People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Taku Sekine: Paris, liberty and cocktails

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

The interior decor of Taku Sekine’s restaurant Dersou in Paris is shabby chic: The tables and floor are rough, unvarnished wood and the walls are artfully distressed, showing patches of plaster, chipped paint and brick. There is only a menu degustation; that is to say a tasting menu of what Sekine improvises that day. His decision-making process is a combination of imagination and the necessity of keeping a fixed price when the cost and availability of fresh ingredients varies daily.

There is also a certain amount of tetchiness with the idea that he should feed his clientele what they want, rather than what he wants to create. “I really want to cook what’s nice in the garden or the sea that day. If we have a fixed menu we’ll be stuck … 30 percent of people always want to have vegetables, a percentage always want fish; we have some people, like Americans, who always want meat. This way is very instant, but changing the menu every day is not the point; it’s because I want to be free, actually … from everything.”

With ambitions of changing the world, Sekine first went to the highly competitve School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University, an institution renowned in Japan for being an incubator for future politicians.

Realizing that cooking was more interesting than a life in the Diet, however, Sekine went to culinary school in Tokyo after a stint in Canada learning English and French.

His language skills and chutzpah got him a job working at Beige Alain Ducasse in Ginza and in 2014 Sekine started his own restaurant in Paris.

Sekine’s culinary self-expression at Dersou is eclectic — he says he’s less interested in distinguishing between Japanese and French cuisine and more about “good” and “bad” food — and it has earned him big love from his punters, as well as effusive praise from reviewers. Conde Nast Traveler says he plates his food “as if he were Picasso” and that the ingredients “manage to also taste even better than they look.”

The restaurant is named after Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 film “Dersu Uzala”; the story of a nomadic hunter in the far east of Russia who has preternatural wilderness skills and who cannot stand the constraints of modernity and socialization. Freedom, loneliness, friendship, expertise and the struggle of leading a virtuous life are big themes of the movie.

The wabi-sabi aesthetic of the restaurant, the don’t-fence-me-in attitude and the fact that he pursued training as a chef rather than follow a more expected life path makes choosing the name Dersou seem like Sekine might be trying to communicate something about his world view.

It’s nothing quite that profound, Sekine explains: “Basically I wanted the name Dersou, and I checked the movie out. I didn’t even watch it to the end. It’s just that by chance there’s two guys in the movie, a Japanese and a Russian, like us (Sekine’s business partner Amaury Guyot, who has Russian roots, mixes the cocktails that are tailored to pair with each course), so there was a kind of similarity there, but no more than that.”

After a total of 12 years going back and forth to France, the country has influenced his sense of identity.

“I feel more Parisian than a visitor/immigrant. Especially since I have my own business. I can see the effect that we have contributing to the city with other professional colleagues and competitors in the industry. I feel a responsibility for the future of this city and the country as a whole.”

When it comes to the differences between life in Japan and France, Sekine says he would need hours to answer, but gives a little illustration of how his behavior has changed over the years.

“I never thought I would walk around my apartment with my shoes on, but the other day I found myself wearing shoes in bed when I woke up.” he says.

About more general social issues, Sekine remarks on how children in French kindergarten are more encouraged to be individual and also how there are very different attitudes to time: “In Japan, they are too stressed about being punctual. On top of that, sometimes people are just happy if they work 9 to 5 but without any brilliant results.”

About his new home Sekine says, “In France, at some level, there is more optimism about the notion of time, so less stress in that sense. Sometimes time still gets wasted without any great results, though. Myself, I prefer to work in between (these cultures), meaning punctual like a Japanese train but also a genius like a French artist.”

In terms of politics, Sekine has more confidence in the conservatism of Japan than the volatility of the French.

“The political system of Japan is well balanced and moves very slowly. That’s a good thing. Even if we are more or less on the right, more like Japan is center-right,” he says. “It matches perfectly with Japanese society where the middle class is the majority. And the most important thing is that the Japanese economy is always solid and very, very stable.”

As a small businessman, however, he has issues with who pays for the welfare state, saying, “The government needs to squeeze the money from the upper class and business people, like us. France is getting to be like a socialist country. Basically, you can do whatever you want but the government takes more than 50 percent of what you generate.”

When asked if he can imagine living somewhere else, “Paris is not my last destination,” he says.

“I’m very happy with my situation — the restaurant, my baby, relationships, friends, but we’re never satisfied, right?. And then philosophically speaking, do we have to be from anywhere, anymore? I’m interested in maybe opening up another restaurant in Los Angeles or Mexico City.”

Profile

Name: Taku Sekine

Profession: Restaurant owner and chef

Hometown: Kanagawa

Age: 38

Key moments in career:

1999-2003 — Studies at the School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda

2003 — Visits Canada to learn French and English

2004-05 — Studies at Musashino Cooking College

2004-08 — Works at Beige Alain Ducasse in Ginza

2014 — Opens Dersou in Paris

What I miss about Japan: “Midnight food.”

The best thing about Paris: “The feeling of living in a village, but actually being in a city.”