Chefs should never be shut into the kitchen without paying attention to the customer’s side
After returning from France for the second time, you opened Le Mange-Tout at the age of 42 after working as a chef at Aoyama’s Sabbath and Roppongi’s Aux Six Arbres. It seems that the business situation was not really good at first. How was it rebuilt?
Mr. Tani :
First of all, I thought that there was no choice but to start offering customers – at a reasonable price – authentic-tasting dishes so that they would remember the taste of the restaurant. Currently we only offer the dinner course at 15,000 yen (tax and service excluded) but at that time, we offered a prefix lunch at 1,500 yen and dinner at 3,800 yen. I set the cost rate strictly at 30%. As the lunch menu was 1,500 yen, the cost that can be spent to serve was just 500 yen. When I subtracted the amount of dessert and coffee, there was 400 yen left. I struggled to think how I could make dishes that could satisfy customers with only 400 yen.
It shouldn’t be that difficult for you as you had accumulated a lot of experience.
Mr. Tani :
No way. Lunch at 1,500 yen was quite puzzling for me at the beginning because it was the price of only one dish of “vegetable soup” where I was working before then. However, when looking back at it now, it was fun to devise various ideas. It was a good experience as I got the ability to use one ingredient without wasting it, and developed it for various dishes because I had this experience. At the same time, I also made a change in the quality of the services. It is not acceptable for me that a chef can be shut inside the kitchen and not to pay attention to the customer’s side. In order to make food that customers can appreciate, it is essential for us to have reliable service representatives, and communication between the chef and the service is also important. From that mindset, I was assisted by Noriko Kusumoto who worked with me in Aoyama’s Sabbath when I opened Le Mange-Tout. However, she resigned due to family circumstances and the quality of service dropped, contributing to the deteriorating management.
So I asked Ms. Kusumoto to come back and asked her to take initiative of the service staff thoroughly during the restaurant hours; she rebuilt our service system.
When did the business management get better?
Mr. Tani :
It was probably about a year after I started to work in the kitchen. I didn’t really do the advertising for the shop but the editor of a certain food magazine came to eat and liked my restaurant and published a six-page feature in the magazine. As a result, we had so many reservations every day and became fully booked daily. In addition to the 3,800 yen prefix dinner, we experimented with a Chef’s Original course at 5,800 yen; then the number of customers choosing that course increased and we started an 8,000 yen course two years later. While looking at customer trends alongside Kusumoto, we gradually shifted to higher-priced courses.
There was only a 12,000-yen dinner course when you got two Michelin stars for the first time, after rebuilding the restaurant in 2006.
Mr. Tani :
Yes. I continued at the same price for 10 years and brought the price up to 15,000 yen in the fall of 2017. A 12,000 yen dinner course is not cheap, but for a two-star restaurant, it is a reasonable pricing. On the other hand, I was concerned that there were more customers in casual clothing, or those who did not care about the atmosphere and caused problems to those who wanted to quietly enjoy food.
So, when I decided to raise the price, the atmosphere of the restaurant was completely changed.
To cook as a professional, learning and thinking about everything is fun
By the way, Mr. Tani sleeps in the attic of the shop, and returns home only on Sundays, as he has for 20 years. I feel that my passion for cooking is not half full.
Mr. Tani :
You know, I am not interested in the food I eat. I do not like bad-tasting food, but I personally do not care about what I eat. When my wife asks me on Sunday, “What would you like to eat today?” then I answer eel, yakiniku, or Chinese food. Hah! As long as it is not something that will cool my body, anything is OK. It is around once every two years that I go to another restaurant to eat French cuisine. My foundation of cooking is that I like new things, so I always look for what kind of dishes are popular and where the hot topics are. Therefore, I ask my staff to show me the Instagram page of our restaurant.
Then, why do you look at cooking as taking most of your time?
Mr. Tani :
It is just to make customers happy. That’s all. Of course, if there is no way to find joy in what I do, I will not be able to continue. In my case, that pleasure I feel in what I do is “to think.” My own opinion is that it is necessary to have an “original theory” for cooking in order to be a professional chef. For example, if aged meat is growing popular and there is a good restaurant that serves a delicious meat, I may get interested in them and think, “That’s interesting, I wonder how they make it?” but I won’t adopt everything in my cooking.
I would think something like, “In order to get aged meat, you will throw away the rotten part in the process of aging. I know your desire to provide delicious food but according to the origin of cooking, a product of hunting, you do not know when you will find something to eat. And so I can’t throw away any part of it as it is contrary to the spirit of French cuisine that has been developed through techniques designed to use all parts of the ingredients.”
Of course, there are no correct or incorrect answers to that decision. However, it is important to have an “original theory,” which is a subjective judgment. In order to have objectivity there, you can not hold onto only studying cooking. Having an interest in everything, such as science, history, culture, philosophy and so on, facing cooking with a broad perspective, a unique theory should be built and new dishes can be born. It is so much fun to study and think in the course of that series. So, I think it is waste of my time to sleep. Although I was once a complete “car guy,” my license expired without my even realizing it.
If only to follow a recipe, chefs can never beat AI
Do you sometimes talk to young staff about your cooking ideas?
Mr. Tani :
I talk to them a lot. There were many who quit because I approached them too much! Still, recently the number of staff who tend to continue working here for a long time has increased and the mid-rank staff has been trained well. “Cooking is not what you care about,” I often tell young staff. What people think is delicious or disgusting is actually subjective. Some people say “absolute taste” exists in the world, but people taste differently.
Indeed, in a professional world where chefs with a certain degree of skills are, anyone can make ordinary delicious dishes. In theory, cooking has nothing to do with whether to fascinate customers or not. So what is the most important thing to attract customers? My taste, sensibility, original theory. I want to tell young chefs, “You are yourself.” “How much can you create, and how many people can you attract with your charm?” And, what you shouldn’t forget is that it is also just a material for customers to enjoy. So, “Do not say anything silly when serving dishes. If you are asked, explain.” That’s what I tell staff members.
Cooking is a combination of ingredients and recipes. If you just recreate a recipe, you can not beat AI. The thing is how you can add things and form combinations which only you have. For future chefs, that kind of thing should be questioned more.
That means you have yourself.
Mr. Tani :
That’s right. And also, “care” is very important.
It may be said that it is a kind of atmosphere-reading ability or “crisis management ability.” Although I was brought up by a strict father, and was a playboy, I was also sensitive to such “crisis management ability.” As a result, I think that it has led to various kinds of help by various people in various aspects.
When I was young, when I was taken to a tour of the Crescent House by my seniors, I changed my shoes to slippers that I brought to avoid soiling the floor when entering the kitchen. The chef saw it and it caught his eyes. I have worked at various workplaces so far but in fact, I have never done anything like job hunting. Still, I got good opportunities because of such small actions that showed I cared. This is probably something AI cannot imitate.
Lastly, do you have a dream or goal for the future?
Mr. Tani :
I still have a lot. I would like to raise the social status of chefs and build a culinary college to teach young people. I love the word “will” and I think you need to have a dream to achieve your will. Also, you can’t make your dream come true by yourself. Righteousness is very important, so I really appreciate my family, staff, those who supported me and customers from the bottom of my heart. There are many top-ranked chefs in the world but I wasn’t such a chef. However, if my staff is able to remember the tastes of the food which I learned from French tradition and express in my cooking, it should be passed down to the next generation. In 100 years, there may be a genius French cuisine chef who may change the world in the history of Le Mange-Tout.
You can imitate and reproduce recipes, but the tastes can’t be passed down without actual experiences. That’s why I think this is my mission – to create food that can remain in the memories of the next generations.
(Interviewer: Osamu Saito, Text: Ayako Izumi, Photography: Tomoyasu Osakabe)