■“If I don’t go now, I’ll regret it”: Going to Paris by myself.
How did you make it to France?
Right when I was really sold on going to Paris, a chef who was working there came to visit a chef friend at the hotel and I became more curious.
“What are they talking about?” I was listening to them while doing prep in the kitchen. And I overheard a sentence: “I am looking for a chef who can work in Paris.”
I thought, “This could be my chance!” And after thinking it over, I decided to ask him about it, and he passed it on to the visiting chef.
The job was a year-long position at Hotel Nikko in Paris and the conditions were very good, with the visa arranged by the company. It was an opportunity to work in Paris and get paid. So I turned in my resignation letter and started preparing to go to Paris, but I ended up caught in the middle of political trouble between the Japanese and Paris embassies, and suddenly my visa was no longer being provided.
Back then I was already married and had a child and I was willing to travel to Paris with my family, so I was really depressed about it. And when I was trying to figure out what to while mindlessly watching cars passing by on the street, I realized that I could go to Paris for about the price of a car. With that much money I could make my dream come true; in fact, I would regret not doing it. “Why don’t I just go to Paris by myself even just with a tourist visa?” I thought again.
And I negotiated with Hotel Nikko and got them to accept me as a trainee; I was approved to work for just three months. I borrowed money for my family’s living expenses and flew to Paris by myself, leaving my wife and child in Japan.
You moved forward with a strong will instead of giving up on your dream.How was your traininig in France?
I thought I could speak French, but I couldn’t communicate well over there so I struggled.
The language in the kitchen was faster than that at the language school, so I couldn’t translate into Japanese in my head.
So I practiced numbers by watching the license plates on the cars driving by when I commuted to work. Since my training period was set at three months, it was up to me to make this limited time useful. Every day was a battle against time. I was thinking about French cuisine 24 hours a day, so the density of one day felt like triple the usual. And as I saw the skills of French chefs right in front of me, I was able to discover what I was good at – things like sensitive techniques, so I gained confidence.
■Meeting with Mr. Bernard Loiseau, a master that I loved and respected
After three months at the hotel, how did you keep up your training?
While training at the hotel, I started looking for the next restaurant to work at by eating at various places. The first restaurant had one star, the second restaurant was a two-starred restaurant in Paris called Faugeron.
Finding a place to train wasn’t so easy, but the Japanese chefs who went to France before me were often acknowledged by the French for their diligence and dexterity; Japanese chefs were highly valued.
And I encountered the food of Mr. Loiseau at the famous restaurant La Côte d’Or (currently Le Relais Bernard Loiseau), and I thought, “I definitely want to work here!” So I negotiated with them directly and started training there. I still remember it like yesterday – I brought lots of luggage and took a local train, and the cook waiting at the back entrance said, “You’re Yamaguchi. I will call you Yama from now on.”
How was the training with Mr. Loiseau?
La Côte d’Or was a up-and-coming restaurant that had just received three stars.
The previous two restaurants that I had trained at were both big and it was common for sous chefs to be in the kitchen and rarely see an executive chef, but Mr. Loiseau was always there.
He would yell in a big voice, being cheerful and saying “Yama, we are great, right?” while copying the dance of a famous musician. He was very lively and straightforward.He was very unique chef.
At the beginning my job was all subordinate work, like tearing parsley and shredding vegetables. When I saw the work of the French chefs, their length and thickness of their vegetable strips were all random and they didn’t even sharpen their knives. I knew with one glance that this would not make good food. I wasn’t sure what exactly was expected of me, but I did my work as I was instructed, slicing green onions as best I could.
Then one day Mr. Loiseau picked up my vegetables and yelled, “Who cut this?”
A chef nearby said “Yama did.” Then he said, “Yama is a genius! This is what I wanted!” And on the same day Mr. Loiseau assigned me to a position at the stove.
It was the moment where my days spent cutting vegetables while being mocked by seniors and co-workers finally paid off.
Back then, there were moments where I lost my confidence and questioned the meaning of what I was doing, but Mr. Loiseau acknowledged me. It became my biggest confidence.
What a great turn of events! You seem to always be taking your work very seriously.
I think that is applicable to everything in the culinary world. For example, when making sauces, you have to work so that you don’t miss the best timing, by observing all the processes. And that can become a great opportunity when the chef comes to taste it and see what you have worked on. In Mr. Loiseau’s case, when it’s bad, he says so, but when it’s good, he goes quiet.
When I saw him becoming quiet, I thought “Yes!” When performing every single job with extreme care, daily work becomes a battle. And as time went on, it was decided to open La Côte d’Or in Japan. Mr. Loiseau told me to take the head chef position there, so I returned to Japan.