It’s the end of the afternoon shift at the small two-starred restaurant in the place Godinot in Reims. Everyone is bustling about: customers pay their respects to the chef and the kitchen staff are cleaning the kitchen while Marine Tanaka prepares the dining room for the evening service. While waiting for the chef, my mind wanders towards what I know of Japan, gleaned from the movies. I am overcome by countless images from films by Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Oshima and, more recent filmmakers like Kitano, Miyazaki and Kore-eda. Country landscapes with beds of reeds, enormous labyrinthine cities, bloodied knights, frenzied eroticism as well as the finesse of feelings. I think back on “The Distant Neighbourhood” [遥かな町へ, Harukana Machi e] by Taniguchi and “Manabé Shima”, the humorous and fascinating graphic narrative by Florent Chavouet, a young French illustrator who visited the small island. A world coveted by many. Kazuyuki Tanaka is buoyant, effusive and alert, his eyes piercing. A man with an inquisitive mind, a man in motion.
I come from a family of cooks in Fukuoka where my father and uncle were both chefs of their own restaurants. My brother works in the kitchen with me in Reims. What is amusing is that my in-laws also work with us: my mother-in-law as well as my wife’s uncle and her grandmother.
It was my dream to come to France, a dream I shared with father who speaks French. He had bought his airline ticket and made all the preparations and then, at the last moment, he decided, at the age of 27, to open his restaurant in Japan. He told me: “Perhaps your eyes would have been blue had I married a French woman”.
My father is a wonderful cook, using French and Italian techniques he learned working in leading hotels. He followed in the footsteps of my grandfather who was also fascinated by European cuisine. All the world’s cuisines exist in Japan: Chinese, French, Italian, and more. The best restaurant is my father’s since he combines the various influences so that I can sense everything, both the flavours and the heart. Each time I return to Japan, I eat his curried rice dish. Japanese short-grain rice served with a curry sauce with ginger, garlic and vegetables.
A childhood spent in the father’s kitchen
When I was little, I helped my father washing dishes, putting away empty bottles and, all that time, I watched my father as he cooked. He worked quickly from memory; we had 150 people to serve. I gradually began to peel vegetables and shrimp, and I dressed the fish. I worked in many starred restaurants in Fukuoka, Saga, Tokyo and Osaka. I never went to a culinary school. In fact, I could have cared less about studying and diplomas; I wanted professional experience.
I didn’t work in my father’s restaurant because I wanted to achieve his dream of going to France and marrying a French woman with blue eyes (laughing). My son’s eyes are not blue, but what can you do… I also hoped my father would be part of my restaurant.
Around the age of 18, I thought it important to think about the future and what I should be doing at the age of 25, 30 and 40 years old… I told myself that at 25, I would leave for France and open my own restaurant.
My main contact was Mrs. Harumi Osawa (Manager of the French Food Cultural Centre in Japan) who is very familiar with French chefs and restaurant directors. I arrived at the two-starred restaurant Chez Gill (Chef Gilles Tournadre) in Rouen before working at the three-starred Flocons de Sel (chef Emmanuel Renaut) in Mégève, and then at the one-starred L’Auberge de la Charme (Chef David Zuddas) in Prenois, close to Dijon, where I met my wife working in the kitchen like me. Following all these experiences, I returned to Japan and applied for a French working visa. When I came back, I returned to Rouen before leaving to work with Régis Marcon at Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, where I worked with my wife for three years. Hustling about, Marine Tanaka intervenes: “He was so gifted. I studied in Dijon and Kazu taught me many techniques. It was in Normandy where I found my true calling in dining room service. I couldn’t bear the pressure in the kitchen; I prefer to cook at a leisurely pace. Besides, I was frustrated in the kitchen because you couldn’t see the customers’ pleasure”.
I remember my first trip here. It was winter, I felt at home. Each town has a scent that incites us to imagine a certain colour. There were light clouds here that made me think of white.
Fukuoka, my birth town, is blue: the colour of the small stones in front of my house as well as the Genkai Sea.
I came back several times to visit my in-laws and started training at Les Crayères and Le Millénaire before starting work with Philippe Mille at Les Crayères in 2013. Then I realised that as this town is not far from Paris and offers champagne as well as plenty of curious tourists, it presented true potential.
Traditional French dishes can tend to be heavy; they contain a lot of cholesterol and fat, which is not very healthy. They should be made with less butter and less cream. I use the simplest Japanese culinary techniques and respect the food’s natural flavour while taking care to not make it too heavy. Sauces, for example, serve as a counterpoint; there should be just enough to complement the flavour.
I don’t often think about Japan when cooking but dashi broth (traditional Japanese stock made from kombu kelp and shavings of dried bonito) is my normal base, to which I may sometimes add a bit of tomato and some soy sauce. The other essential for me is marinade. I like to cook vegetables and let them marinade in the cooking water. Each vegetable is cooked separately: if there are ten vegetables, there are ten pots. I sear each vegetable with a bit of garlic, some thyme and a drop of olive oil, and then I just barely cover it with water and steam it.
For example: with turnips, I leave the vegetables to infuse in a bit of the cooking liquid that has become a very fragrant bouillon. This broth slowly penetrates the vegetables to intensify their flavour.
I use lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves and galanga from Asia, just to explore what we are unfamiliar with. If I prepare traditional French dishes, customers are already familiar with the flavour and that is less exciting than discovery: what is important is to blur the lines. Since I am Japanese, I can introduce products that are unfamiliar here to surprise customers. But I would not want to open a restaurant in Japan because I really enjoy the French: they love to eat, they like cooking, they enjoy food and they like spending time in a restaurant, all of which is important to me. People in Japan are too serious, they do not express their feelings. Here, you eat, you laugh, you have loud discussions; you are extremely vivacious and you share that with the cook. Cooking is a lot of work, sharing is essential; it is key to the pleasure. Cooking is the intersection between customers and us; it is a dialogue. That is the essence of our trade.
The products, the suppliers
I love working with all products. I don’t really have preferences, although I do especially like vegetables because of their various colours, textures and flavours. And besides, they are important for our health. I buy from Stan at the Boulingrin market (La ferme des Bonnevals – Craonne). Sometimes I give him seeds from Japanese vegetables. Stan plans his plantings based on my menu. It’s important to be able to talk with another aficionado. Sometimes, he brings me vegetables and after cooking them, I take pictures to show him how they are arranged on the plate. It’s critical that he see the finished product. There is a lot of work on both sides: the land needs to be prepared, seeded and tended before the products arrive in the kitchen where someone will sort, wash, prepare and trim. I am at the very end of the entire chain. There must be respect and it is crucial to show the final result to my suppliers; like that, they are simply more happy. Otherwise, I have a small garden close to Rethel, and since I love wild herbs, I go to pick them in the countryside around there. That garden is like paradise, there is mint and lovage. I love working the land; I plant beetroots and many other vegetables. My dream would be to provision my own restaurant. I know a restaurant in Belgium which produces 90% of its requirements in vegetables.
As for fish, I love freshwater fish like char, fera or pike-perch. You have to do something different since everyone else cooks John Dory, sole and turbot, which are all good fish but in the end, you are always eating the same thing. I also make a starter with snails from Burgundy, but now the cooks no longer dare work with this product. I work a lot with local producers but if a product is better elsewhere, it is best to go fetch it.
For me, the best dessert is good fruit. For example, you can make a mousse or tarte with strawberries, but in my opinion, the ultimate is to eat ripe strawberries, simply with nothing at all. Strawberries are naturally well-balanced, both sweet and tart, and the texture is interesting, they are like an orange or pineapple. So I don’t use a lot of flour, just enough to give it a bit of body. Today, for instance, I have prepared a clementine with a chocolate ball stuffed with chocolate cream and I am about to make a dessert with parts of a fir tree. I transform the needles into ice cream and serve this with a banana for consistency, a caramelised wedge and a pistachio wedge, and some chocolate. I also like to work with ginger. A traditional dessert for me is ginger, pineapple and yuzu. Everything should remain simple.
Finding your own path
To identify a good product, you have to taste everything, just like with wines and champagnes. There may sometimes be reference brands, but you shouldn’t take this for granted. My job is to find the taste that suits me and too bad if I don’t end up working with suppliers of this or that great restaurant. My priorities are flavours and price so as to offer a broad choice to my clientele.
I don’t like categories such as “French or Japanese cooking” because categories don’t evolve. I don’t want to take on some label, it’s too restrictive; I prepare good food, that’s all I know. A restaurant is like a book, a movie or a painting: behind the title are various stories that inspire different feelings. It is ultimately up to the customer to decide what my cooking is. In fact, we should put ourselves in the customer’s shoes: “if I were sitting in this restaurant, what would I think?”. Everything must be done meticulously – the cutting of the vegetables, the seasoning – each detail is important, you just have to take it one step further. I also enjoy hors d’oeuvres and after-dinner sweets. They do not appear on the menu; customers consider them to be like gifts, which is a big bonus.
Memory and emotion
Memory works by focusing on very good or very bad dishes, even the very bad are remembered (laughter). Customers explore, I explore. You have to stand out, find those aspects that enhance a recipe; it might be plate presentation, the taste or even the restaurant’s ambiance. I am pleased when people feel a thrill, but this is difficult. When I cook, I already have everything in mind. I actually taste very little, it’s my wife who tastes (smile). In fact, I combine and taste in my head; I can even see the finished results. I envision a series of shapes and tastes in the plate: sweet, sour, bittersweet, pungent… That is why I like small restaurants, because in large restaurants where you have to send out 60 plates, the emotion is split into 60 portions. When I worked in a three-starred restaurant, I was proud to roast 60 pigeons. Now I have moved on. We are craftsmen, we have our two hands, we finish each dish with care and when I send out four plates, the emotion is divided by four… that feels better. My only question today is “can I put all emotions into all products?”.