An Interview with:
Jun Tanaka is the Head Chef of Pearl restaurant. His food fuses both the classic French cookery of his formative years and the artistry and subtlety associated with his Japanese heritage. He took some time out of his day to tell us a few things about himself and also to cook a beautiful dish inspired by the new season lamb.
When and how did you first decide to become a chef?
I started cooking professionally when I was 19 years old, and I guess I got into it through my mum. When you’re a kid your parents are a very strong influence and I was brought up on fantastic food. My mum was a brilliant cook and I used to come home to a big family meal which in our house was a big deal. It’s not so much now, which is a bit of a shame. The family would sit down to a meal, and I think, looking back it was my favourite part of the day. So ever since then I’ve always loved food, and I think it was natural, as I got older that the passion progressed and in turn made me want to learn how to cook.
How did your parents react to you becoming a chef?
It’s funny, when I was 16 and my brother was 18 my mum said that I should become a chef and my brother should be a doctor and that’s what’s happened.
…………And your dad?
My dad would support anything I chose to do. In fact when I was about 10 I decided I wanted to be a film critic because I loved watching films. I always thought what better way to pass my career than just sitting watching films all day and then writing about them? And so he said, from now on every time you watch a movie I want you to write a critique of it. So I did. The project lasted for two movies.
Excellent I’d like to see those critiques some day! So after you’d laid down your pen which restaurants did you work in?
I started at Le Gavroche. I then spent two years at Nico’s which has since closed but had 3 Michelin stars. From there on to the Capital under Philip Britten and then to Les Saveurs under Joel Antunes. I guess he was the very first chef to bring the Asian/French style cooking to London. From there on to Marco Pierre White at Hyde Park and then I went to the Oak Room with Marco. I moved from there to the Square, and then to Eric Chavot, which eventually closed down, so back to the Capital. I then opened my own neighbourhood restaurant “Chives” before finally moving here to Pearl.
Wow that’s some CV. It sounds like to get to where you are you’ve not taken any short cuts. What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a chef?
I think these days a lot of people want to be chefs. I get a lot of emails from people saying how much they love cooking, how passionate they are about it and ask advice about how to start up. It’s all great, but I think you have to understand that loving food and cooking at home is completely and utterly different from working in a professional kitchen. I don’t think people really appreciate how much of your life you have to commit to make a career of it. A lot of people give up at some point, they just think enough’s enough and go into recruitment – You go into any recruitment agency and I bet you’ll find a few ex-chefs.
From what you’re saying do you think it is a destructive profession?
Oh yeah, you burn out fast, It’s definitely a young persons industry. You look at all the top chefs in Britain and they’re all in their 30’s and so if you don’t reach your peak before then, then it’s not going to happen. It’s a bit like footballers hitting their stride in their 20’s, chefs will generally hit their pinnacle in their 30’s.
Do you reckon you’ve reached your pinnacle?
(Laughing) I hope not! I’ve still got a few years. But I will say you have to have a plan. It’s so easy to bury your head in work and then suddenly 10 years have passed and you’re not where you want to be. Have a plan: where do you want to go, what do you want to achieve? And then do everything you can to make it happen.
I just want to go back to the question about advice and say you have to have a real passion for food. It is the only thing that will sustain you through going to work and working hard for 20 years. If you don’t have that then somewhere along the way you will give up. Because of the media coverage it’s now seen as a glamorous industry, but the reality of it is that it’s not at all. On a day to day basis it’s very mundane: peeling broad beans, picking spinach leaves, long hours, stressful services……….. the image people have in their heads is very often vastly different to the realities.
Following on from that does it annoy you that people think they can become chefs just because they watch so many cookery programs? Do you think the media coverage dilutes your trade?
No, it doesn’t annoy me. I think it’s great for us chefs that people love watching food on TV; it can only do us good. You look to when I started cooking about 20 years ago, the profile of a chef has completely changed. Now when I go to a party, or meet new people as soon as you tell them you’re a chef there’s an automatic interest, more so than pretty much any other industry. Take my brother for example he’s an Orthopaedic surgeon, very successful at what he does and incredibly intelligent. But if we both go somewhere and introduce ourselves: he says he’s an Orthopaedic surgeon and I say I’m a chef, people relate more to me and are more interested in what I do even though what he does is so much more skilful, and if you get into it, so much more interesting. I think that is what the food media has done for cooking and ultimately for chefs.
Moving on to food: what inspires you? How do you constantly come up with new dishes?
You know what? Inspiration comes from everywhere. You go through patches where you experience something like writer’s block and you just can’t come up with new dishes. The thing that I always do is to go round the market, because ultimately the produce is what it’s all about. I think it’s about triggering the senses. So you could go and see a beautiful courgette – the round ones have just come in. You can literally see a pallet of them and you automatically think they’re beautiful and you get an urge to cook with them. That starts your mind working. Then you see some beautiful tomatoes, it all helps to trigger your creative side and makes you want to do something with it. Being stuck in the kitchen day in and day out isn’t healthy. You have to get out.
I want to move on to the subject of Michelin. The food, presentation and atmosphere in the restaurant are all sublime, but you don’t have a Michelin star. Does that bother you?
Honestly? It bothered me much more about three years ago. In fact I would say it bothered me a lot because at the time that was something we were really focused on achieving. Although it isn’t so much of an issue to me now I would still love to be awarded one, it’s something that I definitely strive for, but at the end of the day I get a lot from the praise of customers and ultimately I have to concentrate on making a profit for the restaurant. I would like to add that I think Michelin is brilliant: any accolade in any profession that people in the industry aspire to, and work hard to achieve can only be good. Having something like Michelin – which most chefs would like to achieve – is a great thing because it pushes everyone to be better than they are. I don’t agree with some of the Michelin restaurants out there but ultimately it is a guide judged by people and people have different opinions.
Moving on to some slightly more trivial questions: what food do you crave when you have a hangover?
With a hangover?
I haven’t had a hangover for years. It’s true. Alcohol and I don’t get along.
OK, that put a short stop to that. Let me slightly re-phrase the question: what is your ultimate comfort food?
I guess it would have to be something Japanese orientated that contained rice. I’m going to say my mum’s Katsudon. It’s a battered pork chop, coated in Japanese breadcrumbs sliced up. Then you do a little sauce which is basically onions and eggs cooked in a stock which you then pout over the pork and rice.
If you were on death row, what would your last meal be?
Erm. I don’t think I could eat anything. I don’t know how they could eat something. Do you really think they do?
Yeah they do, but it’s normally a cheeseburger or something mundane. There really aren’t that many gourmands awaiting execution.
Ok you’re saying anything? Well then I’d ask them for something that would take them a long time to get like Bird’s nest soup.
What would you one desert island ingredient be?
Any guilty food pleasures? Doner kebab, McDonald’s, Pot Noodle?
I love Indian takeaway, but that’s not really a guilty pleasure is it? You know what another program once asked me that and I said Pringles just to say something. I completely made it up.
Ok if you’re going to have to make one up then let’s skip the question.
You see the thing is my mum never fed me and my brother crap, so I’ve never had a palette for it. Everything she always cooked for us was fresh. She would never do any ready meals or anything like that. The only time we used to complain about her food was when she gave us chips. So basically I don’t eat any embarrassing foods because they were never part of my growing up.
Moving on: if you could have a dinner party for four people and you could pick any chef to cook for you then who would the guests be and who would be in the kitchen?
Ultimately if I was having a dinner party then I’d invite my mates. The person who I would have cooking for me would be……………………….(Jun now pauses and thinks for about 5mins)……………..Thomas Keller. I tried to get into his restaurant in New York recently and couldn’t get a table. So yes it would be Thomas Keller.
And finally: are there still chefs whom when you meet them you are still totally awestruck by?
Yeah people like Jöel Robuchon whom I met last year at the Taste festival is the sort of person who I look up to and aspire to. I grew up reading his cook books, and you learn to admire their skill and vision. Alain Ducasse is another great chef who I was lucky enough to meet at the opening of his new London restaurant. They’re the people I get excited about meeting, not famous rock stars or Hollywood actors.
Thank you for your time.
Herb Crusted New Season Lamb with Broad Beans and Peas
For the crusted Lamb
½ Loaf of sliced white bread
1 Bunch of Parsley
½ Bunch of Thyme
1 x Garlic clove, peeled
4 x 200g portions of Lamb Fillet
2 x Egg whites
Large knob of butter
For the Broad Beans and Peas
150g Chestnut mushrooms, quartered
150g Broad beans, blanched and de-shelled
150g Peas, blanched
200ml Chicken stock
For the dressing
1 x Bunch of Basil
1 x Bunch of Parsley
2tbsp Dijon mustard
1 x Garlic clove, peeled and roughly chopped
Juice of ½ Lemon
250ml Olive oil
Pre heat the oven to 200˚c
Place the slices of bread into a food processor and blitz until a rough breadcrumb is reached. Place the crumbs on a baking tray and place in the oven. Cook for about 10mins turning regularly until the bread is well dried out.
Place the crumbs back in the food processor and blitz again to reach a very fine crumb. Place the remaining ingredients apart from the eggs and the lamb into the food processor and blitz together.
Season the fillets. Take one fillet and dip into the egg white. Remove excess whites from the fillet before dipping into the breadcrumbs. Coat the entire fillet with the crumbs and place to one side. Repeat the process with the remaining fillets.
To cook the fillets: heat the butter over a medium heat I a large, oven proof frying pan. When the butter starts to bubble add the coated fillets. Turn once and then place immediately in the oven.
For a rare fillet cook for about 8mins turning after 4mins. Leave the lamb to rest for a few minutes.
For the Broad beans and the peas
Melt the butter in a sauce pan over a medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook for 2-3mins till they have taken on a little colour and have softened slightly. Add the broad beans and the peas. Cook for a further minute. Add the stock, and bring up to heat.
For the sauce
Place all the ingredients into a food processor reserving half of the olive oil. Begin to blitz. If need be then continue to add the olive oil to reach a smooth sauce consistency.
Place a pile of the Broad beans and peas in the centre of the plate. Slice the lamb into 1.5cm slices and place on top of the beans. Circle the dish with sauce and spoon a little over.