In Lyon, Japanese chef Taka Takano 'revisits' French cuisine
He was meant to pursue a law career in Tokyo but a passion for French cuisine won out: chef Taka Takano has found his niche blending East and West at the helm of the celebrated Lyon restaurant Le Bec.
While buried in legal texts as a student in the nineties, Takao Takano -- Taka for short -- took to concocting delicacies in his kitchen for his friends.
"When we talked about cooking, only French cuisine existed in my head," the youthful-looking 35-year-old told AFP.
An admirer of the noted Japanese chef Kiyomi Mikuni, who trained with France's famed "nouvelle cuisine" chefs Alain Chapel and the Troisgros brothers, Pierre and Jean, Taka bought Mikuni's cookbooks and "imitated his braised chicken."
His career took off in 1999 when he was hired to assist chef Masahiro Morishige at La Butte Boisee in Tokyo, another French-trained Japanese chef who worked at the Michelin-starred Parisian restaurant Taillevent and under chef and restaurateur Marc Veyrat, known for his use of mountain herbs and plants.
It was from Morishige that Taka said he was drilled in "respect for the product" and "seasonal cooking".
He stayed at La Butte Boisee for two-and-a-half years but "I dreamed of moving to France," confided Taka, who said he was fascinated by French culture and the iconic singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg -- although at the time he spoke no French at all.
In late 2002 he embarked on a student visa for Lyon, the eastern city known as France's gastronomic capital with some of its finest restaurants and chefs.
Taka treated himself to a New Year's dinner at one of these establishments, the Cour des Loges in the historic Vieux Lyon district where Breton chef Nicolas Le Bec had been freshly awarded "Best Chef of the Year" as well as his first Michelin star.
"I told him, 'I want to work,' the only words I knew in French," Taka recalled. He was immediately hired as assistant chef.
"In the beginning there were many things I didn't understand, but I observed all the time," he said.
In late 2003, Taka followed his mentor when Le Bec opened his own restaurant. Taka went on to win promotions, and met his future wife Yuko, a Japanese pastry chef.
When Le Bec in April 2010 offered Taka to take over his restaurant -- which by then had won a second Michelin star -- he did not hesitate, hurling himself in the quest to win a third star before he turns forty.
"This is where I learnt everything," he said, including French which he learned on the job, never taking a formal course.
"I gave everything. It's like my home.
"Le Bec asked me to add my personal touch and my culture" to the menu, he said. This meant a "different way of treating the produce", such as "Japanifying" duck by adding a hint of grilled leek in its sauce.
"I added little touches," like soy sauce and sake, Japanese rice wine, to "lacquer" a cod fillet.
He also focuses on what he calls "new dishes": a poached John Dory in an infusion of Japanese citrus fruits, accompanied by a soy-sake sauce that tastes like dried bonito.
Taka, who is also a lover of game, enjoys cooking a "royal soup" based on mallard, partridge and other young pigeons -- "a dish where you can feel the French seasons and soil."
"In Japan, I worked a lot of game, but I was surprised by the variety that we find in France," he said.
He said he's also amazed by the "magical" French iron casserole dishes, but could "never imagine" cooking without his Japanese knives.
With a cosmopolitan team of five cooks, versatility is critical when serving 70 tables five days a week, said Taka, who considers himself a "perfectionist."
His weaknesses? "I don't know how to give orders," he confessed, and at times "lack patience."
© 2011 AFP