Japanese chef makes history as he joins France's Michelin elite

Fiachra GIBBONS
Kei Kobayashi (C) makes history by becoming the first Japanese chef to win three Michelin stars

Chef Kei Kobayashi became the first Japanese chef ever to win the maximum three Michelin stars in France on Monday.

The 42-year-old, who was born in Nagano, was the biggest winner on a night when Japanese cooks triumphed in the backyard of French haute cuisine.

Kazuyuki Tanaka won two stars for Racine, his French restaurant in the northeastern city of Reims, as did Yasunari Okazaki for his crossover Franco-Japanese cuisine at L'Abysee au Pavillon Ledoyen in Paris.

Kei -- a striking figure with bleached blond hair -- said Japanese cooks have earned their place at the top of French cuisine.

"There are lots of Japanese chefs now in France and you have accepted us and given us a place," he said as picked up the highest distinction in French cooking.

"Thank you, France," he said.

Kei admitted that his perfectionism can make him a "difficult person" to work with.

"I am quite hard. I ask a lot of my team, and then I ask a lot more," he joked.

He opened his restaurant, Kei, in centre of the French capital, nine years ago, and wowed Paris with such signature dishes as sea bass cooked on its scales and Scottish smoked salmon with roquette mousse and a tomato vinaigrette with lemon emulsion.

- Simply brilliant -

Critics hailed the precision of his cooking and the way he made relatively simple dishes like gnocchi, truffle, bellota ham and parmesan cheese extraordinary.

Michelin described his cooking as both "delicate and memorable".

"It's very simple. Every dish that Kei turns the rigour of his attention to is called on to become a signature one," it added.

"I am a Japanese chef who cooks French food," Kei said of his 30-seat restaurant, which he runs with his wife Chikako.

With its sparse grey interior, the chef said he did not need to hang pictures on the walls.

"My cuisine provides the necessary touches of colour," he declared.

The son of a chef who worked in a Japanese restaurant serving traditional multi-course "kaiseki" cooking, Kobayashi decided to dedicate himself to French cuisine after watching a television documentary about the nouvelle cuisine pioneer Alain Chapel, himself a three-star Michelin chef.

He moved to France in 1998 after training in French restaurants in Japan, working under the legendary chef Gilles Goujon at the Auberge du Vieux Puits on the Swiss border and Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee in Paris before going out on his own.