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Saturday, Sept. 27, 2008
French chef has Japanese touch
A reputation for excellence is the result of modest efforts made every day. At least that's what 50-year-old French chef Michel Troisgros seems to embody.
Troisgros is the owner-chef of La Maison Troisgros in Roanne, France. For 40 straight years, his restaurant has received three stars from the Michelin Guide in the country where the renowned guide was born more than a century ago.
Three stars are given to establishments approved by professional undercover inspectors as restaurants "worth the journey." They believe customers can expect everything — from the quality, flavor and cooking of the cuisine to the service — to be exquisite.
Maintaining a reputation like that for decades is not easy. On a recent visit to Tokyo, Troisgros humbly said it was not a glorious record but simply the result of efforts that the restaurant has made every year.
"Running a restaurant is not a contest," Troisgros, speaking French, explained during an interview at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo. "What's important is how much we can satisfy our customers every day with our given resources, and try to do better tomorrow than today. It's really about building upon what we've been doing."
The Troisgros family has been heavily involved in gastronomy for three generations. His grandparents first opened a restaurant in 1930, and then his father, Pierre, received one star in 1955 for a new restaurant he and his brother opened two years earlier, which formed the foundation for the restaurant he runs today. Troisgros took over La Maison Troisgros in 1996.
Joining the interview, the senior Troisgros, now 80 and retired, followed up on his son's comment: "A chef's work is creative, similar to that of an artist. Thus, if we don't question what we do, we can't expect ourselves to make progress."
Thanks to "Pere," Troisgros' cooking betrays a Japanese influence.
Growing up, Michel Troisgros was inspired by his father's stories about Japan. Pierre served as the first chef of Maxim de Paris, which opened in Tokyo's Ginza district in 1967.
Pierre and his late brother Jean are known in the culinary world for developing nouvelle cuisine in the late 1960s and early 1970s — a style that broke with traditional French cooking. It uses extremely fresh ingredients and lighter sauces.
During his four-month stint in Japan, Pierre inspired many Japanese with the dishes he made in Ginza. In return, he was told about Japanese culture, cuisine and ingredients, which naturally attracted his son Michel to the country.
Michel Troisgros said he often tries to include in his food the tastes and cooking styles of the countries he has visited, but Japan is exceptional.
"I'm inspired by the Japanese sense of beauty, which is simple and wastes nothing," Michel said through an interpreter.
The influence can be seen in his use of ingredients.
"Yuzu" (a type of citrus fruit) and wasabi (horseradish) are essential to some of the dishes served at Troisgros. But he uses them in an original manner far different from the way they typically are in Japan.
"I like to use them as tools to surprise my customers," he said.
In the case of a cold hors d'oeuvres, for example, the chef puts a tiny bit of freshly ground wasabi between layers of marinated sardine slices, toasted sliced bread and sea urchin. In the mouth, the fragrance of the wasabi should "tickle" the nose. It is very subtle yet creates a surprise, he said.
"Amid the harmony of the ingredients, wasabi creates a distortion," Michel Troisgros explained enthusiastically. "But I don't overstress it. I use it to make the dish three-dimensional."
Although he was describing food, it almost sounded as if he were talking more about art.
Working from his restaurant in Roanne, Michel has developed his own connections with Japan over the past two decades. In addition to the restaurant he directs in the Hyatt — Cuisine(s) Michel Troisgros — he has shops on the food floor of Odakyu department stores.
The restaurant, which celebrated its second anniversary this month, was listed as a two-star establishment in Michelin Guide Tokyo, which was released last year.
Troisgros visits Japan twice a year to check on the restaurant and the shops. During his recent visit, he said he obtained 5 kg of "ichimi" red peppers to use in his dishes in Roanne.
In this way, he is uncompromising when it comes to obtaining the best ingredients from near and far. But he is especially keen on consuming locally grown products.
"If you buy from local farmers and producers, it will support them to continue their production and that actually helps reduce the amount of fossil fuel use," he said.
To that end, he has succeeded in having a citrus seed manufacturer grow yuzu for him in the Pyrenees, and he has begun experimenting with growing wasabi near Roanne with a Japanese wasabi farmer and a local farmer who grows organic vegetables.
Showing his concern for the environment and changing eating habits — issues shared by both the French and Japanese — Troisgros said that more people should buy from small local farms or shops, not big supermarkets.
"If you go to a supermarket with a wide variety of things to buy, you can end up buying things that are not necessary and are even unhealthy, and fill the refrigerator with them."