Sayonara, Robuchon-san: A Eulogy to Japan’s Beloved French Chef

The news shook the world of Tokyo’s French cuisine, but the iconic Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon in Ebisu, was open for business. Diners clinked their glasses in honor of the late Joel Robuchon, the world famous chef who took “nihonno furenchi (French food in Japan)’ to a new level. In early August, Joel Robuchon succumbed to his battle with cancer. He was 73 years old – young by Japanese standards and way too young for people like Kazunari Mizuki, who had studied under the great master for 2 years before working as an entree chef at the Hotel Okura. “I never got a chance to say goodbye,” he said, his eyes getting moist. “Many of us in this business revered him so much. Without Joel-san, the French restaurant scene in Tokyo would never have gotten to this point.”

The finest coffee ice cream dessert ever.
Every dish, delicious and beautiful. A feast for the eyes and the palette

Indeed, Robuchon’s famed Chateau Restaurant (opened in 1994) was one of the first establishments in Tokyo to earn Michelin’s 3-star rating and the Chateau building itself has come to represent the wealth and glamour of Japan’s capital city. It’s also a pilgrimage site for Japanese couples. In a city notorious for workaholic singles and a rapidly aging population, the Chateau is the one place where men confer with the restaurant staff weeks in advance to orchestrate the perfect marriage proposal and the presenting of the ring. No woman can possibly say ‘no’ to a Robuchon proposal. The very fact that the occasion happened HERE of all places, makes her that much more precious, or at least worthy of a 80,000 yen dinner course and a sizable bling.

The food – though formidable, is almost beside the point. Joel Robuchon taught the Japanese that French cuisine wasn’t about food per se, but the experience as a whole. Everything from the decor to the lighting and wine selection to the impeccable service, should be a reflection of Robuchon’s personal philosophy: never settle for anything less than state of the art.

Presentation matters

He also had a deep respect for Japan and Japanese cuisine. He lauded the soy sauce as “one of the greatest culinary miracles” according to an interview he gave on Fuji Television, and even developed a special shoyu to accompany western dishes. Four months before his death, he had collaborated with sake maker “Dassai” to open a Japanese/French restaurant in Paris. One of his best friends was Jiro Ono, sushi master extraordinaire and owner of “Sukiyabashi Jiro’ in Yurakucho.

Before Joel Robuchon arrived on the scene, the Japanese and French cuisine had an amicable if overly polite, relationship. In prewar days, it was customary for master chefs of the Imperial Household to train in Paris, working their way up from scullery boy to line chef at various establishments. The young Emperor Hirohito was said to have treasured his chef, and counted on him to produce French dinners that would melt the hearts of visiting western dignitaries, even in the midst of rising political tension that preceded WWII.

Back then, only the top tier of the elite could hope to sit down to a full course French dinner and many Japanese had no idea what a fork and knife even looked like. It wasn’t until after the Japanese surrender and the late 1950s, that well-to-do families began dining in Tokyo restaurants, cautiously tasting dishes that vaguely resembled French cuisine.

Fork and knife, not needed, the meat is so tender.

In 1978, 33 years after the Japanese surrender, Joel Robuchon was appointed master chef at the Hotel Nikko de Paris (now the Novotel Paris Centre Tour Eiffel) Coincidentally, Robuchon himself was 33 years old, a still-young chef on the brink of success. That he chose a Japanese hotel to work his magic before opening his own restaurant (the legendary Jamain) three years later, speaks of his enduring love for this country. Robuchon opened restaurants all over the world but has said in numerous interviews that he genuinely enjoyed working with the Japanese, because “we share an innate respect for food and nature.”
Merci, chef. We shall miss you.

“Does My Gaijin Husband Go Good With My Dress?” Mixed Marriage in France & Japan

 

One of the abiding myths that exist among the Japanese is that we are a single race nation. The school system teaches among other things, that no one, but absolutely no one, lives here except us Japanese-speaking, NHK-loving folk, firmly entrenched in samurai values and our ethical values personified in our being workaholics. Those who aren’t a member of this clan? Well they just happen to be here by accident, and should be tolerated without being truly welcomed. Facts like the systematic pillage/plunder of the Ainu race in Hokkaido, the enslavement of Koreans brought here during the late 16th century, the Chinese laborers who came via Okinawa during the country’s modernization process in the early 20th century – such things are swept under the futon and politely ignored.

The myth swells up like an unwieldy monster when it comes to marriage. Among many respectful families in the Kansai area, prospective brides are literally put under a hot lamp and examined minutely. Family lineage is a huge issue and woe to any young woman if there’s a record of a non-Japanese tarnishing her family tree. Never mind that Kobe has a sizable Indian population (the biggest in Japan) and in Osaka, 1.28 people out of every 100 are “zainichi,” or Japanese Korean (Source: todo-ran.com). Kansai families are renowned for their conservatism and adamant about protecting their blood. And on the rest of the archipelago, many Japanese women will date “gaijin” or foreign men, but only a fraction of those couples ever make it to the altar.

On the other hand, once you go out of the major cities and into the countryside, you’ll see that Japanese men have been willing to marry outside the Japanese bracket, for the past 30 years. As elsewhere in the world, young Japanese women refuse to marry into farms that translate immediately to a life of endless toil. Consequently, men in rural areas consider themselves lucky to marry women from the Phillippines, China and South America, claiming that foreign women are much more hardworking helpmates than their cold and calculating Japanese counterparts. As for the language barrier, it could be just be the glue to bind a lasting union. As Tokuo Miyake, a dairy farmer in Matsumoto City says of his Phillippinna wife: “I like it that we don’t speak each other’s language very much. We live with my mother, and my wife doesn’t understand it when my mom lashes out at her. Because we understand only the bare essentials about each other, there’s less to be annoyed or irritated about.”

Opening March 19 is a French movie about this very subject called “Serial Bad Weddings” – a hilarious and sometimes poignant observation of the merge between traditional values and foreign culture. The French sleeper hit of 2014, (one out of every five people in France saw it) it has finally reached our shores, just in time for the Abe Administration to contemplate opening the nation’s doors to refugees another couple of centimeters this year. (Editor’s note: That might allow a small child to slip in) 

Director/Co-writer Phillippe de Chauveron himself has been involved in an intense relationship with a Ghanian woman for the past decade and is now ready to tie the knot. “Speaking as a Frenchman, I think that my country can best be described as schizophrenic,” he said. “On the one hand, there are the ultra-rightists who want to crack down on foreigners and refugees, and then there are the liberals who are all for opening the gates. There is evidence of rampant racism but we try to take a stand on systematic discrimination and to help refugees start their lives anew. It’s very chaotic, but we’re always evolving.”

Intriguingly, France has the highest rate of mixed marriages in the EU – close to 20% of married couples are of differing nationalities. For the rest of Europe that number on average, is a paltry 3%. In Japan, mixed marriages have soared since 1965: one out of every 30 or so couples who got married between 2006 and 2013 fit that bill. 50 years ago, it was one out of every 230. (Source: nippon.com). De Chauveron says that the French are probably “more willing to experiment and try out things. Also, we are more likely to tire of relationships that go too smoothly. We thrive on arguments and passionate discussions and we love poking fun at each other’s racial foibles.” De Chauveron added that every mixed union is,  “fraught with disaster and laced with laughter. It’s a matter of finding the right balance.”

The story unfolds around the 4 daughters of the Verneuil Family, one of the most respected old names in the Loire Region. The dad (Christian Clavier) and mom (Chantal Lauby) are a little dismayed when their daughters (whom they brought up to be good French Catholics) all marry foreign men: an Arab, a Jew and a Chinese man. They pin their last hopes on their youngest daughter, but she commits the ultimate faux pas by getting engaged to an African. Chaos ensues. “The French are still struggling with the ills of our colonial legacy,” said De Chauveron. In his view though, “at least we are struggling, and very much aware of these issues.” That’s much more than we can say for how things are in Japan.

A niche manga about the life of a Japanese man and his French wife living in Tokyo
A niche manga about the life of a Japanese man and his French wife living in Tokyo

But there’s one Japanese chipping away at the mixed marriage ice, so to speak. That would be Manga artist Jean Paul Nishi (despite his pseudonym he’s a total Nippon male). He is the author of a manga series about living as a Japanese in Paris, finding the love of his life and then bringing her back to Tokyo where they are now raising a son. “I liked the movie a lot,” said Nishi who was at the press screening. “I especially identified with the dad. In real life, I’m one of the husbands you know, one of the guys who marry a French girl and tick off the family and all that. But I could really tell what was going on in the mind of the father, probably because I’m Japanese and conservatism is in my blood.” Nishi said that having lived in both countries, he’s become hyper aware of the cultural differences between Japan and Europe. “The Japanese think that being an an enlightened adult and a global citizen and all that, is to ignore the bad stuff, sweep all that aside and pretend like they can’t see the elephant in the room. The Europeans and particularly the French, are the opposite. They want to have it out and engage in deep discussions or fling insults at each other and then finally reach an understanding with each other. The Japanese think it’s a virtue not to say what’s on their minds but in Europe, not speaking up and or being dishonest about your feelings can lead to irreparable results. I think the Japanese have a 50-year lag compared to the French, in terms of interacting with others not from these shores.”

On an optimistic note, we could probably shave off at least 5 years from that lag, when we start admitting to certain historical facts about the country and our own bad legacies.