Most of us wish we knew – and fulfilled – our lifelong passions at the young age of fifteen. Fortunately for Kei Kobayashi, all it took was a television show starring the great French Michelin 3 starred chef, Alain Chapel, for him to realize his lifelong dream: to become a great chef in France. Michelin starred chef Kei Kobayashi joins elements of his Japanese culture with French heritage and techniques, and succeeds in creating incredible harmony. Take a moment and sit down with us, as the chef tells us how he strives to be like Picasso, shares his favorite spots in Paris, and reveals his personal tip for plating an art piece.
After spending years working with and learning from some of France’s greatest chefs, chef Kei faced the greatest challenge of his culinary career: he took a bet on the future and his own cuisine and opened Restaurant Kei with his wife, in 2011. A minimal and elegant aesthetic, his restaurant sits on Coq Héron Street in Paris, inviting patrons to delight in his creations.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I grew up in Nagano, Japan. When I was 15, I saw a TV show with chef Alain Chapel, and I knew I wanted to be a chef in France. After a few experiences in Japan in French restaurants, I came to France in my early 20s to learn French cuisine. After a journey with some of France’s greatest cooks – Gilles Goujon, Michel Husser, and more – I arrived at the Plaza Athénée with Alain Ducasse. I stayed there for seven years, learning a lot with Jean Françoi Piège and Christophe Moret before opening my own restaurant with my wife, in 2011.
What did you learn from these great French chefs?
I learn a lot with each chef I work for. With Gilles Goujon, I learned how to work and cook meat. With Michel Husser, I learned more about cooking game. Chef Alain Ducasse taught me the importance of the product. Jean-Franςois Piège helped me really understand how much work goes into a three-star restaurant. And Christophe Moret taught me how to train your team to work in a good atmosphere with exigence.
How would you describe your style of cuisine?
My style of cuisine is unique. I am a Japanese chef making French haute cuisine. In my cuisine, you will find influence from Japan – aesthetics, exactness, harmony of colors, and delicacy of flavors. You will also recognize heritage from France – classic French recipes and the link between the products and the perfect balance of taste.
My cuisine is French, but you can find a touch of Japan in all of my dishes.
What is your philosophy for plating?
The plating of my dishes is a very important part of my cooking philosophy. I want the clients to use all of their senses, and I pay particular attention to the dressing of the plate. My restaurant is uncluttered – and that is a choice, because I want people to concentrate on the plate.
Where or whom does your most unusual source of inspiration come from?
My inspiration is Picasso. He is a master of art. He knew all of the “classics” in painting, and he excelled at this art at a very young age. Then, he created a very modern style of painting of his own. This was possible only because he knew his classics. I want to do the same in my cuisine – to mix the French “classics” with a touch of modern to create a touch of my own.
Most of my plates are inspired by paintings and works of art. I love when people in my restaurant are intrigued and fascinated by the plate in front of them – even before tasting it. I want my plates to be pieces of art.
How do you want people to remember your food and their experience at your restaurant?
The most important thing for me is the pleasure the clients must have when eating in my restaurant. They are here to live a unique experience – something they will remember for a long time. My aim is for people to have a great time and to understand all the attention and love I put into my plates.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with?
I love working with vegetables. There are hundreds of possibilities and ways to cook with them. My signature dish is the “Garden of Vegetables.” It is a salad with different types of vegetables, each one cooked in a different way – some raw and others just slightly heated.
(Curious to try out chef Kei’s signature dish? Get the recipe here.)
Three words to describe your personality?
Hard-working, ambitious, and generous.
Five things you cannot live without?
Family, cooking, travel, health, and Paris!
What do you enjoy do you enjoy doing on your free time?
My favorite thing to do during my free time is to travel.
Top 3 places to visit in Paris?
The garden of Palais Royal, the Champ de Mars, and the Luxembourg Garden.
And finally, what is one personal tip you have for plating?
My plates must look like a piece of art. And the real secret for that is work, self-exigency, and exactness.
Feel inspired? See chef Kei Kobayashi’s Garden of Vegetables recipe here.
Love the photos? Check out more of Richard Haughton’s photography here.