Connections with people build a career and a foundation for a restaurant
After graduating from university in Japan, Mr. Honjo studied at a cooking school in Paris, trained at the three-star restaurant Astrance, participated in the launch of Quintessence in Tokyo, and, after earning three stars at Quintessence, returned to France. Following work at restaurants including the three-star Petit Nice in Marseille, he trained at Mugaritz in Spain and Noma in Denmark.
We interviewed Chef Honjo, who now undertakes management on his own without relying on sponsors or patrons.
I enjoy cuisine from which I can see the chef’s face
What led to your ambition to pursue French cooking? You’re from Kobe, right?
My grandfather really liked French cuisine. He was a man who preferred to eat terrine rather than traditional [osechi] cuisine at the new year or family gatherings, and so would always book a French restaurant for every occasion.
A good smell coming from the kitchen is a part of my childhood memories. Those moments are a happy space for me, so I thought that I wanted to be involved in this kind of work someday.
What are your favorite cuisines, and what foods do you find delicious?
I’ve gotten older, and lately I like Japanese food and sushi. When I come back to Japan I always feel like eating sushi. But in the end I love French, so as much as possible, I try to get around and eat at a variety of restaurants. I don’t limit myself to gastronomy, but also go to bistros. The restaurants I went to when I was small were traditional French, but I visit a wide range. I like cuisine through which I can see the face of the chef, where it seems as if I can tell what the chef has in mind…
Do you interact with other chefs?
David Toutain and I are friends, and we eat at each other’s restaurants. Guillaume at Garance, too. I like to go and try the cooking of all kinds of chefs, not just Japanese chefs, and exchange ideas. Last year, too, I went to Fäviken in Sweden. The chef over there also worked at Astrance, in the same generation as me.
France is also a vertical society and has an apprenticeship system, so of course I respect and esteem older chefs, but with people of the same generation I can talk frankly. I’d like to have all kinds of interactions from here on out. It’s been three years since my restaurant opened, and I think that there are some areas where my horizons are becoming more and more narrow because I’m both cooking and managing on my own. So, I want to not just eat the cooking but also interact with the chefs and hear their thoughts – not just come and eat, but also talk frankly.
From university to licensing by a French cooking school, and on to three-star restaurant Astrance in half a year
Didn’t you consider studying cooking in Japan?
My start was late since it came after I left university, and, as cooking is native culture with roots in the land, I thought that to understand French cuisine I needed not just technique and knowledge but first an understanding of French culture.
So, I studied French and jumped into the environment of France.
When I came to France I went to a language school for the first month or two, then went right to Ferrandi and took a CAP (Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle, or Certificate of Professional Aptitude) in half a year. It’s not possible now, but at the time the proportion of cooking was high. I went through [stage] (training), and, since I didn’t want to waste the school vacation period, got introductions from instructors and went to work at bistros and other places. I thought I needed to see all kinds of places. When the restaurant were busy, I’d get asked to stay behind and work. I was able to build up all kinds of experiences.
Did you get into Astrance right after graduation?
I began with [stage] (training). At that time, Mr. Kishida (the Quintessence’s chef) was working as sous chef, and before that Mr. Sato (the Passage 53’s chef) had worked there, but everyone started with training.
I also got into Geranium, which earned three stars this years, as a trainee; in the end, they asked me to work there. All of the chefs who came ten years ago in France work from that sort of “hungry” ambition, starting out with training, and from the standpoint of our generation that was normal… However, it seems to me that this has become weaker lately.
Not long ago there was someone who wanted to work at our restaurant. If he had wanted to seriously make a go of it at my place, I would of course have supported him and offered advice. However, he couldn’t speak the language and wasn’t sufficiently prepared, with just a vague idea of wanting to work in France and get paid to do so. I feel that there’s a real difference in level of enthusiasm.
Had you been thinking about working at Astrance since the time you were in Japan?
Yes. From the time that I heard about it in Japan, I felt that Astrance is a chef’s restaurant that does new things, and that I wanted to work there someday.
When I thought about working at Noma (Denmark), I was refused at the beginning. However, a colleague from when I worked at another restaurant in Copenhagen had worked at Noma, and said he would give me an introduction.
I’m the type who acts quickly when I think of something, so when I heard that, I immediately went to Noma on my break. Doing so, I met the chef by chance [laughs] and asked him on the spot to let me work there, which in the end I was able to do.
At first I was on an upstairs preparation crew, but after a week I was told to start service from the following week, and did so. Every day consisted of working from 6 in the morning until after 12 at night, then running back to the restaurant at 5 in the morning. Those were some bitterly tough but stimulating and fulfilling days.
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