PARIS – Chef Kei Kobayashi is speaking his mind — something he says it took moving to France to learn.
Less than 24 hours after he became the first-ever Japanese cook to win the maximum of three Michelin stars in France, the phones are ringing off the hook at his Paris restaurant, Kei.
The last of the lunchtime diners are skipping out of his minimalist dining room not far from the Louvre grinning ear to ear.
They have just eaten a piece of history, and at €58 ($63) for a set lunch, a bargain into the bag.
Kobayashi is holding forth in his clinically clean kitchen as his small team scurries around him.
“Japanese people are usually very quiet. But you cannot survive in France like that,” he said.
The dozen or so other Japanese chefs who have been making waves in the rarefied world of French haute cuisine over the last few years are usually meekness incarnate.
They bow, say a few humble halting words of thanks, and are off.
Not Kobayashi. The first thing that the 42-year-old said after getting his third star was how difficult and demanding he was.
With his gelled hair bleached blond, there is something showy about the young blade, who readily admits to driving his cooks ferociously hard.
But it was not always so, he insisted, claiming France has changed him.
“I am direct now. Like the French, I say what I mean,” he said.
“I am a very difficult guy,” he added, as he barked out an order in his small but perfectly designed kitchen.
“Working with me means lots of stress. I watch and check everything.”
“Compared to a French chef” — who are not renowned for being touchy-feely — “I am probably more difficult,” he smiled.
But Kobayashi was careful not to ruffle feathers when he was asked whether he and other young Japanese were beating the French at their own game, and in their own backyard.
“France has accepted us and given us a place, so I thank France,” he said, adding that the Japanese cooks have been trained in the French tradition for nearly 150 years.
And indeed, it was watching a documentary about the nouvelle cuisine pioneer Alain Chapel that inspired Kobayashi to follow his father — a chef specializing in Japan’s traditional kaiseki (multicourse) cuisine — into the kitchen.
Like his compatriot, Yosuke Suga — who topped the La Liste’s ranking of the world’s best restaurants this year with his tiny Tokyo table, Sugalab, and who is only a few months his senior — Kobayashi decided to learn at the feet of his French heroes.
While some French gastronomes have implied that Kobayashi’s restaurant is not quite grand enough for the culinary holy grail of three stars, even the Michelin guide’s worst enemy believes its inspectors got it right.
French chef Marc Veyrat, who lost his third star last year and took Michelin to court in the notorious “Cheddargate” case, tipped his toque to him.
“I say ‘Bravo!'” he said. “It’s great that people like him are coming here.”
Kobayashi, who was born in Nagano, opened his Paris restaurant nine years ago with his wife, Chikako, after working under a series of legendary French three-star chefs, including Alain Ducasse, one of his mentors.
His pastry chef, Toshiya Takatsuka — who has also been making a name for himself in France — said he decided to move to Paris to work under Kobayashi after eating at Kei in 2013.
“I could immediately feel the spirit of the chef, the concentration — everything was so absolutely right,” he said.
Working with him, however, is no bed of roses, he admitted.
“He puts you under the maximum pressure. He always tells the truth, he never hides things. He says what he thinks — there is no filter,” 35-year-old Takatsuka added.
“But I think he is harder on himself than he is on others. … He has thought everything through in the restaurant, as he keeps saying, it’s a theatre.”
And its star is Kobayashi’s cooking, with the dining room’s sparse gray interior designed to point up his startling creations like his “Garden of crunchy vegetables,” which moved the Michelin inspectors.
When asked why there were no pictures on the walls, he replied, “My cuisine provides the necessary color.”
As Kobayashi mixes the salad of up to 40 ingredients covered in a citrus mousse, “in which every spoonful has a different taste,” it’s hard to disagree.