.”
 Although its origins lie in European culture, gibier has evolved in Tokachi and dishes that tell the story behind its ingredients are drawing people all the way from overseas. If the food culture of “being humbly thankful for the life we receive” takes root in Japan in its truest sense, and if it spreads overseas, then won’t “food” become all the richer?