The Quiet Genius of the Most Underrated Japanese Chef in Paris
"For me, cooking is an art form," says chef Atsushi Tanaka of Paris restaurant AT. "I need design. I need my food to be beautiful and tasty at the same time.”
"Je ne suis pas un chef Japonais," Atsushi insists. He is not a Japanese chef.
Every time I try to tie his cuisine to his roots, he corrects me politely. I meet Atsushi Tanaka at his restaurant AT, a few meters away from the Pont de la Tournelle, an Île Saint-Louis bridge on which stands an impressive statue of Paris' holy patroness Saint Genevieve. The restaurant is a small and quiet place, and I had to go back and forth a few times to finally find its grey and spectacularly discrete storefront. Atsushi greets me at the door: He is thin and elegant. We sit at a round table for a long chat, while Atsushi's wife talks loudly on the phone in the back, and Fiona, the Swedish waitress, interrupts us respectfully when something important requires the chef's attention.
After that pleasant discussion, I meet him again at night to visit the kitchen and taste his food, the very food that was features in last year's New York Times story about Japanese chefs taking over Paris cuisine, and the very same food that lots of my food-loving Parisian friends consider the most inventive and crazy they've ever tasted.
Earlier that week, I was hanging out on my rooftop in Barcelona with Akane, a French-Japanese friend, insider in the small and secretive world of Parisian avant-garde cuisine. Her eyes on the phone, she was texting casually, and at one point it seemed more important than our conversation about how Catalonia lacks great Asian food.
"Atsushi is kind of depressed," she said, raising her eyes to me. "That Michelin thing really got to him. He feels robbed. Three Japanese chefs from Paris got a new star this year." Fourth is the place you never aim for.
The day before, I had read Oliver Strand's Times piece featuring him, along with widely acclaimed Clown Bar's Chef Sota Atsumi, Dai Shinozuka from Les Enfants Rouges, Shinichi Sato from Passage 53, and Abri's Katsuaki Okiyama. Intrigued, I asked Akane about Atsushi. "On one hand, he's that nice, easygoing, funny guy who loves selfies, and Wu Tang albums from the 90s; on the other, he's that weird genius on the fringe of the Parisian avant-garde cooking scene." Here's something that's going to excite any rap- and food-loving Frenchman like me, who feels that as with other cultural fields, France's cuisine is falling asleep in its Parisian frozen tower, like a princess from a medieval fairy tale.
Ironically, Atsushi's restaurant sits just across the street from the most renowned ghost ship of French cuisine, La Tour d'Argent. So while tasting the future, you can literally contemplate the ruins from France's lost glory through the window.
"A few years ago, it was impossible to learn to cook in Japan," Atsushi says. "French cuisine has been everywhere there for the past 20-something years. It's changing: Mediterranean, South American, and Nordic cuisines are all getting more and more attention. Right now it's very hard to create something new in France."
That's when I realized that the Times piece wasn't quite on point on my new friend's relationship with France's culinary tradition: "...Atsushi Tanaka at Restaurant A.T. embrace[s] modernist cuisine. [He] moved to France to learn from the country's culinary lions and to absorb its traditions and techniques."
French techniques are surely everywhere in Atsushi's cooking. But French tradition? "I don't like classical French cuisine, it's too rigid for me," Atsushi says. "It's also to rich, and I like to feel light after a meal. Let's say that the butter doesn't help when you're trying to achieve that." There is no arguing about that.
"Every cuisine is different, and for them to stay alive, creative, there must be something organic, natural; there must be a relaxed relationship with tradition. Tradition must be an inspiration, a help to create something new. When I cook I don't think about what type of cuisine I'm doing. I make my own thing. I try to surprise people. I discovered avant-gardist cuisine at 17 years old, and that's what I've been doing ever since. For me, cooking is an art form. I feel like both an artist and a craftsman. I need design. I need my food to be beautiful and tasty at the same time."
Being served Atsushi's star dish is an amazing experience. It looks like a green UFO and dark grey Batmobile had a baby. And well, "Camouflage," as it's called, does taste like something from outer space, only incredibly good. You must penetrate a wonderful and surprising architectural forest to get to the Arctic char filet. It's deeply unsettling, and tastes like nothing else. You do taste the parsley and the fromage blanc powder. You don't know where you are, though, and that's OK, because it's good. It's even better if you've trusted Atsushi and you are drinking he's favorite Argentinean muscat. Like more and more Parisians, he's a "vin nat" (natural wine) aficionado: another line drawn between him and the mainstream French scene.
"I looked at that handmade plate, and the word 'camouflage' popped into my mind. What do I do with that? I thought: something green. Not salty, not sugary. I imagined something delicately bitter, with honey, parsley, and fish." When my French Japanese friend discovered Atsushi's food, she told me, "You'll just have to go. I can't describe what I just ate. It's like nothing you've ever tasted." Is it French? Japanese? Fusion? Molecular cuisine? "It's nothing like that. He does what he does. Just go." And it's true. From the coal chip, made of carbonized bamboo, to the cod and kale, it's wild and delicate, a poetic ode to nature.
"When I enter in a restaurant, I want to be surprised. I like to ask myself, 'What the hell is that?' I don't want to be put in a box. I don't ask myself what type of cuisine I'm making. I'm not a French chef, not a Japanese chef. Molecular cuisine is a thing from the past. I try to hide technique. I just want my food to look unique and genuine."
"Camouflage" is spectacular, but I had to wait for the dessert to taste the dish he's most proud of. The beautiful handmade plates he serves it on gave him the idea. His inspirations for new dishes are often visual: "Sometimes I see a plate, and I think of colors and shapes." That's what happened with his blueberry, hinoki, and coal dessert.
"With this dish, I wanted to play with colors," Atsushi says. "I thought I could make it all grey. It makes you think of concrete—you don't want to eat that." Now, why would you want to create a dish that looks uneatable, Atsushi? t certainly looks like a concrete-flavored ice cream with crispy concrete crumble on top, but not in a bad way. The rest of the plate was striped with a creamy grey alien nervous system, and I wanted more of it. It wasn't too sugary; it tasted like fresh blueberries from a childhood memory, with a light cypress touch that snaked like wind between high trees.
I look at the small restaurant; it's nearly full. Fiona isn't alone to serve the very international clientele: "Everybody does everything here." Leandro, a stocky Argentinean with a boxer nose, brings desserts to an American couple. "We've known each other for a very long time. We lived together for six years in three different countries," Atsushi says. Leandro and Atsushi were roommates in Brussels, Barcelona, and Paris. "Since I've worked with him, I'm calmer. I don't shout anymore. Nobody shouts here." The kitchen looks like a watchmaker's workshop, except with the coal from carbonized bamboo always smoldering. No shouting, no loud talking, barely any talking at all, in fact. Atsushi doesn't mind sound, though."I like house, techno, hip hop. Method Man, Mobb Deep, the Wu Tang Clan, the 90s, the golden era of rap. J Dilla also. I don't like Kanye West, I don't like pop music. I was a dancer, and I still love to dance. Music, dancing, travelling—all those things are very important in my life. I need new places, new sounds, new ideas to create new food. For me there is no coincidence in the creative process. I need to apply myself to think of something new, something good, and at the end, I find it." Atsushi seems interested in anything involving creativity. "I also like fashion. At 16, I hesitated between cooking and fashion design." And now cooking has taken over his life: "I can't travel whenever I want anymore. I've always worked abroad. I've worked in Paris, in Spain, in Belgium. I travelled everywhere. I was an apprentice in Copenhagen, in Stockholm, in Oslo. I've visited New York a few times." A big smile brightens his face. "The first time I went to New York, it was magic. It was 1998, I was 19 years old. I wasn't there for cooking at all; I wasn't a professional cook yet. I had an Afro, and people would look at me in weird ways in the streets. They weren't used to seeing a Japanese guy with that kind of hairstyle. I was fascinated by the joy, the energy of that city. It was like nothing I knew, it's so different from Paris. There was so much dancing, so much music, so much joy. When 9/11 happened, I was shocked and saddened. I didn't go back there for ten years. I went back two years ago. I rediscovered the city like it was the first time. It was even better. I really love New York."
So why did he chose to settle in Paris? "I had four choices: Tokyo, Brussels, New York, and Paris. Tokyo was OK, but too Japanese, not cosmopolitan enough. Brussels looked small to me compared to Paris or New York. And I never worked in New York, I didn't know anybody there. Paris was a city I knew, there was an art de vivre linked to cuisine there. It was easy to open a restaurant. It's been working well since then. My clientele is mostly made of foreigners. I wish there were more Parisians. They may be more uptight than New Yorkers when it comes to cuisine. Maybe I'm too radical. Maybe the weight of tradition is too strong in Paris."
Maybe when you've just lost out on a Michelin star, yet three of your friends got one, it's not the best time to be asked about French cuisine. I try nonetheless: "Of course there are many amazing chefs in France. First of all, Pierre Gagnaire," the French chef who formed him. "I also like Inaki Aizpitarte, David Toutain, Akrame Benallal, and obviously Michel Bras."
He pauses. A shy smile appears under his thin, elegant moustache. "I'm so sad because of that star I didn't get. I try to tell myself that Michelin awards more traditional cuisine, that they don't get what I do." There is no disrespect in his assertion, just a disappointment with the city that adopted him, but doesn't acknowledge him the way he feels he should be.
"It's OK, I don't care," he says. "Yes, I do care. I was so disappointed. And the fact that three Japanese chefs got it this year makes it even harder to accept."Young chefs from all around the world still come to Paris to learn technique, like painters and poets from the 19th century. The most inventive, most exciting cuisine doesn't end up in Paris anymore, but it still starts here most of the time. Before making stunningly succulent fish Batmobiles and delicious cypress alien brains, Atsushi surely learned how to make a roux. "Of course there are lots of things I like in French cuisine. I love pot-au-feu, for instance".Does he regret not having chosen New York? "Yes," he smiles, answering too quickly. "Maybe it's better that way. Someday soon, I'll come to New York—in three years, tops." It seems like he already regrets that uptight, old, cranky city that he made his own. "One of the thing I'll miss from Paris is the products. They are amazing. In United States, everything is expensive, and the quality is hardly ever there." He looks through the window at a sunny Paris.
"I'll miss kebabs and Kurdish sandwiches. You know the one from Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis, with the wood oven, and the nice Kurdish women?" I know the one, Urfa Dürüm.
He nods, and smiles gently. "Yes, I'll miss that."