Limited to 12 people per day. A dessert shop with over-the-counter tea desserts that turn into an emotional experience for all five senses. [VERT / Toshihiro Tanaka]

Since the global matcha boom in the early 2000s, tea has become a popular flavor in sweets, such as matcha ice cream, matcha latte, and hojicha chocolate.

Until then, matcha production was limited to Uji City, in Kyoto Prefecture and Nishio City, in Aichi Prefecture. But over the past 20 years it has spread nationwide, and by 2021 Kagoshima had surpassed Kyoto as Japan’s largest producer of tencha (tea material leaves used to make matcha). In the world, the production of Japanese-style tea like matcha has been growing in Thailand and China, and such teas are increasingly being used abroad as flavors.

Tea is now more than a drink; it has become a flavor and a food item, and its production and consumption are expanding all over the world.

On the other hand, dessert courses have recently become popular as a general trend in sweets. That is a dessert-only course consisting of several dessert items, and the number of counter dessert shops that offer this kind of course is increasing. What is served in a dessert course is not just sweets for after-dinner snacks. Each dessert can be appreciated as a form of art and experienced with all five senses.

At the confluence of these two trends is VERT in Kagurazaka, Tokyo. Here, you can experience a dessert course that incorporates Japanese tea. One plate at a time, VERT’s owner, pastry chef Toshihiro Tanaka, creates desserts in front of your eyes, using seasonal ingredients and tea, and taking the potential of tea as an ingredient to another level.

We spoke with Tanaka-san, who is fascinated by Japanese tea, and continues to study, create, and communicate its possibilities.

Toshihiro Tanaka

Toshihiro Tanaka is the owner and chef of VERT, a specialty dessert shop in Kagurazaka, Tokyo, that incorporates Japanese tea. After training at a patisserie in Tokyo, he worked as sous chef at janicewong dessert bar, chef patissier at jean georges tokyo, and executive chef at L’atelier à ma façon. 5 years ago, Tanaka-san discovered Japanese tea. He opened VERT in 2022 and is now promoting the possibilities of Japanese tea through his desserts.

Limited to 12 people per day. A specialty dessert shop that incorporates Japanese tea  – VERT.

Q: What kind of shop is VERT?

Tanaka: We specialize in desserts that incorporate Japanese tea. The shop has only 6 seats at the counter and is limited to 12 people per day, serving only Chaso Ryusui.

I would like VERT to be a place where customers can find and feel other possibilities for Japanese tea, besides drinking it. I would like customers to experience our dessert course called Chaso Ryusui and feel even the smallest – one millimeter possibilities of Japanese tea.

And VERT means so much to me, that I feel that if it were to end, my life would end too.

Chaso Ryusui accepts people, culture, and various things as they are and entertains them with tea.

Q: What is the thought behind the name of the dessert course, Chaso Ryusui (茶湊流水)?

Tanaka: I thought about the name together with mystaff and we compared it with the four-character idiom – Gyoun Ryusui (行雲流水), which means to act without being deeply attached to things and to let nature take its course, like clouds moving in the sky or flowing water.

In our title Cha character (茶) refers to Japanese tea, and Minato character (湊) means a place where people, things, and culture gather.

Chaos Ryusui (茶湊流水) characters on the menu.

Let it go, let it flow. We created this menu with the desire to accept various people and cultures as they are, and to provide hospitality with Japanese tea.

Q: Why did you not name it a desert course?

Tanaka: I did not want to call it a dessert course. To the world, it is a dessert course, but I had no intention of doing a dessert course, so it felt strange.

Q: What can you experience with Chaso Ryusui?

Tanaka: You will be able to taste desserts made with a variety of carefully selected Japanese teas while enjoying the process of creating each of them in front of your eyes. Through these exquisite desserts, we hope you will rediscover the richness and potential of Japanese tea. We change our menu every month, so that each time you come to VERT, you will encounter a new flavor for the first time.

Beautiful seasonal 3-layer yokan, the flavor of February was pomelo.

Even the act of cutting is so beautiful and captivating.

Q: What is the difference between a dessert and a sweet?

Tanaka: I think people generally tend to confuse them as similar concepts, but there is a clear difference. My interpretation is that sweets refers to cakes from a cake shop. They are made in a way that it is easy to take them home. Desserts focus on the ingredients and are sort of unrestricted, allowing you to experience more of the flavors, aromas, and textures. 

Q: Do you feel any difficulties in working with Japanese tea?

Tanaka: I myself do not feel any difficulties. It is just interesting. I think what makes Japanese tea interesting is its aroma and taste. There are not many ingredients that are astringent, bitter, yet delicious. That is what is interesting.

We have the utmost respect for tea farmers who create tea in harmony with the natural world. My role as a pastry chef is to bring out and convey the charm of it.

Q: I heard that you visit tea farmers every month.

Tanaka: I visit tea farmers all over the country. I counted it recently and found that I have visited over 40 tea farmers already.

Q: Do you go directly to the tea farmers to purchase their tea?

Tanaka: I have visited all the tea farmers that I am currently working with. Of course I purchase the tea, but being able to hear directly from farmers is really valuable as well.

Q: What was the reason you started visiting and speaking with tea farmers?

Tanaka: When I set up my own shop and started working with Japanese tea, I realized that there was so much that I did not know. I began to realize that there are many things I would not know unless I visited tea farmers and saw where tea was actually produced.

The day the Kanto region was covered in snow. The parfait Tanaka-san made was inspired by a snow-covered tea plantation that he had never seen before.

When I started to work with Japanese tea, I wanted to know more about its background, not just about the finished product. What kind of people made it? How was it made?

As someone who works with tea, I am very grateful to be able to talk directly with tea farmers and understand the background behind their tea. I choose the teas I use not by their leaves, but by their makers. To be honest, I do not consider the quality of the tea to be that important.

Q: Is it possible to have a dessert course without placing importance on the quality of the tea?

Tanaka: I as a pastry chef will make it work.

In nature, the climate is not always the same, and the environmental conditions in which tea grows change every year. So, there are some years when it is not possible to produce tea as we would like. Still, I buy tea leaves because I like the tea farmers I work with. After purchasing the tea leaves, all I have to do as a pastry chef is to bring out the best of the year’s tea leaves. In extreme cases, even if the tea of a tea farmer I am working with becomes tasteless and odorless, I will still buy that tea.

Q: How are you so caring about tea farmers?

Tanaka: Tea farmers put all of their heart into April and May every year. Compared to that, my job is not so hard. For example, I can work under a roof all year round even if it rains. However, this is not the case for tea farmers, who cannot pick tea if it rains during the most important time of the year (April and May). I think the world of tea production in which tea farmers live is much tougher than the world in which I live.

My work would not be possible without the tea farmers who make the tea. Without tea produced by them, I would not be able to do any of the things I want to do. That is why I am interested in how tea farmers spend a year making tea, and respect them a lot.

I really do not like the expressions like  “This Japanese tea is not good” or “This Japanese tea is delicious” when we compare teas. These expressions do not sit well with me.

Of course, there is no problem if the person making the evaluation is someone who has experience making tea. But I think it is wrong for someone like me, who has only a limited knowledge about tea and has never made it, to evaluate it like this.

If you learned about the difficulty of tea production throughout the year, and also in the second and third years, and would finally stand on the same ground as the farmers who produce tea all over the country, then making evaluations like this would not be a problem.

Q: Is the respect for tea farmers from a long time ago?

Tanaka: I do not know exactly when it began. But I think the feeling developed when I started VERT and got in contact with various tea farmers, visiting tea farms and listening to their stories.

“I wholesale tea to VERT”. Our goal is to create a shop that the tea farmers can be proud of.

Q: It seems your exploration of Japanese tea is never ending.

Tanaka: It is not like there is no end to it. But I believe that what I have seen of Japanese tea is only the tip of the iceberg. I never get tired of it, and it fits my personality and tastes very well. I hope to understand it a little more before I die.

Q: What is your vision for the future of VERT?

Tanaka: I would like people to think that if they wanted to experience Japanese tea and fruits in the best way, VERT would be the place to go.

To be honest, I personally do not place much importance or interest in VERT or me becoming very famous. If that is the result, I would be very grateful. But I am more interested in it being a shop that tea farmers can be proud of.

“I sell tea to that shop in Kagurazaka called VERT.”

I would like to create a shop that the tea farmers I work with will want to be proud of.

Q: What do you think the future of the tea industry will look like?

Tanaka: It is difficult. Compared to the past, I think in future tea farmers will need to diversify their means of communicating and spreading the word.

This is the same for restaurants. It will be very important for the tea farmers to be known, as they will not be able to survive just by making good products. To do so, it will be necessary to share information and to find new ways to do so.

All their desserts leave the feeling “What is this new sensation?”

For example I think it will be good to have Japanese teas that do not look like Japanese tea to the extent that when you pick up a tea package it leaves you wondering whether this is really a Japanese tea.

Instead of a direct or straightforward approach, it will be necessary to be creative.

The tea farmers will benefit if the customers take the tea in their hands. If then they become interested in Japanese tea, it will be a great achievement for the tea farmers.

Japanese tea is experiencing a boom. Therefore, I hope that all tea farmers will take advantage of it. Now is definitely the time.

*All photo by Misako Yoshida

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