Responsible for producing 40% of chefs and owners of Michelin starred restaurants in Japan, Tsuji Culinary Institute is the most renowned culinary school in Japan. Among the 14 schools within Tsuji Group, there is a program dedicated to French cuisine where the first year is spent in Tokyo and the second in France. The two chateaux, which comprise the French campus located outside of Lyon. The primary chateau located in the Beaujolais region is in the middle of a large vineyard.
The intensive program in France is divided into two parts: the first semester (5 months) is spent at the school where students go through 150 to 180 recipes. During this period, 15 star chefs from all over France are invited to give lectures and demonstrations. The students thus have the opportunity to be exposed not only to gastronomy but also to regional and classic cuisines by their respective masters. The program also includes trips to wine caves in Bourgone and a weekend trip to Champagne region. The second semester is spent on practical training at Michelin starred restaurants and under locally renowned chefs.
The first semester is highly organized. The students are divided into 3 teams. The first day, the teams rotate 3 functions: cook, service, and client. So each menu is repeated 3 times. The day assigned to being the client, students are given French lessons. The semester is divided into 3 segments. During the first period, the menu comprises of one starter, one main dish and one desert. During the second and third period, the numbers are increased to 2 and 3 of each. As time progresses, so does the complexity of the dishes.
The program is offered in French with Japanese instructors acting as intermediaries. Majority of the student body is Japanese with 5% represented by other Asian nationalities, although they must all spend the first year of the program in Japan in Japanese.
I had the rare opportunity to meet with Mr. Kubo and Mr. Nakano to learn more about this high-profiled culinary institution.
It all started when Shizuo Tsuji, a former journalist, opened a culinary school in Japan in the 60’s. Through a chance meeting with an American journalist on a place, he was introduced to M.F.K. Ficher, who in turn introduced him to Prof. Chamberlin at MIT, who introduced him to Madame Poin and Paul Bocuse. The fateful meeting between Shizuo Tsuji and Paul Bocuse happened in the 60’s. Under Tsuji’s invitation, Bocuse visited Japan for the first time in1970. Today, there is not a single person interested in studying French cuisine who doesn’t know Paul Bocuse, but at the time. Believe it or not, this was in fact the first time Paul Bocuse stepped outside of France.
At the time, there were many hotels and restaurants in Japan calling themselves French restaurants, but the dishes they were serving were far from authentic French cuisine. At the time, they were serving Perigot sauce with black olives instead of truffles, which were too expensive and unavailable. Of course the clients didn’t know any better at the time. But criticizing such practices only resulted in conflicts and did not help the situation. So Shizuo decided to invite not only students but also professional chefs to attend the Bocuse’s seminar. The turn out was 600 participants.
Recognizing the value of his work, French government conferred an honorary Meilleur ouvrier de France to Tsuji very early. This is already 40 years ago. Tsuji continued to invite the top chefs from France for seminars and demonstrations at his school in Japan. Because of these long historic ties, there is not one top-level chef in France who has not heard of Ecole hotelier Tsuji.
Can you explain a little how your school in France is organized?
The one-year program is divided into 2 semesters. The spring semester begins in April and lasts for 5 months. During the second semester, the students are sent to all over France for practical training either in Michelin starred restaurants or important local establishments.
You send students to Paris as well?
Unfortunately we don’t send students inside Paris for two reasons. One of the conditions for accepting our students is that the restaurants provide housing. This is difficult in Paris. We are also responsible for the security of our students. So we have people outside of Paris, such as Fontainbleau.
Japanese people tend to be perfectionists, and sometimes this trait gets in the way. French or Europeans in comes from the point of view that no one is perfect. Therefore, they are able to state their own opinion with a smile. Without hesitation, they are able to say, “I disagree because I think like this.” The ability to do so lies on the fundamental philosophy and acceptance that everyone thinks differently. This is beyond beyond their communication skills. It is normal for people not to agree so there is a mutual respect for difference in opinion. They are able to express that they would like their opinions to be respected. This way of thinking and ability to communicate are not something that can be developed over night. If someone is high technical capabilities is able to develop these capacities, I think s/he would be able to do well in France and elsewhere. I think the real difference between Japanese and French is the mentality that is fostered when they are children by their family, school, and society.
I think that the Japanese have really top-level qualifications in terms of technique. This is true if you look at the average. In order for the Japanese to take the next step, they need to become the real leaders. In order to take this kind of responsibilities, they would need to develop a very deep understanding of French people, as they would need to manage French team and communicate well with clients.
How many percentages of students here remain in France after the program?
The students are here on student visa, so once the school is over, they are required to return home. As you know, recently Working Holiday visa has become very popular, so many students come back after 2 ~ 5 years. For example, a quarter of graduates from 6 years ago are back in France. The Working Holiday visa is valid only for one year, so during that time, they have to use their strength of character to move toward their next step. This of course means figuring out a way to obtain a working visa. Within the ones who return here, 20~30% manage to obtain working visa.
You see many restaurants opening such as Au 14 Fevrier in Lyon and other in Paris. These restaurants are also serving as the stepping-stone for obtaining French visa. That is to say that the foundation here is becoming more solidified for Japanese graduates to obtain working visa easier. For instance, 10 to 15 years ago, it was really difficult to obtain a visa.
Are there women chefs? I don’t hear of so many.
Not many. Really only a few.
Why is that?
It is really difficult for them to continue. They get married and have children. For instance, when Chef Pic had her child, she had many people around her to make it work. So it is possible if you already have established a large enough maison. But if you try to do it on your own, it is probably not possible.
There are a lot of women who graduate from our program. But it is difficult for them to create a large career from there. In Japan, the social structure and values have not yet developed to the level of, for instance, Italy and France. You have to look at the implications of labor law too. The maternity benefits and child rearing benefits at the level of national treatment play a great role. Also it depends on whether the society, especially the close family and friends, are able to understand and support them. Half of the students in our program are women. It would be possible for them to continue their career once they own a place. However, if they have to begin as a staff at a large establishment and work their way up to being a chef, and then become a recognized chef, it would take time. For women, there are a number of significant choices, such as marriage and child rearing that comes to play during this time. Unfortunately, there is a great difference between Asia and Europe in terms of how the industry itself is able to be receptive to women, and how much the country as a whole can support support them. Like the women chef at Trois Gros, it might be easier for women to have a successful career in France.