For devotees of celebrated Ibiza restaurant Nagai, it comes as no surprise to hear the World Luxury Restaurant Awards recently crowned the eatery the best Japanese restaurant in southern Europe – for fans, it’s recognition long overdue. But for the humble creators behind the restaurant’s success, it was an unexpected accolade that came out of the blue, albeit a welcome one. “We really weren’t expecting it, but we won and it’s incredible!” says founder and head chef, Reina Nagai, with palpable glee in her eyes. “It really came out of the blue,” adds Eleonora Carapellotti, fellow founder. Specialising in Japanese fusion cuisine, Nagai – which Eleonora and Reina opened in 2011 on the famed San Juan ‘restaurant road’ alongside co-founder Melchior Arnold – overflows with traditional Japanese ambience combined with flecks of Ibicenco charm. The food, of course, is standout, but to the creators of the venue, it’s the whole package that counts – the welcome, the service and the atmosphere are all equally as important as the food. No doubt it is this ethos that secured their newly acquired title.
“Since the beginning, I’ve always tried to create a family with our team,” explains Eleonora. “I believe when people come to eat here it’s about the experience – they have to feel at home.” Indeed, having founded restaurants all over the world alongside her brother, Luigi, who also has a keen ear for music, Eleonora places a huge amount of emphasis on a friendly, professional and close-knit team, and she knows exactly what she’s looking for. “This year we’re really happy with the team in the kitchen,” she says. “When Reina and I went to collect the award in Hanoi, it was the first time Reina has been able to leave the kitchen, and that was the best feeling for us. We feel like we’ve really built something stable.” Establishing the perfect, accomplished team may have taken time, but at Nagai, Reina’s food has been a constant. A former professional snowboarder, she turned her hand to cooking at the age of 27, when a chance encounter led her to meet Eleonora in Koh Phangan, Thailand and she decided to hang up her board and pick up a knife instead. This was no coincidence – her father has owned and run a restaurant in Nagoya, Japan for over 50 years – but it was the first time Reina decided to turn her love of cooking into a full-time job.
“I grew up with cooking,” she explains. “Since I was three years old my father would take me to the fish market with him. He never taught me, but I would watch him and I learnt from that.” Clearly in the genes, Reina discovered she was naturally gifted with food, and this journey led her from Thailand to the shores of Ibiza. Now, she’s passionate about her craft. “Cooking is a bit like painting – it’s the taste, the smell, and the visions on the plate – it’s about creating something new each season,” she explains. This attitude means Reina brings a fresh perspective to the Nagai menu each year – even when regulars are reluctant to abandon their favourite dishes – and her approach to constant evolution has earned Reina’s cuisine fans from all across the globe. “We had international support in the Awards,” explains Eleonora. “People from all over the world voted for us and I think this really helped.” Nevertheless, Reina remains coy in accepting praise. “It’s the ingredients that do the talking,” she says. “I respect the materials more than my skills.”
Perhaps this humble approach to providing an experience is really at the core of Nagai’s magic, and the primary reason why it won the prestigious title of best Japanese restaurant in southern Europe. There’s no doubt Eleonora and Reina go about things differently than how you might expect from an Ibiza restaurant; it’s clear in addition to delivering culinary sensations on the plate, there’s something else at work here. “We try to offer all the things you should enjoy in life,” says Eleonora with a smile. “Good food, good wine, good music and eating under the stars.” What more can be said than that?