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Having trained alongside some of the world’s best chefs, Jun Tanaka has made his way around a number of London’s Michelin-starred restaurants: Chez Nico, The Capital, The Square, Les Saveurs, Harvey’s, The Restaurant and The Oak Room. Jun claims to have spent his youth struggling through academia before discovering an aptitude for cooking, where he has developed a proficiency that elevates any kitchen he works in.
Currently, Jun holds the position of executive chef at Pearl Restaurant, Covent Garden. The restaurant is known for its menu of fine French cuisine, with high quality of service and beautiful, appetizing dishes. For a memorable, unique dining experience, the Pearl ranks highly as the place to go in London and much of that is thanks to Jun’s creativity and expertise.
Jun, wonderful to come here and see you. Let's start by talking a little bit about your background, Gavroche, Chez Nico, Capital, Marco Pierre White twice, phenomenal, phenomenal background how did that all come about?
I think a lot of it has to do with my parents they were very encouraging from when I was a young and food has always been a passion of mine whether it was eating it or whether it was learning to how to cook it. So for me to become a chef just seemed very natural. I've always been more artistic than academic, my brother's a surgeon so he got all the brains and I kind of got, what was left.
Some would argue that's quite artistic as well, surgery?
Not really, he's in orthopaedics.
Yeah plastic surgeons are artists, orthopaedics they're butchers.
((laughs)) That's what they say.
Nice way of putting it. But the restaurants you chose Jun, they are very high profile and very specific type of restaurant was that part of the plan?
Yeah that was the plan from the beginning. So up until I was 19 I pretty much screwed everything up in terms of academics. I loved school, made some of my closest friends there, it was the best years of my life but I enjoyed it for all the wrong reasons. When I did my A levels, I got awful grades, the only thing that I could get onto was a hotel management course. It was a 3 year course but I got kicked out after the 1st year.
Was that here in London?
That was in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire.
So are you from the West Country? Are you a West Country lad?
No, no from London. My parents have always been in London, well when they first came over to England when I was seven we lived in London. Then I went off to boarding school when I was 14 and then I was there until 18 and that was in the Cotswolds and then my parents went back to Japan and it was at that point I decided to stay in England.
Let's talk a little bit about Japan and your heritage if we can. I notice today some of the dishes you do, there are some influences there is that a conscious thing or"¦
No not at all. A lot of people do think that my food is a fusion of Japanese and French but it's not"¦.
I mean there's no mention of that in any literature I've found about you actually it's modern French and I only raised it then because you said about your parents coming from Japan so it was just to understand if there was a heritage connection with your food or not.
The dish that I cooked today is unique in the way that I've used the seaweed and the dashi which is typical Japanese stock but it's a one off. I try to stay away from that because I don't like"¦
Do you consciously try and stay away from that?
Yes because I don't like the term fusion and to actually do it well you have to have a profound understanding of French and Japanese cuisine. You know it's taken me 20 years to understand French cuisine up until this point. For me to then say, "Yeah I can incorporate it with Japanese," wouldn't be honest because I haven't spent as much time immersed in Japanese cuisine although it is part of my culture. So I try to stay away from that, very, very occasionally the odd ingredient creeps in. I was brought up on Japanese food so I have a natural understanding of it and its flavours, yeah, but my cuisine is modern French.
Let's talk about your food style then would you say that you've now developed your own food style? Do you look at your food and say, "Yes that's my style," or do you feel you're still evolving? Are you still developing your food style?
No I am definitely still developing my food style and it's constantly evolving. I don't feel that I have definitely nailed my style and think, "˜Yes this is me, this is what I'm happy constantly recreating.' I think it's got to evolve otherwise you become complacent and bored.
Talking about other people then and seeing what other people do, who would you say influences you but who externally do you look to for inspiration, ideas? Is there anyone that you think at the moment,
I think inspiration for dishes comes from many different aspects, not just other restaurants and other chefs. I believe that ultimately it comes from produce so I get most inspired when I see beautiful seasonal produce. So spring when the first"¦
Yeah wild garlic comes in or the English asparagus just started this week, when you see a beautiful box of pristine, seasonal, only available for a short period of time product it excites you and you want to get it onto the menu as quickly as possible because you know that it's not around for a long time. You want to do it justice and showcase its flavour and the way it looks to its utmost and I think that is my true source of inspiration and the rest comes from travelling, eating at other chef's restaurants, from cookbooks, it comes from all different variety of sources.
Do you have a repertoire of dishes, for example, you mentioned asparagus would you go back to think, "˜Well this is what we did last year,' or do you just throw everything out of the window and try and create something totally unique for this year with asparagus?
I think with all chefs, there's an element of using something that you've done before but then the following year you try to adapt it and try to improve on it. It's not possible to create completely new dishes, good dishes which look great, which taste amazing, on a constant basis. It's just not possible. It's like saying to a writer, "Produce me a new fantastic book every month," I mean it just doesn't happen.
And in a different subject?
Yeah, it's just not"¦it's something that takes weeks, sometimes even months to get it just the way you want it and I think you would be foolish to constantly put on new dishes every week just for the sake of it"¦unless you're incredibly gifted. No I mean saying that, no chef could possibly do that. It's just not possible. It takes time, thought and experimentation to create a truly brilliant dish.
Now you've been here since 2003 I believe?
2004 we opened.
2004 sorry, so over ten years now, what am I talking about, yeah.
2004 we opened so seven years.
Seven years, sorry I was out of bed at quarter past three this morning, so seven years, how have you evolved and how has your food style evolved in that seven years?
I think over the years I have become more confident, confident with my palette and knowing when a dish is just right. I also focus more and more on the produce, taking the time to source the absolute best.
Do you think maturity helps as well?
Yes, definitely. I think you really understand and appreciate that the most important aspects of food are the produce, the flavour and ultimately simplicity. It takes maturity to understand that. Even now after 20 years I sometimes get the urge to say "˜Oh just one more thing 'when I'm creating a dish and I have to hold myself back. It's about knowing when to stop and it takes maturity to understand that.
Last question for you then. We've seen you on the TV, you've had a TV persona is that something you enjoy? Is that something you'd like to do more of and do you see yourself taking a career down that line as well as being a chef?
The reason I do TV is to improve the business in the restaurant, it's that simple.
So it's a marketing tool?
Yeah it's a marketing tool and it is the best marketing tool, without a doubt. You can do as many interviews as you want, get in all the top critics but I guarantee you you're on the TV for half an hour that'll bring more customers than any article or review.
Yeah some of those programmes are getting watched by five million people.
Exactly and that's the reason I do it. My bread and butter will always be the restaurant without a doubt.
Do you enjoy it?
Yes I do. It's still within the same field. A lot of cooking on TV is about teaching. I love teaching, sharing your knowledge and you do it in a way which is understandable to a person who knows nothing about cooking. So I like that.
And you're not being patronising as well.
No not at all. Also, cooking on TV is exciting. It's something different and gets you out of the kitchen. We all work long hours as everyone knows and if you're grinding away in the kitchen, day after day, year after year without doing anything else, I think you would become quite blinkered and this would inhibit your creativity. I think it's healthy to write cookbooks, to do some TV, to go travelling just to broaden your horizons and that in turn will improve the food that you cook.
Well listen I can't thank you enough for today. We've taken up far too much of your time already.
You've been an absolute superstar and thank you so much.
Thanks very much I appreciate it.
No not at all, not at all.