Before becoming head chef at Hong Kong’s Belon, which debuted at No. 40 on this year’s list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, British-born Daniel Calvert was the youngest sous-chef to work under Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York. Known for his precise, classically French approach to cooking, the 30-year-old chef will join Yusuke Namai of restaurant Ode in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward for a collaboration dinner on August 29. This month, Calvert spoke with The Japan Times about life in the kitchen and finding pleasure in the daily grind.
You started cooking when you were 16. What attracted you to the kitchen? When I was a kid, my mom didn’t have time to cook. She used to work two jobs to support me and my sister, so I had to cook for our family. It turned out to be something I really enjoyed doing — having the chance to provide for and make people happy through food. The first thing that I really loved to make was pasta, and I think it’s some of our strongest work at Belon.
What’s the most important thing you learned working for Thomas Keller? Discipline and consistency. Anybody can make an amazing sauce once, but as a chef you have to be able to get up every single day and do the exact same thing, the same way you did it the day before. It’s the hardest thing anyone can do, but it’s also where the pleasure comes from. Ninety-nine percent of the job is repetition, and if you don’t enjoy the repetition, you’ll never get through it. I’ve always liked the pressure of the kitchen and the feeling of getting things right.
Had you visited Asia before moving to Hong Kong in 2016? No, but I knew I wanted to explore it (laughs). I thought Hong Kong would be a good entry-level Asian city because it’s probably the most approachable and English-friendly. When I arrived, it felt like being in New York again. After two years in Paris, it was nice to be back in a big city with a sense of urgency and intensity.
How would you describe your cuisine, and which dish best represents your style? Classic and familiar flavors and ideas, presented in a way that you wouldn’t expect. One example is Hokkaido scallop ravioli with shio-konbu (salted kelp) and pomelo. We take a whole scallop and cook it inside pasta. It’s neither an Italian dish nor a French or Asian dish, but, essentially, it’s a scallop dumpling.
Recently there has been a resurgence of French neoclassicism in restaurants around the world. Why do you think that’s the case? When I was a cook in New York, there were a lot of chefs making “assembly cuisine” — a few components cooked separately and then merely put together on a plate. I don’t believe that’s a dish. It has no soul, no substance. On the other hand, classical French dishes are built on foundations of flavor and technique. If you don’t have those skills, you can’t execute those dishes. I think people realize that. Guests don’t always want to be “interested,” or confronted. They want to be nourished, fed and satisfied.
Tell me a little about your previous visits to Japan. We get a lot of product from Japan. I’ve been several times, and if I could move to Kyoto I probably would. But moving to Japan would be like giving your whole life over to your craft because everyone there is more dedicated than you are.
What can guests expect from your collaboration at Ode? I’ll be making the majority of the courses. We’re going to collaborate on one dish, but we’ll focus on making the menu harmonious so that it’s not just a collection of signatures from either restaurant. As for expectations … expect something delicious.
The collaboration with Belon is the first of a series of guest-chef dinners at Ode. For more information, visit restaurant-ode.com.