Mica Soellner is a freelance multimedia journalist who has worked at US and UK publications. She has been published by the Independent, i News, Novara Media, spiked-online and has been featured on BBC radio. Mica is completing her Bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri. She is currently based in Washington D.C. interning at Politifact National. She has language skills in Japanese and German and is interested in labor relations, politics and foreign policy.
Q and A with chef Jun Tanaka
What influenced you to be a chef and when did you realise that’s what you wanted to do?
My mother is a fantastic cook and while growing up, the family dinner was the highlight of my day. I’ve always loved eating and even as a child, there was nothing I wouldn’t eat. Loving to eat so much and wanting to know how to cook was a completely natural progression and, with the advice of my father, I started my career at the age of 19.
Your restaurant The Ninth Restaurant is based on French-styled cuisine. Why did you decide to do a French menu and how do you add your own British touch to the food?
When I started my career, I only wanted to work in Michelin star restaurants and 25 years ago, they were all predominantly French. Once I began my training in French cuisine, I fell in love with the techniques, recipes and seasonality of ingredients. So at The Ninth, we cook French-styled cuisine with Mediterranean influences.
Since you have Japanese heritage, were you ever interested in putting in a Japanese style into your cuisine or experimenting with Japanese dishes?
I grew up eating Japanese food so it’s very familiar to me but, I consciously made a decision not to introduce Japanese-style dishes at The Ninth as I am not a fan of fusion cooking.
Do you think television appearances have shaped your confidence as a chef?
I think cooking on TV gives you confidence in presenting and explaining recipes in a simple and relatable way. But the only way to gain confidence as a chef is hard work and training.
What is the most difficult aspect about being such a widely known chef?
I don’t think of myself as a “widely known” chef, but being a chef, I find that no one wants to cook for me! Or if they do, they’re super apologetic even before I sit down to eat. It’s a shame, because I actually love being cooked for!
You say you believe anyone can learn to cook like on Cooking It. What advice do you have for aspiring chefs on how to improve their skills?
Be organised. When cooking a recipe from a cookbook, read it from start to finish and understand the recipe. Then make sure you have all the equipment you’re going to need and have all the ingredients laid out in front of you. Once you’ve done that, prepare all the ingredients and finally begin the cooking. By approaching the recipe this way, your focus is only on one stage of the process and this will make everything simpler – and the end result will definitely improve.
You endeavoured to join the street food scene. It’s quite different from your traditional menu, why did you decide to take an interest in it?
Mark – my business partner – and I started our street food business seven years ago when British street food was only just beginning. At the time it was an innovative idea and we wanted to challenge ourselves to use our skills and knowledge of working in Michelin star restaurants and create the best takeaway dishes at street food prices.
What is your favourite kind of street food?
Definitely Thai. I visit Bangkok every year and some of the best food you can eat there is out on the streets!
Do you think the Michelin star rating of the restaurant is really important?
It was never our goal to gain a star, as The Ninth is not your typical Michelin star restaurant. But, being awarded one has definitely been one of the highlights of my career and I’m happy for all the staff that have worked so hard over the past year. Now that we have one, it is essential that we maintain our standards and retain it.
What about hole-in the-wall places or lesser known local establishments – do you think they have lesser value because they might not have that quality rating?
Not at all. In fact, some of my favourite restaurants in London (and elsewhere) don’t have a Michelin star. Michelin has a specific ratingsystem, and just because a restaurant doesn’t have a star doesn’t mean the food isn’t of a high standard.
Working in Le Gavroche was your first job. Do you think working in a high-end restaurant shaped you and your style rather than starting off somewhere small?
Yes. It taught me discipline and respect for ingredients.
What kind of kitchen culture do you prefer – or is it professional only?
Throughout my training years I’ve worked in some hard and aggressive kitchens and this culture was definitely something I didn’t want at my restaurant. Before we opened the restaurant, I sat down with my head chef and restaurant manager and we all agreed that our number one priority is looking after the people who work there and create an environment where the staff are happy.
Did you have any role models who inspired you in your career?
Eric Chavot. I was a sous chef at The Capital and he taught me the importance of flavour above all else.
Do you believe in eating healthy or treating yourself more – and can you balance the two?
I’m ashamed to say that “healthy eating” is not in my vocabulary. But I hardly ever eat fast food or junk food. I believe in eating great food that you enjoy and balancing it out with exercise. It’s worked for me so far!
Did you have any turning points in your career? If so, what were they?
Having the opportunity to work at Le Gavroche. I was so fortunate that that was the first place I ever worked in, because at that time it was regarded as the best restaurant in the UK and that opened up doors to all the other restaurants I’ve worked in.
The Ninth has a variety of dishes for all kinds of customers on its menu. How important is it to you to cater to all kinds of dietary needs?
I never create a menu based on dietary requirements. I have a variety of dishes on the menu because when I go out to eat, I personally like to have a choice. I always have a good selection of vegetable dishes, not for the sole purpose of catering to vegetarians, but personally I think vegetables are underrepresented in many restaurants, and at The Ninth I wanted to make them more than just sides.
What exciting projects have you been involved in recently and what’s coming up next?
I recently gave a talk at La Maison Rémy Martin – an innovative private members club, now in its third year. La Maison Rémy Martin celebrates multiple talents, encouraging members to celebrate their passions and skills and to be defined by many things rather than the one that that they do.
I'm also looking forward to being a part of Auction Against Hunger, which takes place on 24 May, where some of London’s most exciting chefs are getting together at Street Feast in Canada Water, south-east London to cook Michelin-starred quality street-food style dishes in aid of Action Against Hunger.
What is your favourite dish to eat out?
It’s impossible to narrow it down to just one dish, but if we’re in a restaurant and there’s offal on the menu, I tend to gravitate towards it. There’s an amazing dish at a restaurant in Paris called Benoit, which has pasta, foie gras, veal sweetbreads, cockscomb and truffle in it that I frequently dream about!
What are your favourite ingredients and cooking utensils to use?
Any ingredient that’s in season. And I do like my Japanese mandolin!
Do you have any kitchen disaster stories?
When I was working at Chez Nico, I was passing the chicken stock in the morning, and I slipped and poured the stock all over myself. I still worked the entire day until midnight because I was too scared to leave in the middle of service. I finally went to A&E after work, got seen at four o’clock in the morning and came back into work at 8 with half my body bandaged up!
Where else would you want to open restaurants?
Maybe New York. Although that would be seriously intimidating!
Is there any kind of cuisine you haven’t tried but would like to?
No. But I’ve never tired fugu [blowfish] – which is a Japanese delicacy – and would love to one day.
If you’re starting up a new restaurant, how do you give it a reputation for being original?
I don’t think your primary focus should be on originality, as you’re then likely to make the wrong decisions, based on trying to be different rather than focusing on the most important thing, which is to serve good food and provide great service.
What’s your go to meal when you’re in a rush?
Anything with eggs.
Is there anything you would still like to improve on?
Originally published by the Independent on April 2, 2017