Be self-centered. Consider what it is that you personally seek and what makes you happy.
You are noted for a quote in which you say, “Tomorrow over today, the day after over tomorrow — one must continually move forward day by day.” What do you like to focus on in your everyday work?
I like to put other people’s work front and center. I also like to enjoy myself. I go to work in a happy mood every day. I look forward to it. I enjoy being able to work with this great team. Once cooking and working become unpleasant, I don’t think you can make quality food. When that happens, you have to go right back to the drawing board.
When I find a recipe isn’t quite what I envisioned, I drop it. When it stops being fun, I change the recipe. I shift to making something else. It has to be pleasurable to do.
Also, this might sound shocking but, but you have to be self-centered. You have to think about yourself. People act surprised at this stance. Yet, you must consider what it is you crave, and do what will satisfy you — “Ah, now this is the kind of meal I’d like to have.” When I prepare beef or duck or whatever, I don’t think about the client I think about what will give me pleasure.
Sometimes when I’m baking cakes, making ice cream, sherbets, ladling a sauce — I make it for me. I’m thinking “Wow, this is delicious, this is the best, I love this!” If I find something delicious, then I’m enthusiastic about sharing it with others.
Therefore, there are times when you are not cooking for others, but for yourself. In that sense, I think it’s good to be self-centered.
What moments make you happy to be a cook?
I am always happy. When we make a great meal and the clients are happy, I am delighted.
A busy chef’s day off still involves cooking
How do you spend your days off?
Even on days off, I’m always cooking. While I also make traditional French dishes, I experiment with making yuzu pepper, use ingredients I picked up in Spain, go to the market to get things I want, and so on. The core ingredients like scallops and goatfish come from France. I pick seasonings and spices that suit my palate.
So even your days off are abuzz with cooking! Do you not like to relax? Do you have any passions??
Of course! I also love golf. You get to see lots of nature. When you’re really focused on your game, your mind goes blank, a great feeling. You also get to walk around a lot. It’s a very fun and pleasurable sport.
Working to satisfy both self and client
Do you think chefs need inborn talent? How have you overcome challenges in your career?
Frankly, I have yet to perfect a single thing. People talk about talent, but I don’t think such a thing exists. Cooking is not something innate.
You can’t just whip something up unthinkingly and have it come out well. Cooking is not some form of improvisation. You have to work hard. You must meet the producers of ingredients, work with others, understand their position, develop the sensibility for what ingredients are better than others, compare them against each other, and work like a dog.
Take the rice issue: I’ve worked at it for fifteen days, but have yet to achieve what I want. You have to work in a stable, regular, and continuous fashion, always focused.
When you’re getting started, your superiors will get mad at you, you will work long hours, and you will get physically fatigued. You must have the tenacity to overcome all of that. When working in a restaurant, you must satisfy both the patrons and the chef, yet you must also work for your own sake — that is just as important.
When you get started at fourteen, sixteen, or twenty, you might clean and prepare the fish, wash the vegetables, make sauces, and so on. There are lots to learn. You will also make many mistakes. Each time I failed, I kept practicing until I got it right. I mastered each thing one at a time, finally getting to a point where I could serve clients something they would eat. You have to satisfy yourself and the customer. You can’t just do it all for the big chef in the kitchen.
There is quite a difference between being hired to work at someone’s restaurant and operating your own restaurant.
That’s right. Christophe (Rohat), who is in charge of the service, sommellerie, reservations, worked the floor at Arpege. Together, we launched this restaurant. Being owners/operators also means we must be hard-nosed about management, and you must devote a lot of your time to the restaurant. This includes procuring ingredients, managing the staff, obtaining kitchen items and plates, accounting, relations with banks, the hot water tank to repair, working with journalists, holding interviews, managing the ledgers, and more — all at the same time. You must prepare for the reality that all these things will become your responsibility.
All the same, it is always exciting. Going independent is a fantastic thing. You get to choose with whom you want to work. You get to choose your team and the producers you partner with. You can even choose your patrons! It’s a priceless chance. You will also meet many wonderful people. It is a beautiful reward.
But really the best reward is to have the restaurant at full occupancy every day, noon and night. It has also been a pleasure to know so many outstanding and talented people who have wanted to work here, and that clients are always so enthusiastic, and there are appraisals from food critics.
Even though there have been difficulties, there will always be a challenging point in your life, whether or not you’re managing a restaurant. So while there are difficulties, there are also many high points. You have to look forward, stay positive, and keep growing.
With the knowledge and skills handed down from past chefs and the hundred-odd different professions that come together to collaborate, we achieve what we can call “cuisine.” I consider it my role to safeguard these traditions and convey them to the next generation.
What is your dream?
That the restaurant remains packed noon and night.
Any goals to open a second restaurant overseas, or something like that?
I don’t know, but I’m in no hurry. The most important thing is that the restaurant remains thriving with clients.
(Interviewer&Writer: Akiko Awa, Photographer: Hiroki TAGMA)