For one of the world’s most illustrious chefs, Pierre Gagnaire keeps a remarkably low profile. Unlike many of his media-savvy colleagues, he shuns business suits and the spotlight of stardom, and just lets his food do the talking.
Widely considered the genius chef of his generation, his brilliant, innovative cooking has won him the coveted Michelin three-star accolade twice and the Paris address of his eponymous restaurant on Rue Balzac is an essential stop for any true gourmet visiting that gastronomic capital. Not that we need to travel so far any more: Pierre Gagnaire a Tokyo, his bijou restaurant in the chic Aoyama district has been open for two years, quietly winning rave reviews among local connoisseurs who understand superlative cuisine doesn’t have to be formal and stand-offish to be totally memorable.
On a recent visit to Tokyo, Gagnaire broke his customary aversion to the media to meet with The Japan Times.
In his white kitchen uniform and with his swept-back mane of hair, he looks the quintessential chef-as-artist as he holds forth on his approach to cooking, his philosophy and his love of Japan.
Congratulations on gaining two stars in the new “Michelin Guide Tokyo 2008.” That’s one more than in London, but still one behind Paris. How would you compare the three cities?
Paris is my town. It’s where I live, the place I know best. It’s the heart of my operation. London: I love the city. My project [his restaurant complex Sketch] is a bit crazy. It consists of five restaurants, so it’s like a huge ship. Between them, they’re open from breakfast at 8 a.m., until late at night, with diners partying till after 2 a.m. So it’s a complicated but beautiful adventure.
Tokyo is unique. It’s a city of excellance. It’s extremely interesting to work here, because there is great produce; there is a restaurant-going public; and people are prepared to work. They want to learn, both in the kitchen and at the table. Everything is in place here. That’s why I have my restaurant, Pierre Gagnaire a Tokyo.
So it’s the people here who inspired you to open your restaurant in Tokyo?
They asked me to come. I am not a businessman. I am someone who creates cuisine. For me, that’s the most important thing. If someone comes to me and makes a proposition, then I will say “yes” or “no.” In the case of Japan, I’d been coming here for a long time, more than 10 years. But I had problems in St. Etienne [Gagnaire's first three-star restaurant in France went bankrupt]. So the people here said, let’s wait and see how competent he really is. Running a restaurant is a business, and they wanted to see if I was capable of doing that.
The Michelin Guide calls the food at Pierre Gagnaire a Tokyo “modern French cuisine.” Is that how you see it?
Perhaps. But if something is “modern” today, what will it be tomorrow? I’d rather just say “Pierre Gagnaire-style.” Categories are difficult: I prefer to use the two categories “artisan” and “artist.” As an artist it’s more difficult, there’s more risk.
Would you say your cuisine in France has been influenced by Japan and Japanese food?
Not at all. Having said that, there was a point when I wasn’t enjoying this metier [as a chef]. One day I realized there is another way to approach cooking: that is to forget your apprenticeship and instead to find the heart, the spirit of the cuisine, to make it more than a metier — a means of expression. As I did that, I incorporated approaches that didn’t exist up to then in French cuisine. There is no philosophy in French cuisine, but in Japan you find cuisine alongside gardens, floral art, pottery: there is a very philosophical connection. That’s not the case in France and Europe. I integrated that kind of approach because for me it was a way to survive [as a chef].
When I came to Japan for the first time, I saw that there was a connection — or rather, the Japanese saw a connection in my work. But it’s not that Japan has influenced me. It has been my personal evolution, which has converged a bit with the Japanese spirit. Certainly, if I were to live in Japan I could take this much further in my work. I don’t live here. But if I did, I could be very much at ease.
Up to now the French have seen their cuisine as the center of the gastronomic universe. But now Michelin has given more stars to Tokyo than to Paris. Also, you are here now, and so are many other top French chefs. Do you think this is changing the way people in France view Japan and Japanese cuisine?
Yes, without a doubt. Right now the situation in France is a bit destabilized. The grande cuisine [haute cuisine] is going very well and there are many very good restaurants. Today the problem in France is that the cuisine modeste (everyday cooking) is not in good health. It’s not a problem in haute cuisine; there are lots of restaurants, plenty of people who really know the skills, doing well. But family cooking is a bit mediocre. In Spain that’s not the case, nor in Japan or Italy.
How would you describe your cuisine?
Emotion; sophistication and elegance; sometimes simple; generous; made from the heart.
What is your signature dish?
My signature lies in the attention to details.
Your executive chef in Tokyo is Olivier Chaignon. How does he translate your artistic vision?
He’s doing well. I’m in contact daily, and I come over to Tokyo every two to three months and I stay eight days. I stay in the kitchen; I don’t go sightseeing. But my cuisine doesn’t taste the same [as in France]. The ingredients aren’t the same; nor is the way of eating. We make smaller portion sizes. The Japanese like to taste, but not too much. And they don’t like flavors to be too strong. My food is always subtle, but their palates are extremely subtle.
What future projects do you have planned?
Honestly, today, this is it. I have other projects — inevitably because money is always circulating. But my project here is the best possible. Here I have everything: The people like and respect us; there are good products [ingredients] and good workers; I have my health. So I would like to make this become a restaurant of true excellence. That is my mission.
Pierre Gagnaire a Tokyo is at Minami-Aoyama Square Bldg. 4F, 5-3-2 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5466-6800; www. pierre-gagnaire.jp. Nearest station: Omotesando. Open 11:30 a.m.-1.30 p.m. (last reservation) and 6 p.m.-9 p.m. (last reservation). Closed Sunday and holidays. Lunch menus at ¥5,800, ¥7,350 and ¥10,000; dinner ¥17,000 and ¥23,000; also a la carte. All no smoking. Dress code: jackets for men at dinner.