Chef Gagnaire is definitely qualified to speak on this subject as he has been awarded the title of Gastronomic Ambassador of Yamaguchi prefecture in Japan. Gagnaire is now known as an ambassador of culinary and table arts. He believes that chefs like him are ambassadors not only of quality but also of peace because food brings out gentleness not aggressiveness.
Yamaguchi is the western most part of the island of Honshu and is recognized as the gastronomic center of Japanese cuisine where some of the most iconic Japanese products like uni and fugu from Shimonoseki are harvested. Much has been made of chef Gagnaire’s fondness for sea urchin and other Japanese products and I wanted to hear what he had to say about a country that he has been visiting since the 1980’s and where he has a Michelin-starred restaurant at the ANA InterContinental in Tokyo. He is obviously well-liked in that part of the world, with multitudes of die-hard fans of not just his food but his warm personality, wit, and keen interest in the world of food. This very intellectual and creative chef has a unique perspective on the world and he very generously shared his thoughts.
When I went to visit with him at Twist at the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas few weeks ago, he was in the midst of a publicity photo shoot. As soon as he saw me waiting he came over with a smile and an affectionate greeting and told me that he would soon be done and we could sit down to talk. We have had extensive conversations about food, his philosophy, the role of a chef, and his love of art and music as Gagnaire has eclectic tastes that range from art, jazz, food, design, and football.
Since our last meeting he has opened more restaurants, Les Solistes at the Waldorf Astoria Hilton in Berlin, his first patisserie Choix also at the InterContinental hotel in Dubai and probably more to come. This time our conversation while sipping tea (for me) and coffee (for him) focused on Japan where he says food has become even more important in that culture than it was 40 years ago. We sat at a table from where he could keep an eye on the preparations for a special dinner that night, and nothing escapes his attention in the kitchen or dining room. He is a perfectionist after all.
The last time we spoke about the climate or weather affecting production and availability of many ingredients and this year the coasts in Europe have been pounded with immense storms. How did your area of Brittany fare where you have a house?
Thankfully we were spared any damage though it was a rough time. The damage was mainly to the coastline. This winter was strange though as there was no snow and it was not cold either.
You have a long association with Japan. Since when have you been visiting?
I have almost 30 years of history with Japan and its cuisine and the first time I traveled there was in 1994. I have a strong and somewhat complicated or complex relationship with Japan.
You say that food has become more important in Japanese culture than it was 40 years ago. What has been the more significant change?
It’s better in all areas, but it is still not the most popular place in the world for chefs from outside to work because the Japanese are so good at what they do. There are so many exceptional restaurants in Tokyo and their product is so special and the Japanese are extremely skilled in the art of cuisine.
You like the sea, but what about heights? You have a few restaurants located on high floors in tall buildings.
No no (laughing) it’s just a choice in terms of business because you have a great view. But I like the mountains, especially the Alps in Europe like the Courchevel area where my restaurant Les Airelles is situated. When I was young I lived for a while at the top of the mountains for the skiing.
Is Tsukuji, the fish market in Tokyo similar or very different from one in Paris?
It’s very different as it’s a very big fish market and the product is different. It is gorgeous but different from 20 years ago as 60% of the fish now are from farms and not wild. It’s all changing and everything is more expensive and not so easy to procure.
Do you source any fish for your other restaurants, say in Paris for example, from there?
Yes I do, the variety and choices there are very good.
Do you substitute local products with the original ingredients in your recipes? Like Taragai for scallops in Japan?
Yes absolutely. And now we have access to more quality products from all over the country and world so the choices are more but I do like to use local products.
Just three in all, one chef and one sous chef in Tokyo and chef Ryuki in Las Vegas.
How would you define the taste of Japanese sea urchin?
The taste of uni is not the same as in France because in Japan right after harvesting it is washed with water to which a specific product has been added. This way they can consume it later and in France the process is different so the taste is different. The texture also changes and they are able to hold it for later consumption.
(Alum is used to preserve the sea urchins or uni. In fact potassium alum a salt made of small crystals it helps to conserve and firm up the uni flesh. Harvesting uni is an ancestral activity in the small village where female divers named Amas spend June to October diving without specialized equipment to recover the sea urchins from the depths of the sea. The uni is deftly packaged into the wooden Mikado boxes and sold for a fortune at the uni stock exchange at Tsukuji market in Tokyo)
Uni comes mostly from Yamaguchi in the south (finistère or province) of Japan and you traveled there. What was it like?
It was an extraordinary experience. It is a gorgeous place and the Amas live close to the sea, in fact right above the sea. For them it is not a job but homage to the sea and nature and it is their Ancestral activity in the village that we visited.
(Gagnaire went out with one of the divers in her seventies who still dives to the ocean floor to gather the uni)
Now only 2000 Amas are left in Japan. Are they a part of the Japanese culture that is being lost over time?
It’s certainly not the last generation. Of course their numbers are reducing because this is the old culture of Japan and young women don’t share this philosophy want to work in this traditional manner. Over time they are coming back to recreate their story. It’s very special to Japan to keep traditions alive.
The barbequing of Ayu, a small fish, very popular in Yamaguchi province or archipelago and it tastes somewhat like cucumber, but the Japanese modified it by feeding it on fish farms with tangerine. How do you feel about such modification of nature since GMOs are such a hot topic in the food conversation right now?
Why not! That’s not changing anything, just giving something improved to the consumers. The problem is that we have more people on the planet than any time before and food supply is not adequate, and at the same time it is very expensive. Today it is necessary to find a solution to solve the problem of hunger. We have people at the top with money and the ability to make choices and get the best and then there are those that need food. I am just a chef and not qualified to speak as scientist as such but it is just my opinion and my job is only to give pleasure to my guests. I don’t think I have the competence to be giving a qualified opinion on this subject.
(Ayu is a fish that lives between the sea and the river with a life cycle of less than a year. Its white flesh tastes like cucumber in its original state. Gagnaire made a on the spot recipe suggesting they grill it, make rillettes, add a drop of sesame oil and more tangerine juice to come up with a sophisticated dish!)
Fugu or blowfish is served as sashimi, but what is the fascination with consuming this fish that can possibly kill you and paying a fortune (300 Euros) for it?
It is part of the Japanese story and every culture has its own story and consuming such things is part of many other cultures. It’s tradition, it’s a fascination with danger and people enjoy that risk taking.
Would you serve it at your restaurants?
For the Japanese it is at the top in terms of quality and product. I would not serve it because I don’t like it very much as for me it is very dry, the texture is not very interesting, but the Japanese love that.
(Chefs or restaurants pass an exam after three years of training and get a license from the prefecture. Fugu breeding began 30 years ago and within the last two years really developed. Fugu contains poison because it eats naturally toxic food. Like a red seaweed that is attached to rocks or shell fish in the sea but in the farms it is not fed toxic food. Gagnaire met with a fugu master and observed that apart from isolating the eyes, liver, and intestines that contain tetrodotoxin poison, it is important to wash it well to remove all traces of poison)
Japanese are complex and difficult to explain. Even though I go several times a year it is hard to completely understand their story. Their social set up as in the relationship between men and women, the concern for the security of the children has all remained unchanged over time while other things have changed with technology. After Fukushima there are a lot of recent changes because they understood with this incident that they could not be confident in their safety and have complete confidence in technology. What happened there was totally tragic.
Has the Fukushima disaster changed what is safe to put on plates in Japan or is it business as usual?
It’s true since Fukushima that there are concerns since it’s on the coast and it’s dangerous but it is in the water, not in the air. The disaster is on a part of the coast not the whole coast of Japan and it’s too early to say what the effects will be or evaluate the damage. We must wait to see what happens.
What is the Japanese food culture?
In every culture what is really is food? It is the taste, quality of the texture, and not being Japanese I cannot say what taste in their cuisine is about. It’s true that I have an association with the Japanese food culture but still I don’t know everything. We are in the culture of flavor, palate, and what happens in your taste buds and in the back of your mouth.
If I asked your opinion on the flavors of tomorrow what would you think will possibly emerge?
For example, in Las Vegas 20 years ago there not many good restaurants with good quality and now the new trend is to have big operations but it will take time to develop really good cuisine by learning to make the basics like good sauce for example, to cook a good piece of beef, to serve complex and different vegetables. Today food is becoming more of a show and without a real concept behind it. It’s all about money and we ask where is the taste, where is the story. The pressure is all on looks and money not the art.
Is it a connection with tradition that attracts you to Asia and other parts of the world?
The concept of fusion in food began a long time ago in fact the it is not only the food that I find interesting but also food that is not fusion like Indian food, Malaysian food. For me it’s a surprise as Indian food is so distinct, so interesting and the strength of this cuisine must become part of the center of cuisine in general.
It is more casual and it’s a cafe/ bistro and we are doing pastry because the people there love sweets and pastry. They want the convenience of a quick light meal sometimes. We have very good partners and the InterContinental made it feasible for us to open and it’s doing very well.
Do you use any local products there?
No local product from Dubai. We do get products from all over the world.
You rarely do collaborations, such as the one with Chef Shawn McClain at Sage at the Aria in Las Vegas.
Yes I don’t work that way and we just worked together for an event but I would not call it collaboration. It’s just that we work for the same company and the same bosses and they decided that we should do this event. Shawn is a very good guy, honest and talented and it was a very interesting evening.
Of all the people that I have the opportunity to meet and converse with Pierre Gagnaire is one of the most real and interesting and one of my favorite people to catch up with. If you are ever in any of his restaurants while he is present do initiate a conversation with him. He charmingly puts you at ease and attempts an earnest conversation which sometimes is partly in English and French but delightful just the same.
I promised to visit him in Paris again soon and I will certainly share my conversation on this forum. You can get more details of his stellar career by reading my previous post on Pierre Gagnaire.