|

BRUNO MENARD

Shaping ‘neo-classic’ cuisine

by Robbie Swinnerton

It is a measure of Tokyo’s hidden depths that many of its top restaurants remain so little known, at least among the city’s expatriate population. That is certainly the case with L’Osier. Founded in 1973, it established its heavyweight reputation under French master chef Jacques Borie, winning a devoted clientele among those who shun ostentation in favor of fine dining in a setting as plush and comfortable as a private club.

Since 1999, L’Osier has occupied the first two floors of the House of Shiseido (its parent company) on Namiki-dori in Ginza. It boasts a grand, Art-Deco-look entrance and luxurious interior that are impressive, even by the standards of this upmarket locale. When Borie retired at the end of last year, any concern among regular customers was quickly allayed following the arrival of his replacement as executive chef, Bruno Menard.

Whether you are there for a leisurely lunch or settling in for the evening over a multicourse dinner with a bottle from the extensive cellar, what makes L’Osier special is the attention to detail, the sense of intimacy and Menard’s superb gourmet cuisine.

Ten years. I came here first to open Tatou Tokyo. I stayed two years, then moved to the Ritz-Carlton Osaka for four years, moved to the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta for four years, and just came back eight months ago.

Things have changed definitely. But it’s always Tokyo — things are always moving. But this area [Namiki-dori] is just amazing. And with this beautiful facade [to L'Osier], you feel like you’re in Paris. This is an amazing place, I love it, and it’s the only reason why I would come back to Japan. It’s a really special place — not just for me and for the people of Shiseido, but all the people who visit us.

I feel good, because I like to do things in a special way. My drive in my life is that: to try to do common things in an uncommon way.

How did you get started as a chef?

I’ve been blessed. My whole family is in this business. My father is a chocolatier; my grandfather was a patissier; my brother is a patissier and chocolatier; my sister is the general manager of a small hotel in Paris; my other grand-father was a butcher. So it was just natural. I learned the way other people ride a bicycle: It’s in my heart.

In a recent interview, I was asked what kind of food I like to prepare. But I’m not looking for specific foods. I just want to do things I love. I have to feel it. Cooking at this level is not about recipes. I don’t like the word “creating.” Nobody is creating anything; you just give your interpretation of the dish. Yes, you have some people in Spain who are doing amazing things, like at El Bulli [Catalan new-wave chef Feran Adria], their “molecular cooking.” I agree that’s a bit different and it’s very interesting. But 20 years ago, when they were talking about nouvelle cuisine, everyone was saying those guys are crazy, but now it’s become natural. In the last 20, 30 years people have become more open-minded. They travel, and they’re ready for it now.

And L’Osier has changed in that time, too.

Absolutely. Jacques Borie was not doing the same style of cooking 20 years ago. He made sure there was an evolution in his cooking style. I like to be at the forefront of trends. But not to be the only one, because you need a group energy for whatever you do.

Are the restaurant trends in Japan different, compared to Paris or New York?

I think people in Japan like comfort. And they like to know what’s in their food, when they see what’s on the plate. I’m very interested to see how they react to Pierre Gagnaire’s type of food [Pierre Gagnaire a Tokyo opened in Omotesando in December]. He is doing something very unique, but it’s going to be interesting to see in the coming year what they want. But it’s also very important in a city like Tokyo to have this kind of food. There should by the whole spectrum of food in this city.

And leave the traditional haute cuisine for people coming to L’Osier?

Exactly. Because we’re very traditional here.

How would you describe your cuisine?

I like to call it “neo-classic” because it’s based on very classic French cuisine. On the menu we have all kinds of dishes, from the very classical like daube de pied de cochon, a recipe of Jacques Borie’s, to things like truffle-infused ice-cream with cacao vinegar, that are very different.

Most of your customers are Japanese?

Very much so. I would say 98 percent.

We have new guests who only know L’Osier today, and don’t know how it was in the past. And we have loyal customers who have been coming here forever. So we have to please everybody.

We have 19 people in the kitchen — 45 staff in all in the restaurant — to take care of 40 guests. That’s the kind of ratio they have at Ducasse and Robuchon.

Because everything is so detailed, it takes so much time. For the mise en place, we have 20 things on one plate; everything has to be perfect.

The quality of ingredients here [in Japan] is amazing. The fish and meat is absolutely fantastic. But there are also things I can’t get here. I get hommard [lobster] from Brittany, also bar [sea bass] from Britanny, line caught, because it has a flavor that’s quite unique.

That’s the link between French cuisine and Japanese cuisine — you cannot make outstanding cuisine without outstanding quality of product.

Do you use Japanese spices or seasonings?

I like soy sauce. A few drops of that can help — like when I created my cacao vinegar. The soy sauce really enhances and develops the flavor of the cacao. And all the Japanese vegetables . . . Kyoto carrots are amazing, in fact, all the carrots here in Japan. We use three or four types of carrot. Another thing I just love is the sansho [prickly ash "pepper"] they put on unagi [eel].

Ten to 15 years ago that might have been called fusion food.

Twenty years ago, “fusion” was confusion. People just tried things for the sake of trying them. Sometimes there were some magic pairings, but most of the time they tried things that just didn’t make sense.

Whether it’s French or Japanese cuisine, you need a base. You can’t build a house upside down from the roof, you need a solid foundation. You can be a musician playing free jazz, but you have to know the notes; you can do modern paintings, but you need to know the harmony of colors. Food is like that, you need a strong base, for the flavor, for the taste, for the way you’re going to cook the food.

Do you have some signature dishes?

Absolutely. Foie gras poe^lle, topped with a mix of almonds and ginger confit, with argan oil. I’ve been doing that for five years and people just love that. And my desserts — I love chocolate specifically.

People in Japan really like bitter chocolate now.

Yes, and I think this could be a new trend, cooking with cacao, cacao vinegar. I’m using it a lot in my food, because it gives a nice balance. But, again, that’s not new — the Mayas, the mole sauces from South America centuries ago. You don’t create anything in cooking, it just comes back in cycles again and again.

L’Osier is not very well known among the expatriate community here.

That is the target for me, to really open L’Osier to the international community. I don’t want it to be known only in Japan.

So, what’s the next step for L’Osier?

The first thing is to ensure people come here and have a good time. We want to have a full restaurant and happy guests who go out and spread the word.

Also, there’s going to be a Michelin Guide in Japan in the next couple of years. So we’re looking forward to that, definitely. That would be one way to open this place to international guests when they travel around the world. And that is how you give value to your work, to be part of that. That’s the challenge.