The road after receiving a star
It’s going to be your 16-year anniversary for living in France. Do any stresses or difficulties still come up in terms of cooking in France?
I just happened to go with French food for my specialty and came to France based on that, so I’m not an expert when it comes to the country itself. I think no matter which country or region you go you’re going to find something you like. And, I’m happy as long as I get to be in the kitchen, which I why I was clouded by stressed during that blank stretch of time that lasted until spring 2015 when I took my current job.
I have a bolder approach than your average person in France when it comes to cooking French cuisine, so I don’t feel like I have a handicap or anything like that. But, when it comes to a sense of the seasons I feel like there are aspects that I don’t relate to among the French residents living here. For example when I took a trip to the south I tried to see mimosa flowers in person, and I learned that in reality mimosa salad gets its special vivid yellow color from egg yolks.
I could give an endless list of hardships and difficulties that come with working as a chef in France, but the French have an incredibly high level of respect for restaurants, which gives me a great deal of support.
What sorts of things have you learned to value when it comes your work and food?
I don’t usually make any of the food that’s in Paris these days, and when it’s possible I make food that I like. I’m really happy to see that working this way was enough to earn some praise. But of course if I ignored Paris then I would be too provincial, so I still keep an eye on Paris for a bit of inspiration here and there. I make sure to pay attention to different trends in the rest of the world as well.
For contemporary trends I don’t like the idea of picking different things based on whether or not customers will understand the food. I just cook from the heart so my customers can enjoy something that’s been prepared from an honest place.
How do you feel about chefs in terms of media exposure?
I think that as social media develops the personal appeal of chefs who use these tools and their outlook as a business person also expands. To an extent I think it’s a good thing when a young and talented chef joins a team in order to build an impressive resume, but a restaurant is all about working as a team, so you can’t really say whether or not it’s going to help out the entire restaurant both in the kitchen and out in the dining area.
I avoid stepping directly into the limelight. A while back, the late Paul Bocuse said that eventually it will be time for chefs to “return to the cooking pot,” which sort of means to just quietly work in the kitchen.
Do you have any advice for young chefs and colleagues?
Ever since I started working as an executive chef I’ve had a lot more chances to talk to younger chefs when they come in to interview for work. When I talk to them I try to just get straight to the point and have an honest conversation.
To use an example, I always try to impart that at first the kitchen is a strict place that’s kind of like a monastery. If you look at just a fraction of what chefs are doing you’ll walk away thinking that the world of professional cooking is cool and flashy before anything else. But, in the beginning you have to realize that the kitchen is actually a tough place that requires a lot of strength and mental fortitude.
It’s better to know that early on rather than find out midway and start falling behind. Right now most chefs that have reached adulthood probably don’t want to go back to their training days. On the flip side if it’s the kind of training that makes you want to revisit the days when you were still learning, then I would suggest that it’s probably better to stay away from it.
For young chefs I think that it’s important to study the basics and avoid new fads. When it comes to fundamental skills all you can do is build them up one at a time. In the beginning I think it’s best to just give it your all and work hard. In those early stages when you are pushing as hard as you can it’s important to have a teacher that knows when to call you out and give criticism. That’s why I spent 8 long years training under Chef Billoux.
I think more young chefs can grow and develop if they get to meet people like Chef Adachi who has an attentive and cordial way of teaching.
It’s essential to clearly pick up on what businesses are like outside of the kitchen and realize just how small and narrow your world can be when your working with food the whole time. You want to be able to cultivate yourself and understand the perspectives of your customers. Being able to communicate and socialize with a wide variety of people is absolutely crucial for a chef.
The hurdles that you have to climb to come to France are less severe than before, and I feel that a lot of young chefs that have trained to a certain point in Japan come to France with a deficit in their skills. Therefore, it’s important to really push yourself for a full 5-year period. Every 5 years you can take another look at yourself and see what you need to do next.
I also see young people here and there that have skills and think that all they need to do is speak the language to compete with people here in France, but that’s a big mistake. Restaurants are built on teamwork. The language has to be used to communicate clearly with those around you.
If you’re a French chef than I would say it’s your duty to read Escoffier. You’re limited to appellations (dish names), and lamproie à la bordelaise (crayfish Bordeaux-style) and other dishes just have one single recipe each.
For younger chefs out there I would say to first work on the dishes that are already here before you start trying to make your own food. My next piece of advice is to look up whatever you don’t know. That’s really the way to go about it and learn. Certainly when you study the classics it isn’t going to necessarily show up in the way you cook right away. You can cook a dish even if you don’t know it very well, but if you do understand it then it’s usually a lot more interesting.
So, where do you find inspiration?
Food is my greatest joy, so that’s what really inspires me. I think you’re very lucky if your work lets you occasionally dig deep into the things you like. My secret to lasting in such a tough job like this is being able to keep doing the things that I love. That’s how I thankfully made it this far without throwing in the towel.
I read books too when I’m not in the kitchen. My food-related book collection has reached more than 3,000 books. When I first started I would get as little as 4 hours of sleep a night. I would just spend time reading books intently before bed. My love for food pushed me to want to know more about it. And, the knowledge I’ve picked up from reading has built a real backbone for my cooking.
What are your plans and interests moving forward?
Now that we have a Michelin star, whatever comes next is going to be decided as a team. In order to focus on gastronomy we have plans to narrow down to 20 seats and separate them for a bistro. No matter what you do it is incredibly difficult to maintain quality in gastronomy while handling 60 seats of customers.
We’re looking to elevate our service some more as well, and work on a complete wine list as soon as we can.
I don’t think about going out in the future and opening up my own place to work as owner and chef. I think that my work is a lot more fruitful with the type of restrictions that I have in place now rather than have my own space that lets me do whatever I want.
I think the real basis of living life as a chef is to be flexible so that just food alone is more than enough for you. Basically you can’t go around and ask for everything. Just making food that I’m not ashamed of is enough for me. This means that the conditions in which I work in comes secondary. So with that in mind, I don’t think much about opening up my own place. Making food that I can get behind is all it takes to leave me feeling satisfied.
Although I keep up with that kind of flexibility I talked about, I think the key to staying in France for so long had to do with me not relying on people. I mean that in a positive sense. I think it’s incredibly important to challenge yourself and try to do things on your own first, rather than just solely rely on people from the very start.
(Interview and Text: Yoko Ishiguro, Photography: Pierre-Olivier)