Thierry’s table offers bountiful taste of France

At Kyoto eatery, Togo-born chef on mission to demystify cuisine for Japanese

by Jane Singer

The cartoon character adorning ads and menus for the Kyoto restaurant Le Table de Thierry, it turns out, is a pretty good approximation of the owner himself: an upbeat, grande-size French-Togolese chef with a passion for demystifying French cuisine.

Thierry Houngues, 51, was born in Lome, the capital of the West African nation of Togo, in 1959 as the second of six children. At age 9 he won an academic scholarship competition and was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Angers, in the Pays de la Loire region of western France.

“It was a little bit hard — 9 is really too young to go so far,” he said. “When I had been there a few months I told my teachers that I would return home, just go straight and would get there. I started off walking down the road and after a while I came to a crossroads. Should I go left or right? I didn’t know, so after a while I sat down and started to cry. Eventually a local resident found me and drove me back to school.”

Houngues eventually adjusted to life in provincial France and finished his schooling. Afterward, at his parents’ bidding, he completed a three-year business management course. However, he then decided to become a chef, which enraged his father. “In Africa, you see, cooking was seen as the job of a wife, not a man,” he said.

He prevailed over parental opposition and studied restaurant management and French cuisine while working at a friend’s restaurant for three years, receiving licenses for both in 1985.

Houngues took a job in a restaurant in a Parisian suburb but came up against what he calls “French apartheid.”

“The French didn’t want an African like me managing a restaurant. They wanted me to cook. I was always told to stay in the kitchen and not interact with the customers. I could have opened an African restaurant, but after growing up in France I only knew how to cook French cuisine,” he said.

In 1989 Houngues was recruited by a Japanese resort hotel on Awaji Island, in the Seto Inland Sea near Kobe. “At the time I knew nothing about Japan except a few names — Tokyo, Hiroshima — and a few words: shabushabu, geisha,” he said. “I actually thought that I’d find samurai walking outside. After my six-month contract ran out my boss continued to sponsor me for working visas. He treated me well, and I wanted to stay. After all, in France I had to keep hidden because I was black, but in Japan they wanted me not only to show my face to customers but to walk around the restaurant.”

In 1991, with his former boss as his sponsor, Houngues opened a small restaurant in Nada Ward, Kobe, that he named Easy Gourmet Thierry. But it closed in less than two years after he became involved in another business venture that ultimately failed.

With no intention of giving up on Japan, in 1992 Houngues ventured to Tokyo, home to hundreds of French restaurants among its 160,000-odd eateries. After three years at a restaurant in the fashionable Aoyama area he took the position of chef at the nearby Brazilian Embassy.

“I cooked for the ambassador, his family and guests, and for official functions (where French cooking is preferred). The first ambassador and his family all loved good food,” he said.

His face fell as he continued. “Now the next ambassador — he and his family really didn’t like food much — always the same Brazilian dishes, day after day.

“Still, working at an embassy is really interesting. When you cook for official embassy functions, you have to adjust the tastes of the food to please the guests from so many different countries, and if you make a mistake you can’t just go up to the customer and apologize — it might cause a diplomatic problem!”

In 1996 Fuji TV approached Houngues about appearing on its hit cook-off show, “Ryori no Tetsujin” (“The Iron Chef”), which later developed a cult following when it aired for many years in the U.S. and Australia. Houngues had three days to plan his menu, then one hour on camera to prepare dishes containing a selected ingredient. In his case, it was caviar.

In the show, which aired in August 1996, Houngues was pitted against iron chef Komei Nakamura.

“The first 15 or 20 minutes I felt such pressure from the cameras, the lights, the audience that I could do nothing, but finally I felt like myself. I prepared four dishes using theme colors of red for the heart, black for myself and white for purity. For one dish, for example, I combined smoked salmon, fresh cream and black caviar, and another multinational dish included caviar, African couscous and French langoustine, prepared Japanese tempura-style,” Houngues said.

Nakamura prevailed in the contest, but “to me, I don’t think I lost,” Houngues said. “I was the first black chef on the show. Compared to my treatment in France, here I was on television!”

In 1999 Houngues was sent to Kyoto as head chef of a restaurant catering to wedding parties, accompanied by his Hong Kong-born wife, whom he met in Tokyo and married in 1995. After eight years at the Kyoto restaurant his contract expired and he decided to open a restaurant under his own name.

Houngues’ restaurant, La Table de Thierry, occupies the ninth floor of a downtown building close to the Kamo River, and from most of the 46 seats guests can rest their eyes on white egrets in the river below, or follow the river north or south and see midtown congestion soon segue to bucolic greenery.

Houngues regards his restaurant, which offers reasonably priced but impeccably prepared classical French fare (“French cuisine sans complexes”), as part of his “Kyoto project” to persuade young Japanese not to take French food quite so seriously.

“Unlike in Tokyo or even Osaka, young Japanese in Kyoto think French food is only for weddings or Christmas dinners. Guests call to ask if they need to wear a suit to the restaurant — they worry that they’ll have to deal with four sets of knives and forks. I tell them that French food can be casual as well.”

As part of his educational mission his restaurant sponsors a monthly “secret menu” luncheon series that he calls the “Tour de France.” For this he prepares specialties from a different French region each month, paired with local wines and some instruction on regional character. The next stop on Houngues’ “tour” will be Lyons on Sept. 26.

Kyoto residents, proud of their own kaiseki traditions, are a tough sell when it comes to casual French food, Houngues said. “In Tokyo you can always find your customer, but in Kyoto people tend to keep it to themselves if they find a good restaurant.”

He adjusts his tastes to suit finicky local palates. “In Osaka, people are happy if they have large portions on their plate. Kyoto people prefer less salt in their food and they tend to order full courses rather than a la carte.”

Houngues readily employs local ingredients, such as Kyoto’s famed kyoyasai vegetables and fish from Japanese waters, but he uses imported French fowl for his acclaimed roast chicken, saying, “Japanese chickens don’t roast very well. We roast whole chickens on our rotisserie (also imported from France), so the meat stays very juicy.”

Asked about leisure pastimes, Houngues seemed temporarily stumped. “Let’s see . . . in my time off I look for new foods, try new restaurants, shop for new ingredients, and cook new dishes at home. You know, you can’t do this job unless you really love to cook.”

The vice president of the association of French chefs in Kansai, Houngues values his ties with the local French community. His two children are enrolled in Kyoto’s small French school, and at home his family speaks a challenging melange of French, Chinese, Japanese and English.

“It’s not easy to live in many places and I might not always understand how Japanese think, but I can accept other cultures,” he said. “As someone who was born in Africa, raised in France, lives in Japan and has a Chinese wife I sometimes ask myself, ‘Who am I?’ But I am myself. All that we are comes from the heart, the soul.”