Two 70-something chefs reflect on a lifetime of cooking French cuisine in Tokyo

Two legends in the world of French cuisine in Japan, chef Masao Saisu of Côte d'Or and chef Kazuhisa Tashiro of La Blanche, have a lot in common. They are 72 years old, born in Fukushima Prefecture. After training in France, both of them opened their own restaurant in 1986, and for the past 36 years, they have been at the forefront of the culinary world in Tokyo.

With so many things in common, it’s surprising that today, when we’ve brought them together for an interview at the Farmers Market in Aoyama, is the first time for them to have a long conversation with each other.

Saisu and Tashiro, who work with their senses rather than knowledge, continue to move forward without wavering, even when society is in turmoil due to the pandemic. For this article, we asked them about their past and future plans.

Encounters and Memories

Tashiro: I had known of chef Saisu for a long time – the first thing I wanted to do after coming back from France was to go eat at Côte d'Or. When I finally did, I could feel Saisu's personality through his cuisine, his honesty. We didn't talk at the time though, and even for a while after that, we only exchanged greetings when we met.

Saisu: It was about two years later when we started talking more. When I went to eat at La Blanche, I was struck by the way Tashiro cooked, because it was completely different from what I had learned. The food had to be made on the spot, not in advance, so I thought: “It must be challenging for the kitchen!”.

Vegetables grown in Japan are often said to be flavorless and watery, but on Tashiro’s plate they tasted totally different. Spinach, for example, stood out with its thick flavor and bright red stem. Also, you served the spinach with its roots on it - you had to have a lot of guts to do such a thing, as you might have lost customers if there had been soil in there. So I remember telling you, "I think it's great that you are different from everyone else.”

Tashiro: I replied to you, "So this is good," and you said, "That's exactly why it's good.” It was a time when I had been struggling with what kind of dishes to serve after coming back from France, so your words really helped to push me forward. Back then, I would stick my head in the fridge and look at the ingredients, but I couldn't tell if I was thinking about what to cook or just cooling my head. I often felt like breaking through the walls of my restaurant and running away. But you made me realize that it was okay to create what I believed in. I'm still able to keep my restaurant going thanks to you.

I often felt like breaking through the walls of my restaurant and running away. But you made me realize that it was okay to create what I believed in. I'm still able to keep my restaurant going thanks to you.

Saisu: Everyone else was serving stylish, modern cuisine that was palatable, but your food was the opposite of that. I felt elements of nature in your cooking, covered in soil. You were like a farmer who came to the city and started a restaurant. I was astonished at how you did it.

Tashiro: After returning to Japan, at first I was also imitating what I had seen in France. But one day I suddenly felt like I could not see myself on the plate - it felt so empty. Is this really delicious? Does it have my soul in it? These questions came to me, and my ideal image of cooking up to that point began to crumble.

Saisu: One time I was talking with you and you said something poetic. You swam in the river for so long that your lips turned purple, and on the way back, you drank water using a leaf plucked from there as a vessel. And you said that ‘it smelled like moss’. You were such a poet that you expressed like that.

Tashiro: It was a butterbur leaf. It tasted good when I drank water with it. Another time, I was stung by a horsefly when I was sleeping on a stone after swimming in the river. I thought it would be a good idea to include such natural ‘ingredients’ in my cooking. Also, I grew up on a simple diet like miso soup and pickles. Recalling my memories of those days has changed my cooking.

Why France?


Saisu: I am a clumsy person who takes time to self-learn, so I always come to La Blanche to learn. I can't master it soon, so that's why I'm always absorbing things, wanting to get better. I am someone who has always been on the back side, too - I have always loved cooking, but I couldn't adapt because I don't like hierarchical relationships.

Tashiro: We are very similar in personality, too. I also find hierarchical relationships exhausting. I feel suffocated when things get intertwined, as I have poor communication skills and adaptability to society. As a chef I can work steadily, and I simply like to eat. That's why I like my job.

We are very similar in personality, too.... As a chef I can work steadily, and I simply like to eat. That's why I like my job.

Saisu: I went to France because I felt I couldn't fit in with the sick social system in Japan. I had to become just as good as those people at the top of the hierarchy to do what I wanted to do, but even if I tried to learn from them, they wouldn't teach me anything that wasn't convenient for them. So I needed to go outside of Japan to break free. I had never taken a plane before, I was scared... but there was no other choice.

Tashiro: It’s a one-way ticket, so you can't go home. I studied French for six months before going to France, but when I got there, I couldn't communicate at all. I couldn't even get to Paris from the airport!

Saisu: There was no comfort zone for me when I was there. It was tough because I am a wimp, but I had to hang in there because, if I went back to Japan, I knew it would be the same struggle all over again. Looking back, I think I had a nervous breakdown at the time.

Tashiro:I had heard your name in many places in France. When I went to the restaurant Vivarois, I also heard great praise for your work. So when I returned to Japan, I first wanted to go to eat at your restaurant. I still remember the taste of the first bite - it was the red pepper mousse. I ate it and thought, " Yes, I will go for it!”. Your restaurant is like a milestone in my life.

Cook in Your Own Way

Tashiro: What I am telling young people now is that if you cook with calculations in your mind, you will not make mistakes. But if you experience a moment when you are pushed to the limit and do things desperately while your mind goes blank, at some point you will be able to see the way to get into it. Everyone is afraid of panicking, so they try to give themselves space by doing things like boiling the vegetables earlier, or cutting the tomatoes beforehand. But I want to cut the tomatoes just before serving because I want them to be fresh. If you have that mindset, you can get it done in time without thinking too much about it in your head.

Saisu: Nowadays, innovative cooking is becoming more and more popular, but I think it is better to cultivate more indigenous human strength, taste and sensitivity. But it's hard to inhabit such things unless you are put in a scary place to the point of freaking out. You have to have the guts and determination to run up and grab it.

Tashiro: How should we live as chefs in this day and age? We are in a chancy trade - we have our ups and downs. But you know, in the end, you have to decide what you want to do. We are in a harsh situation now, but what do we want to do because of this situation? During the pandemic, I came in touch with nature more. Then I realized that whether I live or die, I have no choice but to show myself as I am. Because that is who I am.

Saisu:I always wanted to know what I should continue to do to survive as a chef. To do so, it would be zero points if I did the same thing as everyone else. I have always wanted to express myself, and that is what I have been pursuing.

Tashiro:I tell my restaurant staff not to read cookbooks that have pictures or photos in them. Books without pictures may be difficult to read and understand, but you can draw a lot of pictures in your own mind. If they have pictures, on the other hand, you get caught up in them and it is difficult to break away from them. You lose that spark when something suddenly connects with you, after thinking for yourself and being trapped, despite trying many times. It takes a long time to get an outcome, but that one moment when you have that spark will remain with you for the rest of your life and become your asset.

I tell my restaurant staff not to read cookbooks that have pictures or photos in them. Books without pictures may be difficult to read and understand, but you can draw a lot of pictures in your own mind.

Saisu:I don't think young people today have the time for thinking like this. They get things done quickly, but the process of contemplation is priceless. That's why you can come up with something that people will love for many years. I feel like the more hands-on, human-mediated food tastes better. Also, looking at young people, I feel that they don't have time to dream. They are constantly connected to someone else and have no time to be alone and empty. When I was young, I only had that sort of time, so I was always dreaming and thinking, "I'm going to get there someday.”

What Penetrates Through Time

Tashiro:I wonder if there are people in this industry who are still standing in the kitchen at the age of over 80. We're still in our kitchens every day from morning till night, even though we're over 70. If we lose the ability to climb the stairs of our own restaurant, we're done (laughs). The chef is late," or "Oh, I'm on the third step now! I'm glad to have this kind of talk with you.

Saisu:I don't think I've ever talked with you this long before. Good health is important, but the kitchen is a melting pot of temptations. So our job is the opposite of being healthy (laughs). Having come this far, though, what I would like to eat now are old pickled cucumbers and tree buds - they are precious and healthy. This kind of food used to be common in the past, but now that this kind of food is being lost, I tend to crave it.

Having come this far, though, what I would like to eat now are old pickled cucumbers and tree buds - they are precious and healthy. This kind of food used to be common in the past, but now that this kind of food is being lost, I tend to crave it.

I don't think people like us are the top of our time, but sometimes I feel like we are the top group now after a few laps behind. We have been able to live as part of the unchanging universality of human beings. We may be an ‘endangered species’, but we have lived each other's lives, haven't we? We still do.

Tashiro:In my opinion, food basically has to taste good. And it is the chef's ability to create something that exceeds the general level of deliciousness. But that is not something you can learn in a day. Although I have been in the kitchen from morning to night every day for 36 years, I still get new feelings and uncertainties each day. If it wasn't for that, I would have gotten bored and quit a long time ago. And for 36 years I've experienced hard times, which made me build a solid foundation, so I won't collapse easily. The customers have been worried about us for the past year or two because of the pandemic, but we have overcome many difficult situations in the past anyway.

Saisu:This may be a bit off topic, but I hope that producers in the primary industry won't go away. I think society has become arrogant by relying on imported food but producing a lot of waste. I feel that people in the restaurant industry are the ones who produce the most waste and play with food. We need to be more gentle with the ingredients. It doesn't matter if vegetables are wonky. In the past, it was normal for people to feed their neighbors, even if they were not as wealthy as we are today. They were harmonious without wealth or luxury. I wonder why we fight over what we have plenty of today... It's kind of weird, isn't it? We are in the culinary business, but what we really want to do is try to deliver that message. What needs to be corrected, providence. What is the blood for the way of life, mutual understanding. Something that penetrates through time. That is what we want to deliver through our cooking.

Kazuhisa Tashiro, La Blanche

Born in Fukushima Prefecture in 1950. After graduating from high school, he moved to Tokyo to attend a culinary school, and then to France, where he trained at Le Landais, Guy Savoy, Bariel Nuits, and other French restaurants. After returning to Japan, he worked as a chef at a French restaurant in Ginza in 1983, and opened "La Blanche" in 1986.

Masao Saisu ​, Côte d'Or

Born in Fukushima Prefecture in 1950, he entered the world of French cuisine at the age of 18 and flew to France in 1973. He developed his skills at famous restaurants such as "Auberge de Cancangrone," "Vivarois," and "Taillevent," and opened "L'Ambroisie" in Paris in 1981 with Bernard Pacquaio. He then returned to Japan and became the head chef at "Côte d'Or" in 1986, and has been the owner-chef since 1992.

Interview & text by Yuri Nagashima, Yusuke Tanaka
Co-Edit by Takeshi Okuno
Translation by Riho Matsumaru
Photos by Yusuke Tanaka