Chef Katsumi Ishida, the Japanese pioneer in Lyon

Touted as the pioneer by Japanese cooks in Lyon, Katsumi Ishida is the owner-chef of En mets fais ce qu’il te plait. He was also the organizer for the charity event held in May this year to raise funds for Japan. He is also a favorite at the annual Omnivore Festival in Deauville. Here is a story of someone who has built a reputation on foreign soil over almost 2 decades.

How long have you had this restaurant for?

13 years.

You came to France long before you opened your restaurant.

I came here in 1993. I spent my first 3 weeks in Paris. I was supposed to go work for Alan Chapelle in Lyon, but things went wrong and I found myself with no place to go. But there was no sense in doing nothing, so I started to look for a job. The first offer I received was in Clermont Ferrand. The person who was looking after me in Paris recommended me to take the offer because they were offering me a work permit. At first I hesitated because it was in a Japanese restaurant. But I thought it’s ok since I get to stay in France, and accepted the offer.

You were already trained in French cuisine back in Japan.

Yes. I also went to a culinary school, but I also had a lot of work experience too. At the time, I had not yet stepped foot in France, and my desire to come here was getting ever stronger.

When you came here 13 years ago, were there already Japanese chefs working in French restaurants?

Yes, there already were. The period during which I was working in French restaurants in Japan coincided with the economic bubble there. It was incredible. From food to wine to everything, people had a lot of money to spend and we were using high quality ingredients. Things declined after 1990, so I was there at the right time. Then I came to France, which was slowly experiencing its economic decline.

Not being able to speak the language was difficult?

Of course, it was difficult. I couldn’t communicate anything I was used to doing in Japan. Also there is a lot of slang in Lyon and I really had difficulties understanding the local dialect. I didn’t have many French friends at first. I only studied for 3 weeks in school, so even today my French is a mess. My philosophy is it’s alright so long as people understand what I want to say. And if they don’t, I say I’m sorry. (lol)

So you opened this restaurant 5~6 years after you came to France.

It was January 1999. At first I had a French business partner. I was cooking and he was in charge of service.

How many seats does the restaurant have?

About 20. Before we used to seat 30, even 40 people, but we couldn’t keep up. Also physically it was too demanding. So we reduced the seats and raised the quality.

I hear that you also perform at Omnivore Festival.

Yes, I go there every year.

Do you enjoy it?

Yes, because I get to meet different people. Since I am Japanese, it’s important for me to network with the people in the industry. I like to live freely, so I take vacations rather liberally. Even though I don’t take much time off, I am able to leave whenever I want to.

You also like to travel?

Yes, I like Spain, I also like Italy, … It gives me a great pleasure to discover new ingredients. In this sense, it is very different from Japan, because all of these countries are geographically connected. I don’t believe that French food is everything. I think that there are good ingredients in many places, and you need to actually be there to appreciate the local products.

Why did you choose French cuisine?

I was attracted by European cuisine in general at first. It was different from what I was used to, so it had an appeal. First there was a television show called the Emperor’s Chef. It’s a story about Tokuzo Akiyama who became the Emperor’s chef. I thought, “Wow, French food is served even in such places.” In the beginning, it was just an idea, but around the time when I was in high school, there was an enormous amount of publications on French food. It was also around this period that Shizuo Tsuji started to publish his books. There were also articles in Asahi-shinbun, and I used to browse through them.

You think that Mr. Tsuji’s influence is significant?

Certainly, especially in terms of introducing French cuisine to Japan. Also Paul Bocuse. I’ve wanted to cook ever since high school.

Is there someone in the food industry in your family?

We all like to eat, but there is no cook in the family. They are all regular employees. But our mother passed away early, so our father was cooking. I used to watch cooking shows on TV. It’s not like these days where you have a wide variety of choices to choose from though.

How many years did you work in French restaurants before coming to France?

I worked for 10 years.

That’s quite long.

Yes, I wanted to come to France much earlier, but I didn’t have money or time. I couldn’t find any opportunity. Even when I thought of coming, the first step was always difficult, and I wasn’t able to move forward. I didn’t have the money to travel. I didn’t have the money to go around to taste food either.

How did you find the opportunity to come here?

Through someone I knew, I wrote a letter in French. Thinking back on it now, I wonder what I said in the letter. I feel embarrassed. (lol) Now, our families are friends.

Do you go back to Japan often?

No. The first time I went back was 10 years after I arrived here.

Your family doesn’t worry about you?

My father lives close to my sister. No one cares about me. Cooks work long hours. Me, I’ve always moved around so I never spent much time with my family.

You don’t miss Japan?

Time passes quickly in France. In Japan, life used to be a back and forth between work and home. You cook, and you go home to sleep. Also the kitchen was in the basement, so I never saw the light of day. I never saw the change of season. Outside of what we served in the restaurant, there was nothing that allowed me to sense the seasons. In France, there is a pont (a long weekend) in May, followed by the summer vacation, and in autumn, there is this and that … things around you are constantly moving and changing. You too are forced to be part of the rhythm, and time start moving quickly. You find yourself saying, “Wow, it’s already been one year.” Compared to Japan, you have so many holidays and vacations here. Of course you work long hours too.

In your cuisine, do you incorporate Japanese ingredients?

Not at all! I’m sorry to say, but for instance Akira (Chef Nishigaki at L’oursin qui boit) uses things like yuzu. If you use things like that … People I used to work for never used them, so I tend to follow their tradition. There are a lot of good ingredients here, so I don’t feel the need to go out of the way to be Japanese. Today, Japanese people are established and recognized as a population, so it’s ok. Even 3 star restaurants are incorporating Japanese ingredients these days. But at the time when I had arrived, I didn’t use it because I though it was unfair.

What do you mean by unfair?

Because you know that it’s going to taste good. You know that if you do this, it’s going to be good. It would have been easy for me to used yuzu or matcha, but I thought it would not be fair.

What about now?

I don’t, even today.

You are very adamant. Takao Takano said that it is natural for him to use dashi (Japanese broth).

I’m not denying it. It’s ok to use soy sauce. It’s very popular these days. But back then, until these people (like Tsuyoshi Arai, Takao Takano, Akira Nishigaki) came into the scene, I was alone. I was the only Japanese running a French restaurant. In comparison, things are much easier today. I don’t, even today. I ask whether it’s ok for an old dodger like me to be doing what I am. I’m a fool for French cuisine, so I don’t want to mix the ingredients.

People call you a pioneer. I guess there are hardships of a pioneer that people don’t know of…

No–, there is no such thing! I’m just doing what I want. But what I think that sets me apart, even if people say I’m strange, I believe that I offer something different than what others are offering in Lyon. I prefer that things are the way the chefs want, not what the clients want. I felt it in many restaurants. If you don’t have your own policy, things will deteriorate. If you keep catering to what the clients want, you loose who you are. Like with wine, I want the clients to follow what I like, what I am searching for. I use everything that I found myself, whether it be vegetables, poultry, or meat.

The rest is the connection you have with the producers. I like the wine makers where the makers’ faces are visible. Those that I can offer with complete confidence. People in Lyon don’t understand yet much about natural wine.

What do you mean by natural wine, is it organic wine?

No, it’s different. There are a number of categories to natural wine, like organic, bio-dynamic, … the idea is to make wine in the way that is close as possible to nature. It doesn’t mean you leave it to its own. There are many things you need to do to achieve that. The resulting wine from such process is amazing. Ups and downs also come with the territory.

So you are very interested in wine.

Yes, very much so. I really became persistent about 2 liquids since I came to France: one is wine, the other is olive oil.  The thought process behind these two are very similar. Each step from production to bottling is done as part of the whole process. You cultivate, select, squeeze, and turn into juice. I am really attracted by this. They taste completely different depending on the region and quality.  It’s the same with wine. Italian wine is completely different.

But there are variations within the productions too. It’s not a fixed taste. It’s different according to the person who makes it. Each year, the maker calculates how things would play out depending on each variable, so the rest is a battle with nature. Industrial wine, on the other hand have fixed taste.

So you’ve visited around.

Yes, because I like to. I can’t drink very much, but I like the wine makers’ philosophy. There is a part of me that is very much influenced by and helped by their philosophy. Marcel Lapierre, above all, helped me the most. He was also the godfather of my daughter. He’s passed away last October, but he’s the person I owe most to. My life started with him.

Can you explain this philosophy you are talking about?

How can I say … it’s like French culture. First of all, you can only understand wine by drinking it first. First drink, then think about it. They didn’t say it in words, but they taught me that. French food is a large subject. One needs to think about everything. There is the French land, there are different foods in different regions, there is wine, there is cheese, there are connections between people … these are the things that are important. That’s what people have taught me. They also taught me that it’s not something that you can just appear and learn like that. But I stayed with them. And as a result people took me in. Without that, there would not be me, as I exist today.

What’s different about me from the other Japanese chefs is that I couldn’t have made it just by myself. People around me encouraged me, and that gave me the power. I would not have made it to where I am today only with my cuisine. I really feel that.

People like Chef Arai, Chef Takano and Chef Nishigaki created things for themselves on their own through their cooking within their respective territories. In my case, I was assisted by others. I am really grateful to that. People treated me like I was one of them. At first, people said, “What is this Japanese guy saying.” But it changed gradually, I started being featured in publications, in books, I started writing books and what not. Slowly people began to understand me, and finally developed my reputation. So I am really grateful to those who gave me a chance in the beginning.

I think this would not have been possible in Japan. I didn’t start this with a capital. In the beginning, I didn’t understand the first thing about how the French economy works. Through experience I learnt the difficulties of managing a restaurant. I consider that part of my social studies. You can’t just be cooking. You have to manage the business and make a living, which means you need to communicate with people.

But don’t you think being able to be helped by others is also a type of gift?

I don’t know whether it’s a gift or not, but I am happy it turned out this way.

So you have many French supporters around you.

Yes, I don’t think I could go on without them. It’s not a restaurant I started with money. What’s most important for me right now is to buy good wine, good ingredients and offer them to my clients. So I can never quite manage to buy things like better furniture. People tell me I should change things, but I can’t seem to manage to create a balance with income.

But it’s great that people around you support you.

Yes, I am really happy. Today, if you say “Katsumi”, most of the wine producers know me. I have finally been able to arrive at that point.

Maybe it was good that you came to Lyon afterall.

I think so. Because I was at Marcel, he helped me, he introduced me to a lot of people. I would have done anything for Marcel. I was like his foot soldier.

It would have been a different story had you gone to Paris, for example.

The rhythm is different there. I think it’s good if you want to make money. But there are restaurants that do well and don’t do so well in Paris, and it’s the same in Lyon. My restaurant too, it wasn’t doing so well at first. Also the fluctuation of clients is really significant in Lyon. It’s not like Paris, which is the center of the world. People move, they get transferred through their works. There have been times when my restaurant really suffered the impact. It’s a small restaurant, so I was barely breaking even.

Aside from cooking and travel, what else do you do?

I like to listen to music. I don’t have much free time these days, so I don’t have time for sports. I used to be a rock’n roller when I was young. My wife is a classical musician, so I like classical music too. Right now, we are investing in our daughter. If I were one of those cuisine maniacs, it would be difficult, wouldn’t it? I have my life first, and if there is a restaurant as an alpha-plus, I think it’s ok.

People who obtain Michelin stars have a difficult life. For instance Chef Sato became the first Japanese in France to obtain 2 stars, but he has a patron, and there are a lot of politics to deal with. I think it is really difficult for a Japanese person to obtain 2 stars. Most likely you would stop at 1 star, and maintaining the star alone is a lot of work. God forbid if you loose it, it would become a big problem. I think maybe it’s better to be like me to not have such ambitions.

You never wanted a Michelin star?

I was included in the Michelin Guide right after I opened the restaurant, so I think it’s enough. The Guide started to include comments the year my restaurant was selected, and I receive a complemented. I was very happy about that. Michelin standards have changed since. There was a change in the Director. Someone from Lyon became the new Director, and I thought to my self, “I am going to be removed,” and indeed I was. I don’t like the man very much, and neither he me. That’s the way it is. But I am featured somewhere once a year so.

What’s difficult when you obtain a star is you have to spend a lot of money on the facilities and décor. You always have to manage that, so it’s a lot of work. I wonder if you can be happy having worked so hard. That’s a different subject.

When are you happiest?

When I travel with my family. I’m also happy when I taste something good or discover something new. To be with my family, drinking wine and talk with wine makers. Being connected to French wine maker as part of my life is important for me. Because I enjoy it. It’s one form of beverage, but each has its own story, and each story is interesting. So I want to be able to do something that would be as good as these stories.

For instance, receiving a Michelin star is one story. I wouldn’t exist without these people. So I am a special case.

You are very French in this way.

Japanese people tend to focus only on work, and there’s no play. It’s like the F1 racer. They are always racing. There is no play at all. So me, I am fine with being a station wagon. I like Formula 1 though. (lol) I like F1, but you need to play. If not you become exhausted.

Do you think there is play in your cooking too?

I think there are a lot of  things that are avant guard in my cuisine. To prevent myself from becoming rusty, I offer a degustation menu on Friday and Saturday night. I offer dishes I think would be interesting in this menu. It’s fun to keep changing the menu according to the season. In a way I think my food is more French than those made by French chefs.

What did you make this year at the Omnivore Festival?

I prepared an eel and an octopus. I thought no one must have seen an eel when it is prepared alive. I said, “I’m definitely doing that.” And they hadn’t. It was a lot of fun. For me too. People were wowed. The eel is moving, and when I pocked its eye with a knife, people screamed. I would have no problem using any French ingredients.

You like France.

I like the land, but there are a lot of people I dislike. They are more like animals. They have no front and back. They are not like Japanese who don’t say what’s building up inside them. You have to fight with French people.

They react right away.

They say, how can I know if you don’t say anything. It’s true of course.

Then you want to stay here forever.

Yes. I want to do something in France. Not just here, but I want to organize something for instance in Japan. I don’t want to become someone who only cooks. For instance, a photographer or a painter. I think its more enjoyable in France than in Japan because there are so much more opportunities to be in contact with artists. People in Japan live in their boxes. “You are not an artist so you don’t belong.” In France, such barriers rarely exist. If I say, “I don’t know, so could you teach me,” French people would teach you without any questions.

You were saying earlier that each wine has its story. Can you give an example?

There are a lot of stories, so it’s difficult to tell it all in one sentence. Of course each wine maker is trying to make good wine. There are specific ways to make wine according to the region, so what one winemaker does would be different from another. For instance, there is a great difference between someone who harvests with a machine and dumps it all into a tank and someone who hand picks grape by grape.  You can’t tell once they are in the bottle. You can’t tell what happened behind the scene to make that bottle of wine. You can’t see the work that people have put in. There are people who can’t tell the difference even if they drink it. But we are more experienced, so when we notice something spectacular, it’s the natural wine. It’s the same with cooking; if you are used to it, you can tell the difference. There is a lot of similarities between cooking and wine. Both are something that are made by hand, aren’t they.

I am surrounded by people who make things. For instance the Boulanger just in front of us – he’s an amazing person. He is also one of the people who have helped me a lot. Bread is part of French culture. In Japan, you only have sandwich bread. I think this is something that is difficult to be understood in Japan. I didn’t know the different cereals, what “complait” meant, how you distinguish a good bread. He taught me a lot.

You have such a wonderful selection of wine here. You don’t think of opening a bar here?

I can’t.  You need to be French in order to have the (liquor license) License 4. I can only serve alcohol during business hours of the restaurant.

Do you also need to be French for instance in order to be Meilleur ouvrier de France (MOF)?

Yes, you need to have French citizenship.

France is very “unique”. Although Japan is too …

It’s the same.

EN METS FAIS CE QU’IL TE PLAÎT: 43, r. Chevreul, Lyon 07 (69007); Tel: 04 78 72 46 58

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