Star Man

Star Man

While opening new restaurants in Dubai, Seoul, Las Vegas—and, now, Tokyo—celebrated French chef Pierre Gagnaire remains firmly in control


Originally published on on March 2010

Pierre Gagnaire collects Michelin stars the way Tiger Woods collects girlfriends: widely, impressively, and in great numbers. In 1993, Gagnaire, then 43, earned a top three-star rating for his namesake restaurant in St. Etienne, central France—a rare achievement for a chef who was closer to the beginning of his career than the end. Five years later, he repeated the feat at the newly opened Pierre Gagnaire Paris, and in 2004, after taking over the kitchens of Gaya Rive Gauche in the 7th arrondissement, he won yet another Michelin star. Now 59, Gagnaire shares the stage with Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon as the leading light of contemporary French cuisine.

Yet unlike Ducasse, the suave businessman who runs a culinary empire, or Robuchon, whose menus rely on familiar dishes whether they’re being served in Monaco or Hong Kong, Gagnaire still seems happiest in the kitchen. Overseeing eight restaurants from Europe to Asia to the Middle East, he personally revamps all his menus three times a year, and uses only local ingredients in his cooking. So last week’s opening of Pierre Gagnaire Tokyo means the chef will be spending a lot of time in Japan.

“The issue is quality,” he tells Metropolis amid the pre-launch bustle at his new restaurant, which sits atop of the ANA InterContinental Tokyo hotel in Akasaka. “If I want to keep good quality, I have to be on-site.”

Pierre Gagnaire Tokyo is, in fact, the chef’s second foray into Japan—a prior, eponymous eatery in Aoyama earned two Michelin stars before problems with backers forced it to close in 2008. Gagnaire, a lithe, kinetic man with a mad-scientist swoop of white hair, says he is thrilled to be back in a country he’s been visiting for more than 25 years.

“The first time I came to Japan, I thought, ‘I’ve found what I’m looking for,’” he recalls. “It’s a shock because you see the beauty that’s on the plate. I wasn’t influenced by Japan—I didn’t know much about it—but I found that there could be such a tenderness… It goes beyond art, it goes beyond craft. I had known about these things before, but until I came to Japan, I wasn’t sure about their expression.”

Born in Loire in 1950, Gagnaire began his career at age 18 and spent most of the next decade in Lyon, Paris and the US. In 1976, he joined his father’s restaurant, Clos Fleury in St. Etienne, helping to retain its Michelin star. After striking out on his own in 1981, Gagnaire enjoyed a dramatic rise—in addition to all those Michelin stars, his flagship Paris venue was named the third best restaurant in the world in 2008 by Restaurant Magazine UK.

Gagnaire’s cuisine defies ready description. Although its radical combinations and presentation have led some to call it molecular cuisine, the chef shrugs off the label, preferring instead the term note à note, which suggests the subtle, shifty progression of sensations that diners experience with each dish.

A meal at a Pierre Gagnaire restaurant is likely to include a half dozen morsels within any given course, sometimes centered around a unifying theme, though just as often not. A preview luncheon at the new restaurant featured a pre-appetizer plate that contained, among other items, a marshmallow topped with shallots and pepper; a warm spinach financier with citrus foam; and a ginger sable with sea salt. The next course included a procession of scallops and root vegetables: Espelette chili-spiced sashimi slices sitting on pillows of creamy white beets, ringing a pudding-like mound of red-beet puree; grilled scallops curled around sweet potatoes accompanied by a disc of raw-beet “carpaccio” in a Campari-rum marinade; and scallops sautéed with turmeric served with white cabbage and orange reduction. It’s said that the buzz in a Pierre Gagnaire dining room rises and falls with the arrival of each course, as diners are captivated by the succession of flavors and textures each new bite delivers.

For the launch of his new restaurant, the chef has brought in key staff from Paris, including several with close ties to Japan. The manager, Michel Delépine, is a veteran of Ginza’s renowned L’Osier, while pastry chef Takahiro is a local son who has worked with Gagnaire since 2006. Head chef Olivier Chaignon has been with his boss at Gagnaire’s London restaurant, Sketch, as well as in Paris and Tokyo.

Pierre Gagnaire Tokyo is the chef’s fifth restaurant to debut since 2006, joining eateries in Hong Kong (2006), Dubai (2008), Seoul (2008) and Las Vegas (2009). A further venue is planned for Moscow, but that will likely be the end of Gagnaire’s expansion: besides visiting each restaurant three times a year, the chef spends half of his time in Paris (“Everything starts there,” he claims), and he simply wouldn’t be able give any new restaurants the attention they demand.

“When I’m visiting one off my restaurants outside Paris, I’m thinking only about where I am,” he says. “When I’m in Paris, I’m thinking of my other restaurants.” Gagnaire’s control of the dining experience extends to the table settings and staff uniforms, which in Tokyo come courtesy of renowned designer Junko Koshino.

The chef’s hectic schedule doesn’t allow for much leisure, but during his rare downtime, he says he enjoys running and reading. Accompanying him on the Tokyo trip is his elegant wife Sylvie, who also serves as an ad hoc translator—although Gagnaire gamely tries to conduct this interview in English, he soon reverts back to his native French. So it makes for a warm matrimonial display when, after being asked if he’s ever felt nervous cooking for anyone in his illustrious career, the world-renowned chef and restaurateur casts a sidelong glance at Sylvie and sheepishly says, “Yeah—her.”

Pierre Gagnaire Tokyo. 35F, ANA InterContinental Tokyo, 1-12-33 Akasaka, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3505-1111. Lunch from ¥3,800 (Tue-Fri) and ¥6,000 (Sat-Sun); dinner from ¥18,000. Jackets recommended for men. Open Tue-Sun 11:30am-2pm (L.O.) and 6-9pm (L.O.), closed Mon. Nearest stn: Tameike-Sanno, exit 13.