Monday, 30 August 2010

Interview - Jun Tanaker

Jun Tanaker, head chef at Pearl restaurant is about to embark on a mission to bring gastronomic food to the streets of London, as part of London Restaurant Festival. I talk to him about this project, plus his life as a chef.

What was it that made you want to become a chef?
I was nineteen, which is quite old as a lot of people start when they’re sixteen. It was purely through love of food. You have to really, really love food to actually cook for a living and do it for the rest of the life, because when you’re doing something constantly, so many hours a day, the passion can die.

When you realised you wanted to become a chef, you asked your Dad which restaurants in London he rated and then tried to get an apprenticeship at these places. If someone asked you the same question today, where would you recommend?
That’s difficult (pauses). I would say The Ledbury, Pied a Terre, Marcus Wareing at The Berkley and Hibiscus.

One of the restaurants you wrote to that took you on was Le Gavroche...
Yeah. I didn’t realise how lucky I was at the time, until later on when I appreciated how great Le Gavroche was. It was the best restaurant in Britain – it had three Michelin stars. To start there was just a dream...

What were you doing when you first started there?
I remember my first job was to julienne three celeriacs. I had my Mum’s kitchen knife and it took me all morning from seven to midday and I cut myself at least a couple of times. I could do it now in half an hour, though.

And what was Michel Roux Jnr like? He’s got a reputation for being difficult in the kitchen...
I thought he was great to work for. He was hard but he wasn’t the worst by any means. Marco Pierre White was the worst I’ve worked for, but everyone knows that - it’s just like saying the sky’s blue!

You like your kitchen to be really calm. Is this as a direct reaction to the atmospheres of the kitchens you worked in previously?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of the restaurants I’ve worked in were really pressurised and there was a lot of tension. When I have the choice, that’s not what I want to come into work to each day.

You’ve spent quite a lot of time in New York, Tokyo and Paris. How do you think London compares in terms of restaurants?
I think in terms of food, New York is as good as London. In terms of service, I think New York is far better. For an English person, being a waiter is a second class job. It’s something people do on holidays as second jobs and so there isn’t the same attention to detail. London could learn a lot from New York about service. I don’t have one English waiter here (at Pearl). Tokyo is definitely as good as London food-wise too, but I think Paris is starting to lag behind. There’s the idea that because they’re French, they cook French food, whereas it’s great that over here you’ve got top Chinese, Indian, Thai - everything.

You’ve worked in eight restaurants with Michelin stars. Are you after one for yourself?
I’d love to have one. It’s a sign of a success and recognition. It’s the equivalent to winning an Oscar and nothing else comes close. To get a star, you really do have to excel in your field.

You’ve done quite a lot of TV work (Market Kitchen, Saturday Kitchen, Great Food Live) and have recently filmed your own series Cooking It showing unfamiliar cooks how to get started. Do you see yourself as a celebrity chef?
The term Celebrity Chef is not a nice term. I don’t think any chef likes it. As soon as you use the phrase, you think it’s someone who’s never in the kitchen. It’s true some of the time – if you have ten restaurants, how are you ever going to be in the kitchen? I do the occasional TV show, but on a working week I’m in the restaurant pretty much every day. I do the TV to help the business.

Do you cook at home?
Never. I can’t remember the last thing I cooked at home. My kitchen’s rubbish, but I’m actually re-doing it completely. I’m quite excited. I went to the store a few weeks ago and really splashed out and I do plan to be doing a serious amount of cooking once it’s all done.

You’ve brought out a book called Simple to Sensational, what’s the concept behind this?
It’s a book of recipes that anyone can make simply and quickly, and then there’s additional sensational recipes which take things a bit further and will provide outstanding results if you have the time to put in. People can build up confidence on a simple recipe and then make it sensational for a dinner party.

And what do you think is the most sensational thing that you’ve ever made?
That’s really hard! You get excited about dishes, but after a while the excitement wares off and you have something new to be excited about, so it’s constantly changing. At the moment I’m into a foie gras dish with pickled cherries, cherry dressing and chocolate mousse. The chocolate is slightly salted so that it’s not too sweet, and it works really well as a starter. I just tweeted this and someone said “foie gras is bad”. I replied, “but delicious”.

And the most sensational thing you’ve eaten elsewhere?
One of the most sensational dishes I’ve had was at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen (recently rated the no.1 restaurant in the world). I went there last year for a twenty-two course tasting menu and one dish which stood out was a huge roast langoustine with seaweed powder and oyster emulsion. I ate that and I was honestly almost in tears. I went with Shane Osborn (chef-owner of Pied a Terre on Charlotte Street) and he has a seafood allergy. He saw my reaction and was getting so irate at not being able to try it!

Your TV show Cooking It is about encouraging people to cook. What would be your one top tip to get people started?
My top tip wouldn’t even be about cooking, it would be organisation. Read a recipe through and then prepare all the ingredients. This way when you come to the actual cooking, it will be stress-free and much more enjoyable. It’s the way chefs do it.

You’re doing demonstrations on BBQs at your restaurant over the summer, what would be your top tip for great results?
What works really well is brining meat beforehand. Soaking it in brine for around twenty-four hours before cooking makes everything really, really succulent. You could brine it and then leave it for another few hours to marinate if you have the time.

And you’re doing something special for London Restaurant Festival in October (4th -18th)...
Yeah, I’m working with my friend Mark (executive chef of First restaurant group, including Taman Gang and Ebury). We have a converted Airstream van and we’re going to turn up at four or five locations around London as a kind of ‘pop-up’ serving simple English food. We’re trying to get locations like Trafalgar Square, Spitalfields, Covent Garden and Tate Modern. Prices of dishes will all be accessible at around £4 to £6, and we want to challenge people’s perceptions of what comes out of a van like that and make them think, “Wow!”

So, are you worried about the weather?
Yes we are! We have discussed it over and over again, but there’s nothing we can do. We just have to hope...

>> originally published in Blue Tomato magazine

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