Guided by his dream, journeying to Europe to become a chef
When did you decide to become a chef?
Mr. Taira :
My uncle used to own a French restaurant. When I was little, I used to go to his restaurant with my family often and eat escargot without any knowledge of French cuisine whatsoever (laughs). When I was in my final years of elementary school, I started thinking that becoming a chef could be something I would like to do.
So your uncle was one of the big reasons you became a chef.
Mr. Taira :
That’s right. It seemed cool, I admired it. When I was in a junior high school, my uncle ended up going to Belgium to open a restaurant. I told my parents that I wanted to go to Belgium after graduating from junior high school, but they didn’t accept it, of course.
They told me that I had to at least graduate from high school, so I had no choice but to go. However, I couldn’t think of going on to college and dreamed solely of becoming a chef. At that time, my parents probably just gave up, I guess, and allowed me to go to Belgium after graduation.
Did you prepare before going to Belgium, like practicing cooking or studying the language?
Mr. Taira :
I didn’t do any preparation for cooking. Regarding the language, I had a French tutor since I was 16 or 17. At that time, the Institut Franco-Japonais or Athénée Français were the places to study French, but as a teenager, I preferred having fun to studying (laughs).
I took French lessons twice a week and I was fairly confident, but once I went there, I couldn`t understand the language at all.
The excitement of working in the kitchen of a Michelin-rated restaurant
You started working at a restaurant in Belgium as an apprentice. Did you experience any struggles working in the food industry?
Mr. Taira :
At first, the culture shock from living in a foreign country was huge. I had a girlfriend in Japan, but there was obviously no SNS at that time and international calls were very expensive, so we exchanged letters. I received air mail from her every week. I wrote a lot about my life there in the beginning, but the letters got shorter and shorter before long (laughs). Even though I went out with my friends, I was not able to talk about anything deeply in French and felt the loneliness of living in a different country. In my generation, the location of the apprenticeship changed every three months or so. I needed to find my next work place, but we didn’t have internet at the time, so I wrote letters to restaurants in the Michelin Guide. I was sometimes introduced to a restaurant, but upon going there, they often didn`t have any work for me (laughs). Once I managed to find a workplace, I did anything and everything I could, as I didn’t have any restaurant experience, even in Japan.
What did you do to get ahead in an environment where everybody works incredibly hard to move up the ladder?
I don’t think today is much different, but the food industry is a dog-eat-dog world. It is extremely competitive. As foreign chefs are more severe in their demands than Japanese, the most sought after positions are determined by how well you can appeal to the senior chefs. Japanese chefs are used to cooking fish, so we tend to be responsible for fish fumet, but you can’t get a chance if that`s all you do. I even did the dishes, which European chefs would never do. I pealed a massive amount of potatoes, which were delivered to the restaurant every morning. I had resolved to do whatever was necessary; I worked as if I was living in the kitchen. Day in and day out I tried everything I could, until the chefs recognized me as useful.
Didn’t you get tired of working so much?
Mr. Taira :
I didn’t dislike what I was doing. I was simply happy to be in the environment I had dreamed of since I was a kid. Now we can see photos online, but I was thrilled just to be in the kitchen of a French restaurant. It was so fresh; even the ingredients were different from those in Japan! I came to the kitchen first thing in the morning before the other cooks showed up and cut thick slices of cheese that I ate with bread. In the truffle season, we had huge white truffles sent to the restaurant. I always worked later than the others, so I would bring the truffles back home and gaze at them; then put them back in the morning (laughs).
Three–star Michelin restaurants are truly rarified air; they are extremely exclusive. I was satisfied by merely breathing the air in the restaurant.