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First, he conquered Paris. Now, a Japanese chef wants to become a brand.


In cooking, timing is everything. So much so that if chef Kei Kobayashi catches diners heading to the restroom while delivering dishes from the kitchen, he’ll stop them. The call of nature can wait; his dishes should be the most delicious.

This imperiousness and precision echo the words of Mr. Kobayashi, the first Japanese chef to win three Michelin stars in a Parisian restaurant, who learned a saying from one of France’s earliest mentors: The chef is king.

“Unless you solidify your worldview to this extent, you won’t be able to become a chef,” Mr. Kobayashi, 46, said in a recent interview in Tokyo.

Earned his third star – the largest – for his work Restaurant celebration In Paris in 2020, he has now expanded his ambitions to Japan, where he has opened four restaurants in the past two years.

Mr. Kobayashi said, Our goal is to become a brand.In this sense, he seems to be following Alain DucasseMr. Kobayashi opened his own restaurant in 2011 after working at his now-closed Plaza Athénée restaurant in Paris.

He also joins the ranks of Japan’s creative community, which includes artists Yayoi Kusama and Murakami Takashi —He first became famous outside his home country.

Mastering the art of French cooking has become a Japanese specialty. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, Four of the dozen restaurants The three-star restaurant specializes in French cuisine.

Mr. Kobayashi said in an interview hours before the restaurant’s official opening that he wanted to show how French cuisine can be combined with seasonal Japanese ingredients. Paris Kei Collectionhis new restaurant is located on the top floor of Toranomonyama Station Tower in Tokyo.

At Kei Collection, he’s snuck some classic Japanese comfort dishes onto the menu, including curry and breaded steak frites, as well as more like butter-roasted giant clams, smoked bonito with white cheese foam, or delicate tuna and caviar hand rolls. Exquisite dishes.

When the restaurant opened, Mr. Kobayashi, whose hair is dyed platinum blonde, wore a traditional chef’s double-breasted white coat embroidered with three Michelin stars, black trousers and green suede New Balance sneakers. On his wrist is an Audemars Piguet watch.

Modestly spoken, he refuses to use adjectives like “class” or “genius” and says he never lets himself think he has reached the pinnacle of cooking. But Mr. Kobayashi seemed huddled and a little cold, which was inconsistent with his humble words.

His uncompromising attitude was reflected in his favorite French phrase: “aller plus loin” – go further.

“If you compromise, or think ‘OK, this is fine,’ then it’s time to quit,” he said.

His attention to detail extends beyond the food. “He pays great attention to the choice of furniture, the interior decoration and the softness of the sofas,” said Tadashi Nobira, manager of Esprit C. Kei Ginza, another new restaurant in Tokyo that Mr. Kobayashi has opened. “He cares about the last centimeter.”

On Kei Collection’s opening day earlier this spring, just minutes before a customer arrived for lunch with the chef, Mr. Kobayashi was adjusting the volume of a jazz selection playing in the restaurant.

Mr. Kobayashi grew up in Nagano, central Japan, where his father worked as a chef. His mother cooked home-cooked meals every night, including his favorite curry. But Mr. Kobayashi said he did not learn to cook from either of them.

Instead, it was a documentary about the French chef Alain Chappell that first attracted Mr. Kobayashi, who envied the chef’s crisp white jacket. After high school, he got a job at a local French restaurant, where for four years, he recalled, “the chef was always angry with me.”

At 19, Mr. Kobayashi moved to Tokyo to work for Ikuo Shimizu, a largely self-taught chef who provided his apprentices with basic training in how to handle meat and fish.

“He’s mischievous, but he has a strong backbone,” Mr. Shimizu said in an interview at his eight-seat restaurant in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood, where he serves rustic French cuisine. “I think he’s really a craftsman. He’s very particular about details, like the shape of the knife and how to sharpen it.”

After falling in love with French food, Mr. Kobayashi decided to move to France. An acquaintance helped him find a job at the Auberge du Vieux Puits in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, where he worked for four years under chef Gilles Goujon, who also received three Michelin stars.

Guhong said in a video interview that he was immediately struck by the young chef with bleached hair.

Armed with stereotypes about Japanese prowess, Mr. Koken first assigned Mr. Kobayashi to the fish station, guiding him with hand gestures and recipe illustrations. Even on his days off, “he wanted to come to work,” Guhong said. “So we had to lock the dining room so he could go and rest.”

After working at the fish station for two seasons, Mr. Kobayashi tried to convince his boss that he was allergic and needed to switch to meat and game. Mr. Guhong was so amused that he eventually took Mr. Kobayashi to the meat station to learn how to debone birds, deer and wild boar.

Mr. Kobayashi also worked briefly in a pastry shop in Provence and a restaurant in Brittany. The latter, he said, didn’t go well. “There was a movement to make French cooking more scientific, and I didn’t agree with that,” he said. “I went to study Breton gastronomy, not science.”

He worked at Mr. Ducasse’s Plaza Athénée for seven years before going out on his own, buying a restaurant where the chef was retiring.

“Maybe I’m stupid,” he said, “but I thought cooking would take care of itself.” However, he worries about whether he will be able to support the staff he employs as they “risk their lives.”

Within a year, he received his first Michelin star; the second came five years later. After the third time, he decided to move back to Japan.

In addition to Kei Collection Paris and Esprit C. Kei Ginza, Mr. Kobayashi has opened a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo and Gotemba near Mount Fuji. The Gotemba and Ginza restaurants are a collaboration with Toraya, a century-old Japanese confectionery company.

Since Mr. Kobayashi spends most of his time in Paris, he handpicked chefs to run the new Japanese restaurant’s kitchen, relying on them to develop dishes based on local ingredients.

Teruki Murashima, 50, the chef at the Héritage by Kei Kobayashi restaurant at the Ritz, said he speaks frequently with Mr. Kobayashi on the phone and sends him photos of dishes and ingredient lists.

“We might make completely different dishes using the same ingredients,” Mr. Murashima said in an interview at the Ritz Hotel. “But we understand each other and respect each other.”

Still, Mr. Murashima said, Mr. Kobayashi was “very picky about certain things, and he would get really angry if things didn’t meet his standards.”

At times, Mr. Kobayashi easily reminds customers of these standards. If a diner takes out his phone to take a photo of a dish, Mr. Kobayashi may appear at the table and encourage customers to take a bite immediately, said Mr. Nohira, the manager of the Ginza restaurant.

So is he a king? “I’m probably close to one,” he said.

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting from Paris.

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