For a French dining neophyte, it’s hard not to be intimidated by Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros. Famous culinary innovator with his name on the door? Yes. Star rating from the prestigious Michelin Guide Tokyo? Yes, and yes, thank you. Brilliant young chef creating exquisite tasting menus? Mais oui.
So when I step in to meet Executive Chef and Director Lionel Beccat, I’m pleasantly surprised and instantly put at ease with his grace and easygoing calm – traits that he’s surely perfected in his years in the kitchen. Before we sit down, Chef Beccat offers me a freshly squeezed juice straight from the kitchen. The blend of pineapple, pear, strawberry, and whatever else they had lying around is eye-openingly tart but still subtly sweet, and after just a few sips I start to feel nourished and refreshed (as it turns out, a perfect prelude to the cuisine itself).Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros, located in the Hyatt Regency Tokyo in Shinjuku, is one of the hotel’s newest additions. Guests in the hotel’s newest rooms will see clear parallels between their accommodation and the restaurant’s design – both reflect a respect for simplicity, tradition, and comfort.
As we sit down to chat in the restaurant’s cozy waiting area, I wonder if Chef Beccat doesn’t sometimes feel like a rock star, given the popularity of shows like Top Chef and the rise of the celebrity chef in North America and Europe. He says he’s aware that chefs increasingly have this image, though he personally doesn’t want to be portrayed that way. “I don’t really like the fact that chefs are like rock stars because we are artists and artisans first; it’s not about being famous. A chef has to be in the kitchen, and humility is one of our most important qualities.”
Lionel Beccat spent his formative years in Marseilles, in the South of France. His first memories of food are inextricably linked to both of his grandmothers – one hailing from Sicily and the other from Tunisia, both regions with their own distinct cuisine and culture. Growing up, he was aware of this “love of cooking, especially for Sicilian and Arabic. For grandmas, making food is all their life, and they’re putting all their love into feeding the family.”
While he always had fond memories of the sights and smells emanating from his grandmothers’ kitchens, Lionel did not initially see himself following a culinary career. He went to university to study history, but finding it difficult to make it to class and see the relevance of his studies, he dropped out and moved to Ireland. It was there, through a series of fortuitous events, that he began to consider the possibility of becoming a chef. He found himself enjoying the Irish approach to life – and Guinness – so much that his weekly allowance from his parents was no longer enough to make ends meet. Lionel took a job as a waiter and befriended the chef at the restaurant, drawn to the way his passion for his work lit up his eyes. “I thought, ‘Oh my god. It would be great to have this.’”
And great it’s been, with a little help from Michel Troisgros, who gave this aspiring chef a place in his kitchen. Lionel startedat Michel Troisgros’ Roanne restaurant as a section chef, then graduated to become sous-chef. Michel then invited him to become Head Chef of his Tokyo venture, and named him Executive Chef and Director earlier this year.
Troisgros and Beccat set out to create a welcoming restaurant that embraces the spirit of the Troisgros name. According to Chef Beccat, Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros is not a formal restaurant. Make no mistakes about it – the two Michelin stars speak to the quality of the dining and service – but the overall atmosphere is one of rustic charm and, perhaps surprisingly, comfort. Large exposed wood beams and overstuffed chairs give the restaurant a feeling of a French country home, and the service is kind and attentive without being stuffy.
Since Michel Troisgros lives in Roanne, France, where he tends to his first restaurant, Maison Troisgros, I wondered how much of the menu at the Tokyo restaurant is left up to Chef Beccat. He tells me at the opening of Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros, he made a bet with Michel to put everything on his head, giving him complete creative license with the restaurant.
Is it deceptive to use the name Troisgros when he is not really on the premises and has no real input on the menu? No, says Chef Beccat, because “more than the style, Troisgros is a spirit, it’s an open-minded spirit to all culture.” Troisgros and Beccat agree that if people just wanted replicas of the recipes from Roanne, there would be no need to send a French chef. The whole point of having Chef Beccat here in Tokyo is so that he can adapt and change the menu according to the seasons, available ingredients, and his own inspiration.
In fact, the menu from the past three years – in all its variations and evolutions – can be considered a reflection of Chef Beccat’s reactions to and experiences of living in Japan. Cooking is simply an outward manifestation of his internal world or “universe” as he calls it, and “if I look back three years ago and I look at my dishes, I think, ‘Did I cook this? Really?’ But you don’t notice that because it’s little by little, it’s your everyday life.” When asked about the biggest difference between cooking in France and Japan, he replies with a shrugand a smile, “It’s the same, but it’s just that the country changes you.”
As any artist, Chef Beccat seeks – and discovers – inspiration in the world around him, although perhaps not in the ways you might expect. In Japan, he’s passionate about the art, cinema, and design, though don’t get him started on the music. He takes pleasure in the Japanese ability to pare things down to the bare essentials. Rather than take inspiration from Japanese cuisine itself, though, “I discovered the spirit of the dishes – it was really new for me. They are trying to reach perfection with simplicity.” This minimalist approach – present in everything from Hiroshi Sugimoto’s black and white photographs to a simple bowl of miso soup – fuels Chef Beccat’s creativity.
This approach to aesthetics is also one of the fundamental differences Chef Beccat has observed between French and Japanese cuisine. He explains, “A French or Western chef is trying to find the perfect point when he thinks that his dish is finished. He thinks that his dish is finished when you can’t add something. And a Japanese chef is exactly the opposite – a dish is finished when you can’t retire something from the plate.”
Guests at Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros may be surprised by the unusual combinations of flavors and ingredients Chef Beccat brings to the plate, but he emphasizes the fact that “the cuisine of Michel in France is really like this, it’s really modern, it’s inspired by a lot of new influences.” On my visit, unexpected menu items included a ravioli-like dish enveloped in a thin layer of tofu, Vietnamese rice paper that was delicately folded to encase banana, parsley, and raspberry mousses, and lightly grilled slices of zucchini that were wrapped around green and white asparagus and resembled a maki sushi roll.
Though the dishes may not always conform to most guests’ notions of classic French cuisine, Chef Beccat doesn’t allow this to influence what he’s doing in the kitchen. He doesn’t aim to merely replicate traditional dishes; innovation and adaptation are his passions, even if this sets him up for the occasional stumble: “Perfection is so boring. I’m just trying to take some risks sometimes, because this is really something that I wanted to do, and sometimes it’s working and sometimes it’s not working, but for how it is, people really love it, or they say, oh, it’s not what I expected, I don’t get along with this kind of food, I don’t understand his story. But that’s life – you can’t charm everybody.”
Beyond mere innovation and adaptation, Chef Beccat is trying to tell a story with his cuisine. When I ask him to describe his definitive flavors or preparations, he insists that it’s not possible, but his face lights up when he describes the experience he’s hoping his cooking will help guide diners through: “I want you to travel without moving off your chair. But I don’t want you to travel in a country, because it’s really common to say that… I believe there is a mental terroir in each one of us. And every day we can add some new things to our mental terroir. And for each customer, I’m just trying to write down a page in their head and I’m trying to be honest with my food, and I hope you see this.”
In the future, what can we expect from Chef Beccat and Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros? Chef Beccat smiles mysteriously, but claims he has no idea. “That’s why life is so tasty, because you never know what you’ll do in five years.”
By Melissa Feineman
From WINING & DINING in TOKYO #36