Japanese chefs make their mark in the City of Lights
The pithiviers de canard at Clown Bar, a historic restaurant in Paris with circus-themed glazed tiles from the 1920s, is an exquisite rendering of a classic dish. Duck breast surrounded by minced duck meat, topped with duck foie gras and baked inside a pastry shell the color of varnished teak, it is a flaky, tender, succulent argument for why we still worship traditional French cuisine.
The pithiviers may be as French as the four-week vacation, but the one at Clown Bar is the creation of the chef Sota Atsumi, who is from Tokyo.
Atsumi, 30, is part of a new generation of Japanese chefs who set out to master French cooking and who now run some of the most acclaimed French restaurants in Paris — notable in a city known for its snobbish dismissal of outsiders. Le Fooding, possibly the most influential food publication in the country, named Clown Bar the best bistro in all of France for 2015.
Some of the chefs, such as Dai Shinozuka of Les Enfants Rouges, are so orthodox that the food they cook could illustrate a textbook. Others, like Shinichi Sato at Passage 53, a white jewel box of a restaurant with two Michelin stars, or Atsushi Tanaka at Restaurant A.T, embrace modernist cuisine. They moved to France to learn from the country’s culinary lions and to absorb its traditions and techniques.
“You can impress Japanese people with French cuisine, but I want to cook French cuisine for French people,” said Katsuaki Okiyama, the 39-year-old chef at the restaurant Abri. Okiyama, who was born outside Tokyo and studied French cuisine in Japan before moving to France, worked at Taillevent and La Table de Joel Robuchon (now closed), two citadels of formal dining in Paris.
Japanese chefs have been cooking in Paris for some time. Alexandre Cammas, the editor of Le Fooding, recalled that a handful of Japanese chefs were running the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants with expensive menus in 1990s.
But recently, he said, many in this new generation are opening the kind of small, studiously informal restaurants that have changed the culinary landscape in Paris. They are card-carrying members of the “bistronomy” movement, which brings the sophistication and technique of fine dining to tastefully scuffed neighborhood restaurants, where the confidently disheveled waiter is more likely to guide you to a weird, wonderful and inexpensive natural wine than a pricey grand cru. These ambitious and affordable restaurants have created a new eating culture, cultivating a youthful and discerning clientele. Some of the most refined cooking in Paris is now found in restaurants that are young, loud and fun.
These Japanese-born chefs are integral to that movement, running the kitchens in a number of the city’s most talked-about restaurants. “The big increase is maybe since three years,” Cammas said. The current edition of Le Fooding includes a “Japaname Tour” of Paris with a lavishly illustrated foldout map. It lists 40 restaurants headed by Japanese chefs, 28 of which are cataloged as “Japarisiennes,” a portmanteau for Japanese chefs cooking French cuisine.
It’s not easy to win over Parisians, but diners have been seduced by how these émigrés have mastered the local vernacular. After all, food is more than sustenance or a source of pleasure in France; it’s an important part of the nation’s identity. In 2010, UNESCO named the multicourse French meal — the organisation defines as “commencing with an aperitif” and consisting of “at least four successive courses” — as a heritage worthy of protection.
Chefs like Atsumi and Okiyama are as much the guardians of that legacy as any chef from France.
“It is a question of talent and passion, and it’s a question of soul,” Cammas said, explaining that technical skills will only take you so far in Paris. “The mille-feuille at Abri is one of the best you can taste,” he said, speaking of Okiyama’s playful interpretation of the intricate pastry. It isn’t a classic mille-feuille, but the flavors are true to the original — it doesn’t flirt with fusion. “He just does it better,” Cammas said.
Narrow and cramped, Abri feels more like a student dive than a restaurant that books up weeks in advance. At night, fashionable Parisians navigate an unphotogenic stretch of rue du Faubourg Poissonnière to crowd into one of the small tables and linger over one of the city’s gastronomic bargains, a six-course tasting menu that costs about USD55 (RM240).
There is longstanding mutual admiration between French and Japanese cuisines. Both are refined and highly codified, and revere technique that’s handed down through a strict master-apprentice relationship that is basically the same as that of a medieval guild. Some exceptional French restaurants have opened in Japan over time — out of Tokyo’s 13 restaurants with three Michelin stars, 11 are Japanese and two are French — and the food they serve has ignited the imaginations of some young cooks.
It helps explain why many of the Japanese chefs working in France are ingredient fanboys. Lamb, butter, chanterelles: What was so exotic back home can be picked up at the local markets in Paris. “Yuzu is easy,” said Okiyama, the chef at Abri. “I go to shops and see what French people are buying. For example, fennel. I don’t naturally like fennel, but I’m trying to understand fennel and to see what flavours I can bring out of it, what I can do with it.”
Akiko Kawamura, a Japanese journalist based in Paris who writes for Madame Figaro Japon, said, “The difference between French food and Japanese food is one of addition, one of subtraction.” In French haute cuisine, more is more, with the reductions and sauces that form dishes set out to impress you. On the other hand, formal Japanese cuisine is more understated, defined by its subtleties.
According to Kawamura, that essential distinction is never fully erased. “Young Japanese chefs in France are always saying that they use French technique, but they really are doing their own cooking,” she said.