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British artist/chef finds happiness by keeping all of his options open

Johnny Miller, former owner of Tokyo restaurant, starts a new chapter with his move to Osaka

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Cooking can be art and art nourishes, but what really connects the two for chef and artist Johnny Miller is the act of creation itself: “It’s the physicality of it — both are directly related to your body and how your body moves. In cooking, you’ve got to touch things, touch hot and cold things. You’ve got to touch metal and wood so it keeps you in touch with being human and with the world around you,” he says.

“That’s what I love about drawing as well. It keeps you in touch with what you’re thinking or not thinking or don’t want to think.”

Miller’s working life seesaws between these two creative actions, as the owner and chef for a popular Spanish tapas bar for 10 years and as an artist whose work prods and pokes with his offbeat perspective.

A resident of Tokyo for almost 15 years, Miller recently moved with his family to Osaka to take care of his wife’s ailing parents. Although they had to close their popular restaurant, Las Meninas, in Koenji, Miller isn’t worried. He’ll soon have his hands in something new.

“That’s what I like about Japan. You can keep your options open and there is always something you can do,” he says. Currently Miller teaches English at a high school during the week and cooks on the weekends for the popular chain restaurant Hobgoblin in Kobe.

Miller’s magic is in the motion. Growing up in Newcastle, England, he always loved working with his hands. If he wasn’t in the kitchen with his French mother, he was in the garage with his British father helping out with the car.

Circumstance forced him to put his hands to work early. “My father legged it when I was quite young, so when I was about 15 my mother said, ‘You’ve got to start working now.’ ” Although he had been cooking with his mother from an early age, with no experience Miller started out as a waiter. “It was a really posh restaurant in the 1970s. We wore back tails and overly large bow ties and it was all beige and velvet interior, but I kept trying to look at what the chefs were doing in the kitchen and kept asking them questions.” After a year, the head chef recognized his persistence and offered him a job.

Miller worked in a variety of kitchens: first for the appropriately named Mr. Zucchini in Newcastle, next briefly cooking meals for a mental health center and then off to London, where he joined Crown Catering, preparing food for the aristocracy in high-brow settings or “footing it down cobbled streets for outrageously extravagant dinners” for the Freemasons, the world’s oldest and largest fraternal organization, “in a gorgeous room with the ceiling painted by Reubens or mad stuff like that.”

His busy life still left time for drawing. Miller’s need for movement kept his pencil always in hand.

“For some reason I have always been a compulsive drawer,” Miller says. “When I was in London, I didn’t have any friends because I was just working all the time, but I bumped into a neighbor who was into graphic design. I was introduced to her friends and they saw my drawings and suggested I go to art school.”

His friend helped him put together a portfolio and he was accepted instantly in a foundations course at a community college. Although Miller liked his new artistic world, it brought challenges. “I was 26 years old by that time, and the course were all youngsters who had just come from high school, so I felt very old. I had once cooked perfectly 1,000 duck breasts for a Lord Mayor’s lunch with no problem, but I had to put my drawings up on the wall along with everyone else’s fruit bowls and I was bloody nervous.”

He adjusted and graduated to Middlesex University in North London, which appealed to him for its creative freedom. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into being a painter or a this or that. At Middlesex it’s just art, and you do whatever you want. I had a brilliant time. I did performances and I made movies. I stuck to my drawings as well, but I needed to do something, have some body contact.”

In his third year at the university, Miller was recognized as a 1990-1991 winner by the prestigious Bloomberg New Contemporaries, an organization that showcases Britain’s most esteemed emerging artists with a nationwide exhibition of works. Calling it his “first 15 minutes of fame,” he recalls, “I was getting so many phone calls from every town all around England, asking for more paintings. I can paint very fast, and I sold them all with the traveling exhibition.”

After three years at Middlesex, Miller moved on to the Royal College of Art for a master’s in print-making. He was awarded a grant and after he finished his studies, the Royal College gave him a fellowship. Although he spent nearly eight years in art school, Miller cooked professionally the entire time. “I love the physicality of cooking. After a busy night in the kitchen, your body feels differently than if you’ve been in the gym. You are tired differently than if you sat at a computer or tried to write something. I quite like that type of being tired.”

His success with the New Contemporaries tour allowed him to pay cash for an apartment in London, and he found work at a dining club. “I worked in a place that actually sowed the seeds for my idea of Las Meninas later in Tokyo,” he recalls. “I was working in a delicatessen in Soho, the most hideous boring job in my life because I just stood there selling sausages. But one day I delivered to a private dining club, an old Victorian townhouse with about eight floors and two or three dining rooms on each floor. The kitchen was at the top, and I was delivering all these meats and sausages, and the chef was shouting he needed some help, and I said, ‘I’ll help you.’ ” Luckily, the delicatessen had a connection to the dining club, so Miller started right away. “The casual, shabby elegance of the place, the good food and interesting people it attracted” inspired Miller later in opening his own restaurant.

Miller’s cooking future in Japan started appropriately in art. While at the Royal College, Miller won a scholarship to study one semester overseas, at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. “I was given a studio and I had to produce a load of work and then have an exhibition,” he explains. Miller also met his future wife, a fellow art student also interested in fashion. She joined him in London two years later and they married in 1995.

Although the couple enjoyed their London life, they decided to move to Tokyo in 1998, where Miller taught English and painted before opening up Las Meninas. “I could have been a lecturer, because I love reading and talking, but not as a job. I can’t be asked to sit all day.” With his varied experience in cooking, it was only a matter of time before Miller opened his own place, which featured Spanish food and flamenco dancing. “I cooked everything, black pudding or grilled quails or Japanese food.”

Opening in 2002, his restaurant quickly became a popular spot. Free in the mornings to help out with their growing family or create drawings, some for a planned future children’s book, Miller enjoyed his active life until circumstance brought the move to Osaka this year.

Miller experienced his “second” 15 minutes of artistic fame with a 2007 popular showing at Barbara Thumm’s Galerie in Germany. “The organizers called me and said, ‘We’ve sold all your drawings, do you have any more?’ and it was like deja vu from the New Contemporaries tour. I decided to get all my paintings from the last 10 years together and send them.”

Miller and his wife catalogued all the work — more than 800 pieces — to help the Galerie celebrate its 10-year anniversary with another showing in 2009. There were so many boxes, they were held up in German customs and the organizers built a special area in the courtyard of the gallery to hold Miller’s work.

Hailed as a “master of melancholy and the grotesque,” Miller still shows art at different locations in Germany, but he admits, “I am not a career-type painter. I just wait for the chance to come along, like a hibernating frog waiting for the rain.”

As long as his body is moving, hands engaged with paella or paints, Miller is content to wait. “In the walk to the market and back I see so many exciting things. I actually thought that today, looking around and seeing so many nice things and I thought, God, nothing’s changed inside me. When I first came to Japan as a youngish bloke and I used to get the bus to the university, and I was so happy and excited, looking around. Walking down the road today, feeling that same excitement, again and again, and noticing different things.

“Everyone thinks life is repetitive, but I find something fascinating every day in the same things. You can never completely settle because things keep happening, but patience is vital. All the time I have this kind of subliminal confidence that something will happen, but I don’t actually actively push it myself. But then something comes.”