Japanese chefs hone skills in cradle of French cuisine

LIERGUES, France (AFP) - Snow blankets a vineyard deep in France's Beaujolais region, where a select group of future top chefs from Japan are busy learning the secrets of French cuisine in the kitchens of an elegant chateau.

Shouts of "Oui, chef!" punctuate the morning as the Tsuji school's lead teacher Aime Nallet instructs his students in the fine points of smoking Charolais steaks with vine shoots or stewing cluster tomatoes to garnish red mullet pies.

Their challenge goes beyond learning the techniques to training their palates, Mr Nallet says. "Salt is an unknown for them. At home, it's soy sauce."

On the other hand, they are innately meticulous, and the importance of presentation is an imperative straight from Japanese culture, says the school's director, Pierre Beal.

Mr Patrick Henriroux, a chef whose La Pyramide restaurant in south-eastern Vienne has two Michelin stars, likened the students to disciples, with a "desire to learn by following the way of the master".

Bent over the bright red coals of a meat smoker, student chef Soul Sato jumps at every order from Mr Nallet. He says his father gave him the taste for French cuisine, adding that he wants to work in France one day.

"But first I want to go home to Japan and look for work. I don't want to come back here until I've had some practice."

The school is the brainchild of Japanese food writer Shizuo Tsuji, an aficionado of French cuisine who opened a hotel school in 1960 in Osaka which is today one of the most famous in Japan.

A good friend of French culinary giant Paul Bocuse, he decided to set up business in France in 1979.

Through the years, the Tsuji school in Liergues in east-central France just north of Lyon has become a mainstay of French gastronomy, with a long waiting list made up not of mere wannabes but of already accomplished chefs mostly from Japan but also from South Korea.

The top-flight, high-speed training - the courses last five months - comes at a price: between 20,000 and 25,000 euros (S$31,337-S$39,172), depending on the euro-yen exchange rate, in lodgings that are fit for the wealthiest noble family.

And thanks to the location, the student chefs have access to the finest products of the Lyon region, arguably the cradle of French gastronomy.

Staying in France guarantees that they will be able to work with the best authentic ingredients at reasonable prices - while in Japan they are sky high. The downside is that they have to compete with the high priests of French cuisine on their own territory.

After kitchen practice in the morning, the afternoon is given over to demonstrations by star chefs, and on this day Mr Henriroux is showing the students how he makes scallops with gingerbread souffle.

Compared with other high-end cooking schools with Japanese students such as the Ferrandi School of Culinary Arts in Paris and the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, the Tsuji school is the most hands-on, Mr Nallet says.

"At the Ferrandi School they have lots of kitchen training, but also a lot of theory. At the Bocuse school they train managers for the most part. Here, it is only practical work, they are always in the kitchen."

Many Japanese products of the Tsuji school go on to enjoy meteoric careers, even in France, where French cuisine revisited by Japanese chefs is more and more sought after.

Graduates with Michelin stars include chefs Yusuke Takada and Hajime Yoneda in Osaka, Japan, Takeo Yamazaki at the Robuchon Yoshi restaurant of Monaco's Metropole hotel, and Raphael-Fumio Kudaka at La Table Breizh Cafe in the Brittany town of Cancale.

Ms Kyoko Fujiyama, a pastry chef at the Ourson Qui Boit in Lyon - which has no stars but a "Bib Gourmand", awarded to Michelin-worthy restaurants offering three-course meals for no more than 32 euros- excites the most demanding tastebuds in the French culinary capital.

"Our speciality is cakes with ingredients that are unheard of in baking here, like green tea, sesame and miso," she said.

Her creations such as red bean pie, almond cream with black sesame, crumble with soy powder and vanilla-miso cake are such a hit that the restaurant has opened a little adjoining pastry shop.

Other Tsuji graduates go on to join the most celebrated kitchens such as that of Mr Thierry Marx, at the two-starred Sur Mesure in Paris, where Tsuji graduate Atsuko Koizumi is sous-chef.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Mr Joel Robuchon is set to pay the Tsuji school the ultimate compliment.

Mr Robuchon, who operates a dozen restaurants around the world boasting a total of 25 Michelin stars among them and was dubbed "chef of the century" by French restaurant guide Gault Millau in 1989, will soon open an international cuisine school in France's central-western Vienne region - financed by Chinese investors.