Stepping up by changing restaurants every one or two years; becoming a chef at age 23.
What made you decide to become a chef?
I was born in 1965 in Paris, France. When I was a child, our whole family spent time together eating my grandmother’s food on Sundays, and I loved that happy atmosphere.And I knew that food makes people happy so I started to think that I wanted to make customers happy by cooking food. By the time I was six, I was helping my grandmother, who was a very good cook. I had an early start on the path to the culinary world.
When was the start of your career as a chef?
My start as a chef was when I was 15 years old. I began with traditional French cuisine.I learned about the field from zero. When looking for the next restaurant to work at, I searched for one that was close enough that I could commute by scooter. Back then, I lived outside of Paris and I started working at a newly opened restaurant near my house that earned two stars – le Tast’vin (closed now) – and spent a year and a half there.
After that I was encouraged by my friend to go to Saint Tropez, a resort in the south of France. I worked as a staff member specialized in sweets at a famous restaurant called Lupine; many celebrities visited and it used as a shooting location for movies. During my stay there it was used as a location for a famous movie called, On se Calme et on Boit Frais a Saint Tropez (1988), for 3 weeks.
After six months in Saint Tropez, I came back to Paris and entered Espace Cardin, sister restaurant to Maxim’s de Paris. For training, I guess I wanted to choose a particularly classic style of French cuisine.
I assume training with French cuisine was very tough back then. You were changing restaurants every one or two years, but why?
Training was tough, with long working hours. But I had a strong desire to improve myself, so I always meant to go to higher class and become a person who would be assigned more and more work by the chef.
It was typical to change restaurants after around two years. I think other chefs did the same. Staying in the same restaurant makes everything routine, and means a lack of fresh learning.My strategy was to learn new things more and more, and develop my abilities, so it was important for me to change my workplace in order to get in touch with new jobs, new recipes, and new cooking techniques. In Japan, the length of stay in one restaurant might be a little longer, but that way makes it hard to grow. I think it is good to step up by going to other restaurants.
The next restaurants weren’t ones that I searched for; most were from referrals. I often received offers from other chefs and owners saying “Why don’t you go there?” or “Why don’t you come to my restaurant?”
How old were you when you felt you were a mature chef?
It doesn’t matter whether you have your own restaurant or not. I thought of myself as a professional by the time I was around 21 years old. I became a chef when I was 23 years old, which it is quite early for chefs. I came to Japan as an executive chef of La Tour d’argent Tokyo.
Can you tell me more about becoming a chef at 23?
It’s not quite the same as the horse racing track that Japanese people might imagine; in France, it’s the place where international celebrities meet, a social gathering place for the upper class. I became a chef for the first time at Hippodrome de Vincennes (a horse racing track in Paris).First I worked as a sous chef, but after half a year the chef moved to another restaurant and he recommended me as his successor.
I thought that becoming a chef at the age of 23 was a bit too young and was surprised at the time, but he encouraged me, saying, “You are eager to learn, full of ideas, and have the abilities to come up with new recipes. You will surely be a good chef.” For those six months, while working on a new menu together, he recognized my ability and, apparently, was able to gain enough trust.
Despite your young age of 23, it was a promotion granted after a proper evaluation of your ability. How did you feel back then?
It was a restaurant with 60 seats and 10 staff. I happened to manage many older chefs, but it was worth it. I was full of confidence, passionate about everything. I was motivated and willing to grow, too.
Meeting La Tour d’argent, grande maison in Paris, and coming to Japan at 28.
How did you get the chance to become a chef at 23 and come to Japan at 28?
There was an encounter at the horse races. There was a Mr.Manuel Martínez (*1), a chef of a growing grande maison in Paris with three stars called La Tour d’argent who came as a customer. Chef Martinez was a horse owner and he came to see his horse race. One time he came to dine at our restaurant and requested to see the chef.When I came, he told me, “You’re young, but you make delicious food.” That was our first meeting. Then we became closer after he continued returning to the restaurant.
He advised me to study and “level up” at other places, so I moved to a restaurant that he introduced me to. But the owner of that restaurant had to close it down due to family issues, so I left after a short time.
Because of that, I was then introduced to La Tour d’argent in Paris and started work there.But I didn’t think that I would be in the position of a chef so soon. So, thinking that I wouldn’t be here for long, I began looking for another place to work.
Winner of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (M.O.F.)
He had won his fame at many starred restaurants that featured orthodox French cuisine, and then during three-star period at La Tour d’argent he served as head chef. He is now owner-chef at Le Relais Louis XIII, a two-star restaurant,
So you wanted to flourish elsewhere after leaving La Tour d’argent in France early.
A chef who worked at the restaurant at the horse racing track told me that he wanted to work with me; so I worked at Chantilly (a hotel in an old castle) belonging to the Concorde Group for 18 months. He was an executive chef and I was a chef. But commuting was such a hassle. I got exhausted because I was commuting for several hours for each way every day. The job was very fun, but I wanted more and more to work closer to home.
So you resigned because of your commute? What did you do after that?
I happened to receive an offer from an Auberge asking me to work as a chef.I would succeed the restaurant in the owner’s place in the future and make it my own, so I joined with some hope.
I was thinking,“I can have my own restaurant! What a dream!” After six months at the auberge, Chef Martínez said, “I want you to go to the Japanese branch of La Tour d’argent, the only international branch.” And I thought about it, but he had done a lot for me so I was thinking that I had to return the favor, and accepted the offer to go to Japan.
The possibility of having your own auberge was there, but you were entrusted a restaurant in Japan, as head chef… That is an unprecedented promotion!
It had been 19 years since La Tour d’argent Tokyo was opened, but they were suffering from a lack of employees. But I couldn’t go to Japan right away so first I entered La Tour d’argent in Paris. It was September of 1993.
You actually came to Japan in May of 1994 so that means you worked at La Tour d’argent for more than six months!
Every day was spent thinking about recipes for the Tokyo branch while working, but actually the process of going to Japan never became specific. I thought, “Wait, is the plan to go to Japan gone? Have I been tricked?”.
Chef Martinez was too busy to take care of me, so I went to Mr. Claude Terrail, the owner of the restaurant. As soon as I saw him he said, “Are you a chef?” In other words, my going to Japan was not shared with him at all. I explained the situation and asked if the opportunity had been canceled. He told me to cook his recipes starting the next day.He said he would make a decision based on the food.
So you had a chance to go to Japan from the owner if the food was good.
Starting the next day I cooked him food. I was confident in my skills so I assumed I would make it.
At last, I received feedback, after two weeks. The owner said, “Corby, you make good food but it is not yet food worthy of La Tour d’argent. I would like you to cook something more classic. But since it was good I will give you a ticket. Go to Tokyo.”He sent me for training in Japan.
You spent months waiting to go to Japan, and within two weeks it was decided. It was dramatic to the very end. What did you expect from Japan?
After getting permission to go to Japan, I immediately quit the restaurant, prepared my visa and other things in one week, and flew out. I was in Japan after just two weeks. I arrived on May 12, 1994.It was about the time when the sad news of the death of world-famous F1 driver Ayrton Senna da Silva (*2) was broadcast.
I did not have any particular expectations of Japan. I did not have any negative feelings at all, I was full of hope.My first impression was very good. It was clean and neat. It was a totally different world but seemed like a great match.
*2 Ayrton Senna da Silva
A gifted F1 racer considered one of the best ever. He won a total of 41 F1 races, held 65 pole positions, and was thrice a world champion. He died in a racing accident on May 1, 1994 at age 34.