Chef's Thoughts on Tokyo:
Swan & Lion Brings British Food Culture to Tokyo

When Ian Gibbins first moved to Tokyo in 2011, he was amazed. "It's totally unique," he exclaims. He decided to stay longer term, and just two years later launched his own British food brand: Swan & Lion.
Bristol-born Ian Gibbins has led a very international life. After studying law, he found himself working in the film industry in Sydney, as well as traveling on a regular basis.

Changing Minds about British food

When Gibbins started Swan & Lion, his goal was to share British food culture. Grub was always a point of interest for Gibbins; he has fond memories of learning to cook as a teenager, and watching his grandmother prepare clotted cream on the family dairy farm in Devonshire. This nostalgia for classic British fare was a big motivator for him.

But Gibbins found that many people from other parts of the world thought British food was bland and simplistic. He wanted to change that mindset. "British food has evolved," he explains, "and is just as tasty and modern as other European food cultures. And of course, I wanted to make the food that British people here missed."

It all started with handmade chutneys. Gibbins would host parties at his home in Tokyo, and often served chutneys to his guests. Chutneys and jams are a passion of his, and he spent a lot of time experimenting with different seasonal fruits, trying to capture their full flavors. The condiments proved popular among his friends, and in 2013 he began selling them at weekend farmers' markets, much to the delight of British food enthusiasts. 

It "snowballed from there," and the business began to grow quickly, with the sale of Christmas puddings and mince pies in December that year. He also partnered with supermarkets and department stores to sell Swan & Lion products, and began catering private events around Tokyo.

Traditional British meat pie with creamy coleslaw and quinoa salad.

In 2014, Swan & Lion launched a line of gourmet meat pies with flavors like roast chicken, leek and mushroom, and, of course, the classic: beef. The pastries proved especially popular, and to this day many customers are excited to find authentic British pies in Tokyo.

Scones topped with Langage Farm clotted cream from Devonshire and traditional, homemade rhubarb jam, a rare find in Tokyo.

International Influences and Fusion Cuisine 

While Swan & Lion is undeniably British, there is also an Australian influence behind the brand. The idea of starting a food business actually came to Gibbins when he lived in Sydney. He was intrigued by the city's vibrant cafe scene, and the creativity of the food culture. Now, he channels this into his own recipes, experimenting with new flavors and creating recipes to tie in with British celebrations, such as a beef and whisky pie, inspired by the late Prince Philip's favorite meal. In addition to his creation, Gibbins sends out a newsletter in both Japanese and English with a recipe and article on British culture. After all, "you can put anything delicious in a pie," he says.

There is also a hidden Japanese flavor to the Swan & Lion range. Gibbins prides himself on his use of local (and sustainable) ingredients. The majority of ingredients come from a local market, and are of very high quality, he says. He has even managed to source hard-to-find ingredients from within Japan; he speaks enthusiastically about how he buys rhubarbs and parsnips from a farmer in Aichi. Seasonality is also very important to him, and he works closely with growers to make sure he gets produce at precisely the right time to ensure the best flavors for the preserves, jams, and chutneys.

SWAN & LION resembles a typical British store in Tokyo's Chiyoda City.

Life in Tokyo

Gibbins enjoys his life in Tokyo. That is not to say he does not miss the U.K, especially "proper British pubs" and British humor, but "on the whole I find it less stressful than the U.K.," he says. For such a large city, he finds life in Tokyo surprisingly "mellow, quiet, and relaxed." 

Gibbins especially appreciates the bicycle culture in Tokyo. "For a major city, cycling here is surprisingly stress-free," he explains. Whether for work or pleasure, he cycles almost every day. It is without a doubt his favorite mode of transport. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, cycling has become a popular leisure activity and method of commuting for all generations.

He also enjoys Tokyo's food and the fact that there are lots of small local restaurants around. He makes a point to mention natto (fermented soybeans) when talking about his top Japanese foods, alongside yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and osechi ryori (traditional New Year's cuisine). Summer festivals like the Koenji Awa Odori (a dance festival) and the New Year's holidays are other elements of Japanese culture that he would miss, were he to leave.

Gibbins found that Tokyo was a great place to start a business. It is home to a large pool of British food lovers, and good access to public transport means people can easily access the store. Plus, the city is always growing and people are always looking to try new things. It is the perfect recipe for introducing more people to British culture—as Gibbins intends to continue doing, with plans to open a daytime café and evening dining bar in the future.

Interview and writing by Maria Danuco
Photos by Kuratani Kiyofumi