Traveling and seeing the sights for oneself is part of a chef’s education
Getting lots of exposure while young is important for a chef.
That’s right. It’s definitely a significant exercise to see a lot while in your 20s. This is all part of cooking. It is fine to be able to grill a steak or make a dashi, but it’s not enough. Making a good dashi, or cooking a good duck doesn’t make you a good chef. You need more.
You have to know about the producers and places behind that food, how it all works together. When new cooks come here, I’ll take, for example, a pineapple, and ask them: “Do you know how this grows?” While everyone has worked with the ingredient, few even know how it grows. Many think pineapples grow on big trees.
The same goes for things like how kombu (kelp) is harvested, how bonito flakes, yuba skin, tofu, miso, and other ingredients are made. You have to know the background and context.
Some people in France dislike tofu. Yet they must realize that this is because they have yet to taste a good tofu. I’m sure they would change their mind after going to Japan or somewhere else in Asia and tasting freshly-made, high-quality silky tofu. This process, we would say, is a cook’s education. You have to travel the world widely and see things for yourself.
In France, people like to toss around terms like “exotic,” “fusion,” “Asiatic,” and so on, but I find those terms meaningless. After all, what is“Asiatic” supposed to mean? Japanese, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Singaporean foods are drastically different. Same for “European” food: Scottish, Spanish, French or Danish food are all very different. Unless you get to know the world, you won’t appreciate these differences.
It’s not only about learning the culinary arts but also about meeting people and understanding them
What would be your recommendation for a young cook: spending a long time training at one maison or making the rounds of numerous places?
A chef must go to various maisons and experience different things. Further, they must have boundless curiosity and be open to things, seeking to understand different cultures and appreciate those from other places. They must create opportunities to communicate with others.
I would tell young chefs that beyond learning how to cook, meeting people of all types and understanding their vantage point is key in this trade.
Service is extremely important. We might get guests from Japan on a honeymoon, or from Scandinavia or Auvergne or next door – not everyone has the same expectations. We work in an amazing trade, we are given to meet people coming from different social classes, from different spheres some might be rich, some might be poor, some might be cultured, very smart, some work with their hands, artisans, and so on. We have a unique opportunity in this line of work to meet a wide range of people, we have an excuse to travel widely. After all, guests come from far and wide.
I was lucky to have opportunities to go to Japan. Last week, I went to Lapland in Norway. I’ve had opportunities to learn techniques from overseas. I can then use this to prepare dashi broth, bouillon, smoke fish, and so on. Learning about new things and understanding them widens your repertoire.
Even so, each cook has roots in some place they call home, and they must stay true to those roots. You mustn’t forget your childhood. I have never forgotten about my hometown in Auvergne. I still make soupe au pain, still use pork, still use cabbage and lentils.
Mastering the fundamentals builds a basis for one’s own creations
The world of cuisine is growing more international, and people are saying that French cuisine has moved away from sauces. What do you think is needed in order to maintain the classic French taste and pantheon?
The thing is, French cuisine is codified. The same is true of Japanese cuisine. Therefore, there is a very solid basis to work with. Properly mastering these essentials is a must if one is to cook in the French manner. It’s like calligraphy — you start with the fundamentals. We call this savoir-faire in French. Like building an architectural foundation, these fundamentals are the most important thing. You cannot allow yourself to forget or abbreviate this process.
This is true in any other line of work and fundamentally true for cooks, who must master the basic. This builds a solid foundation for growth and for developing your own style. You can then work on this framework to experiment and create your own cuisine. You can build flavor up, incorporate foreign elements, obviate sauces, make a refined cooking or take inspiration from overseas cuisine, and so on.
Everyone has their own storyline when it comes to cuisine.
We all come from different places and have undergone different education and experiences. However, we all start with the same basics and use that to build our foundations. The first step, I’d say, is the cuisson (working the flame).
I don’t intently make fusion, new creations, modern dishes, or incorporate the latest and greatest. I went to Japan training on dashi, to Norway, last week I was in Alba in Italy, learning about white truffles. I can incorporate all that because I have the proper fundamentals in French cuisine. I master the cooking of basics, say duck or mackerel, then I build from there. I can make a cabbage cooked in dashi. We make a delicious dashi, with Katsuobushi (bonito flakes) from Japan, vintage Kombu (kelp) from a specific provider. The soy sauce we use is also not normally available for sale. We use only products of exception. I don’t use these ingredients to be “fusion” or “exotic” but because they belong to my background, they are part of my story. I make French cuisine in which I integrate flavors from elsewhere.