A job linked by relationships and destiny, and an encounter with a celebrated senior chef
After you graduated from the French school, you came back to Japan and worked at the restaurant of Paul Bocuse, right?
I was lucky, because Tsuji Culinary was launching a restaurant called “Le Maistro Paul Bocuse Tokyo,” directed by Paul Bocuse and managed by Suntory. Suntory and Tsuji Culinary had a deep relationship because the headmaster was friends with Keizo Saji, the president of Suntory from the previous generation. They say that Suntory invited Tsuji Culinary Institute to launch the restaurant, which also involved many of the teachers I knew.
Among all those people, I was appointed to cook the staff meals when Mr. Bocuse came to Japan, so I was cooking for him. Then one day he asked me, “Hey! Do you want to go to France?” and when I replied “Of course I want to go!” he sent me to an establishment on the outskirts of Lyon called “Restaurant La Terrasse.”
That restaurant also had a terrace on the river, just like the restaurant I have now. I guess it was my destiny to work by the waterside.
At that restaurant, I met the father and son Gérard and Philippe Antonin (recipient of the MOF in 1991), and they taught me the esprit, pride, and love of French cooking.
After that, my best friend got into a car accident in Japan, so I went back to Japan and then started working again in “Le Maistro.” “Le Maistro” was a place where I got to meet a lot of excellent senior Japanese chefs.
Is there anyone in particular who left a big impression on you?
That would be Yoshiyuki Onishi, who was deputy head chef when I first worked at “Maestro.”
Mr. Onishi was my senior in the French school, and from that time he was an extremely strict person. He got mad at me every day. He yelled at me continuously—”Watanabe! Watanabe!”—so much so that the French chefs probably remember my name the most! (laughs)
It was intense, to the point of being the most intense period in my life, but he taught me many things that a chef needs to know, so he is a person I am really grateful to.
Unfortunately, after Mr. Onishi quit the restaurant we lost contact for a long time, but afterwards, when I received three Michelin stars as the head chef at Robuchon’s restaurant, a phone call came to the kitchen. “It’s me. Do you know who I am?” and the voice that spoke was Mr. Onishi’s.
That voice was unforgettable, burnt into the inside of my ears. I said, “I’ve been looking for you for a long time because I wanted to thank you for training me so strictly,” and he said, “get out of here!” and got embarrassed, but he congratulated me. I shed tears.
From his transfer to a new job two months after getting married, toward becoming head chef at a world class restaurant
What brought about your working at the famous restaurant “Chateau Restaurant Taillevent Robuchon,” which no longer exists?
When I was 26, there was news that Paris’ “Taillevent” and “Joël Robuchon” were going to build a restaurant like a castle in Ebisu. For us chefs, it was commotion at the level of being invaded by aliens.
When I was a student at the French school, I had gone with some friends to Robuchon’s restaurant for the purpose of studying. The cuisine at that time was impactful, new textures and tastes that were not to be found in the cuisine I had studied up to then. I tried imitating it and making it for myself, but I was absolutely unable to.
When I learnt that there was going to be a Robuchon restaurant in Japan, I thought that maybe I would be able to learn the secret of that cooking. I felt that there was destiny at work.
At that time, I they were letting me serve as a department chef at “Maestro,” and my salary had become stable. In my personal life as well, it was the second month of my marriage. Even then, however, I let my wife know my desire: “For now, let me take on this challenge! I want to work at Robuchon’s restaurant!” I was introduced by Professor Koji Kinoshita, who had always helped me out at French school, and I was interviewed by Chef Toru Kawano, who was the first Japanese head chef of Chateau Robuchon (he is currently the owner-chef of Monna Lisa Restaurant).
As a result, I was allowed to enter the restaurant as the a chef in the meat department. When I got in, I realized that people were coming from all over Japan wanting to work there, so it was a picking out of chefs from all over Japan at that time.
Even for Robuchon himself, this was actually the first time he was actively trying to open a restaurant in a foreign country. He was extremely forceful, and in the kitchen he was like a demon. Everyone worked tooth and nail, filled with a tremendous amount of energy. It was a tremendous space.
That was the first restaurant opened overseas by Mr. Robuchon, who now has restaurants in a lot of different countries! A lot of awesome chefs who are now active on the front lines were gathered together there, right?
“Allow me to work together with you in the meat department!”—the guy who proclaimed himself like that now runs a two star restaurant in Roppongi called “Ryuzu”: Chef Ryuta Iizuka.
In fact, at the time, he had a lot of momentum because he had won a young chef cooking contest, so he was just chomping at the bit when he came in. Even about me, his feeling was like, “who is this Watanabe guy?” (laughs). When he came in he looked at me with a really sharp gaze, but as we worked together we eventually developed a relationship where we supported each other.
One day, when it was extremely busy, he suddenly said to me, “hey, Nabe, you are the first guy I’ve ever had to recognize as an equal.” I laughed: “um, thank you very much.” We are brothers in arms, tasting happiness and frustration together, and we made each other better through competition.
We had more destiny together. After that I had another chance to work with him, in the relationship of chef and sous-chef, at another restaurant (Restaurant Cafe France) under the supervision of Mr. Robuchon.
At the end of 2007, when the word was that Michelin Tokyo would be coming, I was appointed as the executive chef at “Chateau,” and he was entrusted as the head chef at “L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.” Of course, in France, there was this image that “Michelin means three stars,” so we were feeling a huge amount of pressure. It would not do to bring shame to Mr. Robuchon, so I was prepared to quit if I did not get three stars. I had even prepared a letter of resignation.
When we took a look at the results, “Chateau” was able to get three stars and “L’Atelier” was able to get two stars!
At that time, there was no restaurant in Robuchon’s L’Atelier brand with two stars. All of them, even Paris, were one star, so he was the first person to earn two stars! 13 years had passed since that first impactful meeting. We both received stars, I as the head chef at “Chateau” and he as the head chef at “L’Atelier.” We met at an intersection in Nishi-Azabu and shed manly tears: “What a great thing it’s been to support Mr. Robuchon up to now!”
It’s like you’re companions in arms who’ve shared together the highest of feelings! Incidentally, you were at Robuchon’s restaurant for about 20 years, right? Even in the restaurants of Mr. Robuchon, which can be found all over the world, there aren’t a lot of people who work for that long.
I was there for 21 years. Because of that, I received a personalized corporate card from Mr. Robuchon, and if I show this card at any Robuchon restaurant over the entire world, I will receive preferential treatment. I’m told that only a few people in the entire world have this card. It is a treasure of my life.
Afterwards, another unforgettable memory is when I got to provide support on supervision and translation when Mr. Robuchon published a book in Japan. Mr. Robuchon cannot read Japanese, so in reality, I had final responsibility for everything. “I have to convey everything about Mr. Robuchon in his place!”—it was with that feeling of responsibility that I translated carefully, word by word.
At that rate, instead of just the job of chef, it sounds more like you had become an indispensible entity for Mr. Robuchon’s business itself.
He really treated me well. With some of the dishes I thought up, he would say “Watanabe! This is delicious! Tell me how to make it” And by a sort of reverse export, these dishes would sometimes be used in his other overseas restaurants.
However, there was still no familiarity there. In the end, I was nervous every time I met him. Even after working for 11 years as head chef, there was absolutely no way that I could show a slack appearance in front of him. From the moment he arrived in Japan on Monday, I was just all nerves for the whole week. It wasn’t until the gala dinner ended on Friday and they took off from Japan that I could finally take a breather.
In any case, the gala dinner was hard. We entertained guests who have reserved the entire restaurant, and it was just going over and over through taste tests and prep every day until two in the morning for the entire week. That was really tough, really intense. Oh yeah, according to the wishes of Mr. Robuchon, gala dinners have not been held since the one in October of 2015, which was the last one I helped on and which had the theme of white truffles. My successor as head chef, Kimitaka Niimura tells a joke: “You’re good, but you’re a sly fellow.”
There were lots of hard times. However, on the other hand, it was a very precious experience. I only think of things in a positive way, so I’d say I had fun working there.
If I thought it was hard I wouldn’t have been able to be there for 21 years, or work as head chef for 11 years. If I am feeling down, nobody will follow me, so I always encouraged people by saying: “The living Robuchon is right over there! He is a person who will go down in history, just like Napoleon. Be thankful just for the fact that you can hear his voice speaking as a living person!”