Mission to Tokyo
Anthony Bourdain / July 1999
Think that the new millennium has yet to kick in? Then blade run with chef/thriller author Anthony Bourdain as he heads halfway around the world and down countless back alleys to help a French chef in Japan make traditional French food the way it's done in New York. The future is here.
The mission Brasserie Les Halles is a much-loved New York City restaurant (with outposts in Washington D.C., and Miami), serving authentic French workingman's fare like steak-frites, cassoulet, pieds de cochons, boudin noir, daube de boeuf, navarin d'agneau, choucroutte, and so on to hordes of diners each night. I am, and have been since September 1998, the chef de cuisine of the original flagship operation on Park Avenue South. Though I'm an American and a New Yorker by birth, my masters, Frenchman Philippe Lajaunie and Portuguese francophile José de Meireilles, seem convinced enough of my mystical connection to the French soul food they adore that they have assigned me the task of visiting our newest and most far-flung outpost, brasserie Les Halles Tokyo, in order to advise its French chef on the cooking and presentation of French food—a daunting and unusual assignment. My mission in short? "Make the food look and taste like it does in New York," says Philippe, handing me my plane tickets. I feel like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.
April 10, 11:30 a.m., departure gate bar Last stop for degenerate smokers: a crowd of desperate, unhappy-looking Asia-veterans bunch together at one end of the tiny bar, stoking up on nicotine for the nonstop 14-hour flight to Narita airport. A Chinese gentleman sitting next to me shakes his head and says he has a sleeping pill. I've forgotten mine. An MP headed for South Korea to pick up a prisoner slams back another Brooklyn lager and grimly describes the horror of economy class to the other side of the world. He too shakes his head, resigned to his fate. An Aussie with a five-hour layover on the other end advises me to have another beer—at least. "There's nothing to do but sleep, mate," he says.
April 11, Tokyo, Roppongi district The city of Tokyo is an absolutely sprawl of industrial structures, canals, villages, and office buildings, which seems to go on forever. It's getting dark as I arrive. The bus from the airport winds over bridges, down through tunnels, up flyovers that wrap around the upper floors of taller buildings. It's Blade Runner time: giant, screaming video screens, garish signs in English and Japanese, lines of cars, crowds of people, all interested with sculpted gardens, carp ponds, austere temples. Philippe, my boss, has arrived a day earlier and meets me outside the restaurant with borrowed bicycles. We load my luggage onto the handlebars, and he leads me through dark, crowded, and twisting back streets to the small apartment complex where I am to stay.
Roppongi district is international in character—like an Asian Georgetown—and brasserie Les Halles Tokyo looks much like its older brother in New York City, though spanking new and impeccably, surgically clean. Les Halles in New York is loved for its smoke-stained walls, creaky chairs, weathered wooden bar—the fact that it resembles what it is: a familiar, worn, old-school brasserie of the Parisian model. Les Halles Tokyo, though accurate to the model down to the tiniest design detail, is shiny and undamaged—and kept that way. Everyone—the managers, busboys, bartenders, dishwashers, waiters, and cooks—cleans all the time. The insides of the reach-ins are hospital white and, like the apartment I'm staying in, the kitchen is ingeniously designed to make maximum use of space. A drainage canal runs under a grate around all the kitchen stations, water constantly flushing away debris and dirt (an innovation I will see elsewhere). Worktables are lower, as are the range hoods. I'm six-foot-four and bang my head almost immediately. I am introduced to the chef, Frederic Mardel, originally of Aquitaine, France (and more recently Bora Bora), and his crew: chefs de partie Hiroyoshi Baba of Japan, Delma Sumeda Elpitiya of Sri Lanka, and Mo Ko Ko of Myanmar. Fortunately, the common language in the kitchen is French, which I discover I can still speak and understand fairly well (until the vicious jet lag kicks in around 7:30 each night and I revert to New York City kitchen Spanish and pidgin English). I've been apprehensive about invading another chef's kitchen. It may be nice to be held up as the benchmark for the entire Les Halles operation, but I know how I'd feel if the chef from Les Halles Washington or Miami came swanning into my kitchen, showing me how the big boys do it. Frederic is a friendly and gracious host, however, and the rest of the crew is curious about New York. None of them has ever been there.
April 12, 7 a.m., Roppongi Wake up early. Speaking no Japanese, and totally unprepared for the culture shock, I hesitate before my first morning out on my own. I have not yet had the nerve to squeeze into any of the crowded, delicious-smelling noodle shops where Japanese businessmen sit cheek by jowl, happily slurping down bowls of soba. I'm ashamed of myself. I wander the streets for a while, head pounding, and—God help me—I settle for Starbucks. At least they let you smoke here. It's drizzling outside, and I sip my coffee and watch sailor-suited schoolgirls walk by. Just like their parochial school counterparts in the United States, they have found small ways to wear their uniforms with individual style: white leg warmers instead of knee socks; bag slung over one shoulder, not two; shirt untucked, tucked. In the distance, Tokyo Tower looms over Roppongi—though I could have sworn I saw Mecha-Godzilla and Mothra destroy it in a film. It looks like a red Eiffel Tower. Loud, VERY loud, cawing black crows with enormous wingspans swoop down from a menacing-looking dead tree incongruously located on Roppongi's main drag. Dammit, I'm hungry! And there is no way I'm eating my first meal at Starbucks.
Score! I summon the courage, push back the banner in front of a tiny, uninviting-looking shop, slide back the door, plunk myself down on a stool, and order a bowl of noodles, pork, rice, and pickles. I point at another customer's plate and say dozo ("please") a lot. It seems to work, and this method of ordering will become my modus operandi over the next week.
Everyone, it seems—children, adults, teenagers—is chattering away on a cell-phone while walking. Critical mass is reached when teams of silver jacketed salesgirls promoting a communications company demonstrate their cell-phones among the rush-hour crowds, handing them around, often to people already having a conversation on another cell-phone.
SENSORY OVERLOAD! This is an unbelievable dream—a mass psychosis of a mix of pastiche of a fantasy of a city. One business after another, piled on top of each other.
At noon, I take a taxi to the Chiyoda-ku district to meet the chef of Restaurant La Rivière, where I am to cook and give a press conference tomorrow for Hayakawa, my Japanese publisher. I will be cooking Italian food, in keeping with the theme of my satirical thriller, Bone in the Throat, and providing tastes for the press. The taxi drivers here wear white gloves and automatically open the door for you. But my driver can't find the address on Kanda-Tacho, so I have him leave me off in the general area and I wander around. It's a busy business district of very old and very new buildings mixed together, and for block after block after block, there's not an occidental face or English sign in sight. I stop for some quick sushi, pointing at the helpful wax reproduction to indicate my selection. After wandering aimlessly for a while, in tightening circles, I find La Rivière, finally, conveniently located on the ground floor of the Hayakawa building, and my publisher rolls it out for me. I sign hundreds of books, meet an entire delegation of business-suited editors, translators, publicity people, proofreaders, and Mr. Hayakawa himself. They are gracious in the extreme. In my New York hoodlum leather jacket and black Levi's, I'm alarmed at first by the onslaught of business cards presented with two hands and a bow. My pockets fill up with them. I am introduced to Suzuki-San, La Rivière's chef, and with a translator go over the menu for tomorrow's press event. The kitchen here is much like the other Japanese kitchens I've seen: low work surfaces, minimal space, the constantly flowing canal underfoot, washing away debris. And, of course, clean. Very clean.
THE HAYAKAWA BOOK EVENT MENU
Pan-Roasted Paillard of Veal with Roasted Red Pepper Coulis and Basil Oil
Salad of Arugula, Radicchio, and Belgian Endive
I am, I reflect, an American chef about to cook Italian food in a French Restaurant for Japanese diners before rushing back to Roppongi, to my primary mission of cooking brasserie classics, New York–style, for Japanese diners.
April 13, midday, Les Halles Tokyo Well, never before have I had an entire room full of people bowing to me in unison—I could get used to this. They are awfully nice here. I have, however, learned a valuable lesson during my Italian episode at La Rivière. Portions are smaller here. Much smaller. The Japanese public is resistant to intimidating piles of côte de boeuf and frites. Hayakawa editors, after trying my, by New York standards, small portions of veal, inquire about the Les Halles menu. "How many grams are the steaks, Bourdain-san?" I am asked. When I tell them, they giggle and cover their mouths to conceal smiles of amazement (and possibly horror).
Back in Les Halles Tokyo's kitchen, I take this to heart. With Frederic and the crew, we set to work scaling down the appearance of some of the dishes. Careful presentation is much valued here. So instead of the honey slapdash of the Left Bank, we work on arranging porc mignon avec confit d'ail and gigot avec flageolets in more sculpted fashion, centering them on plates and going a little more vertical. I put on a few specials and watch the customers carefully for reactions. They seem very pleased with the few flourishes—a couple of gaufrette potatoes projecting from the mashed potatoes, a sprig of fresh herb. I move the salads off the plates onto sides and try to center the food for better symmetry and color contrast.
Things are different here than in New York. The language/culture barrier is a constant torment to poor Frederic. The common language may be French—but just barely. The Japanese number two, Hiroyoshi's command of French is limited, at best. Ko Ko speaks English and Japanese well and must be relied on to order from purveyors. But what is ordered is frequently not what actually arrives. And my inquiries about many foodstuffs are met with blank stares and much discussion. When finally identified, after much shrugging and smiling, the answer is often, "Too expensive."
There is no runner or expeditor. After food is plated, it is hand-carried to an outer service bar for pick-up by the waiters. The chef garde-manger, who doubles as the pastry man, is situated in the outer service area/cold station and is required, out of custom, to shriek "WELCOME!" in Japanese—along with the waiters, bartender, and manager—to all arriving customers. This can be quite alarming to visiting newcomers like myself—especially with my brain poached by jet lag. And the process is repeated on departure with the ubiquitous arigato gozaimashiTAAA! making me want to leap out of my skin.
The beleaguered Frederic, a talented and conscientious young man, works with little pre-prepared mise en place. Almost everything is à la minute—and he keeps his culinary cards close to his vest, delegating little of the sauce making, plating, or more elaborate prep work. There is a reluctance to allow a Sri Lankan to make a cassoulet de Toulouse from scratch at this early date. He watches, gimlet-eyed. as Hiroyoshi stirs the beef bourguignonne for tomorrow's lunch special and is constantly bouncing around from station to station, correcting some perceived possible outrage. The man is tired. When I show one of the cooks how to clean and tie a whole tenderloin New York–style, he seems delighted for the chance to sit down on a milk crate and eat a quick bowl of pasta.
9 p.m., Roppongi My boss, Philippe, takes me out for the most incredible meal of my life. He grins mischievously all the way there. He has seen how I'm digging Tokyo and knows me well enough by now to be sure that this place we're headed—one of the best in town—will blow my mind. He's right.
We walk down Roppongi's main drag, past Roppongi Crossing to the other, darker side, where pimpy young men with poodle cuts and dark suits, surrounded by platform-booted, heavily made-up female shills in miniskirts, lure businessmen up to private clubs, hostess bars, strip clubs. The narrow side streets are filled with couples headed off to discreet assignations. It gets darker, and scarier, though street crime is practically unheard of here. Love hotels, karaoke bars, restaurants, pachinko parlors, giant, eerily empty Yakuza-run nightclubs tell us we are getting away from the Georgetown atmosphere of a few blocks back. It may look scary, but unlike similar districts in U.S. cities, you never get so much as a confrontational stare or a rude comment. The tough guys and tough girls alike avert their eyes subtly—always seem to be looking away. No one tries to sell you anything. No one asks, "What you lookin' at?" You may as well be invisible. The crowds part after a barely perceived cough or motion, which seems to indicate: "Make way for the gaijin."
Finally, Philippe stops abruptly and leads me down a flight of stairs in an empty courtyard—a single pictogram of a leaping fish the only indicator of what lies below. He slides back a door, and we are in a small, well-lit sushi place. Three young sushi chefs in white jackets and two older men in chef's coats and headbands man the blonde, unfinished wooden bar packed with a crowd of happy, somewhat inebriated businessmen and their dates. We are ushered immediately to the only two open seats, directly in front of a slowly melting monolith of carved ice surrounded by fish and shellfish so fresh looking it takes my breath away.
My chef friends in New York would cheerfully give up two years of their lives for the meal I'm about to have. First, the hot towels. Then, the condiments—freshly grated wasabi, some dipping sauce. We are brought frozen sake—thick, cloudy, icy, and absolutely delicious. It worms its way quickly into our brains, inducing a happy delirium as the first tiny plates of incredibly tender baby octopus tentacles are put down in front of us. We eat. The chef stands by, examining our reactions, which are, naturally, smiles and moans of pleasure. The chef smiles, bows, and we thank him in English, Japanese, and French, covering all bases.
More bows. He removes the plates. His hands move. A few motions of a knife, and we are presented with the internal parts of a giant clam still pulsating with life. Again, he watches us eat. We close our eyes, transported. Next, abalone with what seems to be roe and maybe the liver of something. Who cares? It's GOOD! Our sakes are refilled. Hoo-boy! Here comes snapper, conch, what looks like bass, then mackerel—all screamingly fresh and lovely to look at.
We go on, calling for more—each tiny, perfect morsel better than the one before. The other diners begin to slowly melt away, and our hosts become impressed with our zeal, the blissed-out looks on our faces, our seemingly endless capacity for more, more, MORE. Another clam, this one tiny, more roe, baby flounder—it keeps coming, accompanied by pickled wasabi stem, seaweed so fresh you can taste the deep ocean water. Another tiny, moist towel is provided in a little basket. We eat with our hands now, I am advised: tuna from the loin, tuna from the belly. We keep grinning and keep eating.
Our sakes are refilled. Again, the chef bows, smiling. These crazy gaijin want it ALL! Almost defiantly, he sends out the most amazing course yet, a quickly grilled, halved fish head. He's really watching us now, to see how we deal with this new wrinkle. We find that every crevice of this sweet, delicate dorado or Chilean pompano—I can't tell from just the partly charred face, and I don't much care at this point—responds differently to the heat of the grill, from the fully cooked remnant of body behind the head to crispy skin and cartilage, the tender, translucently rare cheeks, and yes—the EYE! Only a hard white core remains after we dig out the orb and slurp down the gelatinous matter behind it. When we finish this remarkable collage of flavor and texture there is nothing left but a few teeth and bones. More sashimi, more sushi, some tiger shrimp, what looks like herring—so fresh it crunches. I don't care anymore what it is they put in front of me. I trust these guys. I'm going along for the full ride. More frozen sake. We are on course 20 or so by now. The last few Japanese customers get up to leave, like us, red-faced and perspiring. We continue—there's got to be something we haven't tried yet! The last course is sea eel—slit, brushed, dabbed, and formed in front of our eyes. Finally we are done.
The chef seems pleased. Bows are exchanged, smiles, handshakes. We leave to the usual screams of arigato gozaimashiTAAA! and pick our way carefully up the stairs and return to the physical world.
April 14, 4:30 a.m., Tsukiji fish market My life as a chef will never been the same again. The colors here alone—I never expected such psychedelic hues to exist outside of hallucinations. The variety, the strangeness, the sheer volume of seafood available in Tsukiji's central fish market is a colossal Terrordome of mind-boggling dimensions. Scallops in snowshoe-sized black shells, fish still twitching and spitting in pans of water and ice, eels pinned to boards and filleted alive. Periwinkles, cockles, encyclopedic selections of roes—salted, pickled, cured, fresh. Everywhere, fish still bent with rigor mortis. Porgy, sardines, swordfish, abalone, spiny lobsters, oysters, blowfish, bonito. And tuna. Tuna sold and graded like gems, displayed in light boxes, hauled around on forklifts, fresh, sectioned, or blast-frozen on faraway factory ships. Frost-covered 200- to 300-pound tunas stacked everywhere, like stone figures on Easter Island. Fishmongers with bat-length blades swipe free whole sections of tuna. There are sea urchins, egg sacks, fish from all over the world. Giant squid as long as an arm, baby squid the size of a thumbnail. Carts laden with Styrofoam shipping containers zip dangerously about. This is the only place in Tokyo where the Japanese will actually nudge you out of the way. The people here are busy, in a hurry. And, in the middle of all this, you can barely smell fish. Only salt water and the cigarettes of the fishmongers. I have never seen, never dreamed of some of the creatures I see for sale. And I'm getting hungry. I push into a nearby stall, the Japanese version of Rosie's Diner, where rubber-booted market workers have their humble breakfasts. The food is, of course, fabulous. I point at a neighboring breakfaster and am soon tucking right into sushi, miso soup, a tail section of braised fish in sauce, and bowls of pickles and rice. It may be a Tokyo version of a greasy spoon, but the presentation is flawless—on par with the best of New York, understated, fresh, colorful, and clean. Beats two eggs over anytime. I buy some cockles and squid for the restaurant and head for Asakusa Temple, where the incense fumes do nothing for my raging jet lag.
11 a.m., Kappabashi The restaurant supply district, Tokyo's Bowery. We're looking for wineglasses, cocktail shakers, tablecloth clips for the Tokyo restaurant. The clerk adds up our bill on an abacus, then computes tax on a calculator—the perfect metaphor for Tokyo. I buy some fierce-looking Japanese knives for my sous chef and saucier back in New York and pick up a few oddities for Janine, my pastry chef—some square shaped molds, a few pastry cutters.
Evening, Les Halles Tokyo I ask Philippe about my headache, a constant, low-grade pulse encircling my skull. I'm beginning to wonder, as it seems to be aspirin-proof. Can this still be jet lag? Or am I dying?
"You mean the helmet?" Philippe asks, indicating the exact location of the pain by circling his own head with his fingers. "C'est normal," he shrugs. It's never a good thing when a Frenchman says c'est normal. I have met him at the restaurant at 7 p.m., and I'm starting to fade as usual—first the French, now my English is going. Hot flashes, sweats, chills. I ask Philippe, hopefully, if he's napped since I've seen him last. I know that he too has been up since 4 a.m. and he's GOT to be feeling it.
"Oh, no," he says cheerfully, looking fresh and elegant in a crisp suit—positively rosy-cheeked. "When I'm here, I don't sleep much. I take my vitamins and just go." I want to kill him.
I slog through dinner service at Les Halles, putting together cassoulet, confit de canard, a fish special in the familiar New York City way. I talk extensively with the chef about availability of products here, and I agree to send him jambon de Paris, saucisson sec, and prosciutto de Parme next time we send out an order from New York. (Onglet, côte de boeuf, and pavé are all butchered at our central boucherie in the Park Avenue store, and sent here. But the filet and faux-filet sirloin are Japanese beef.) Fish and produce can be very expensive here. A gift of a melon implies a life of obligation. And there is the potato problem. We take our frites very seriously at Les Halles, and the Japanese potatoes have an unusual sugar/starch content that requires blanching in water. I suggest peanut instead of canola oil to Frederic, and am advised that one could rent an apartment for what it costs here to fill a fryer with peanut oil. Tant pis! The Japanese are crazy for Italian food. Even at Les Halles, pasta specials sell very, very well. So I work up a list of specials for Frederic, drawing on my brief experience at Le Madri and Coco Pazzo in New York. I have brought along some white truffles and truffle oil, and suggest risotto.
The proletarian chic of Les Halles U.S.A. is something new to Japan. They adore high-end French, expensive wines. The menus of other French restaurants here are unintentionally hilarious with ambitious recreations of classic and nouvelle dishes. You see fish served with both rice AND fettucine. There is an earnest and heartfelt desire to learn about, and enjoy, French food as a luxury item. Onglet (hanger steak), on the other hand, has yet to catch on here. Pigs' feet will not be appearing on the Tokyo menu anytime soon. But I suspect it is just a matter of time. I watch a party of Japanese businessmen tear into a côte de boeuf for two—an almost revolutionary act of social disobedience—and I can see that they are getting it. They look happily guilty about the experience, like they're getting away with something. Even more encouraging are the female office workers who are starting to come every day for lunch, each with the expression on her face of something with a deliciously dirty little secret—like meeting a lover.
After work, I get hammered at Le Mistral Bleu, a tiny closet-like bar on Roppongi's main drag, with walls, ceilings, and every available inch of space covered with graffiti from homesick Westerners. It's a mixed crowd of Americans, the Japanese women who seem to love them, and wild and crazy Japanese businessmen with a taste for loud, metal-head classics. Iggy Pop and Metallica pound through unseen speakers. Some local girls are dancing on the bar. Everybody is having a very good time, singing along, pumping fists in the air, jumping up and down. Outside, the pimpy boys with big hair and their knee-booted charges dance along with the music. I toss some yen on the bar confidently, knowing I will get exact change—there's no tipping anywhere in Japan—and order another Asahi beer. I like it here.
April 16, evening, Shibuya district Philippe takes me out for a last meal in Tokyo. I'm heartbroken at having to leave. I'm getting good at this city now: I've figured out the pay phones, can order in restaurants, use the subways. I have learned instinctively to look the wrong way into traffic when stepping into the street. I know my way around the back streets of Roppongi at any hour by heart, and I have even found a cyber cafe where I can pick up e-mail and talk in real-time to friends in the United States.
Shibuya is Times Square multiplied by 50. We wander through unbelievably crowded streets, passing neon signs, punky kids, and drunken businessmen. It is, apparently, okay here to get wildly drunk with the boss and your co-workers and then vomit on their shoes. Everybody's doing it. Beautiful young women drag their inebriated boyfriends to the subway. Industrialists carry their loudly raving and singing subordinates out of bars. It's an amazing change from the tightly ordered social structure of daytime Tokyo. They really cut loose here at night. The customs of a few hours earlier go out the window after a few cocktails and some karaoke.
In a tatami room off a crowded, neon-lined rabbit warren of streets, bars, restaurants, and clubs, we eat shabu-shabu, an intimidating Everest-sized heap of vegetables, fish, noodles, and meat, cooked in stages by an attendant in a hot wok filled with broth. We are the only gaijin in the place and start with iced sake first, followed by another discovery—hot sake containing grilled fish bones. The waitress ignites the fish oil that collects on top, and we drink it immediately. It's heady, wonderful stuff, and we attack the mountain of food until it's all gone. I do NOT want to leave tomorrow. Fueled by the hot, smoky sake, and digging through the broth for the last slice of scallop, I am considering burning my passport and disappearing into the mysterious East. There are a million bars and restaurants yet to try. I want to eat my way across Tokyo before moving even farther afield. My preconceived and previously deeply held notion that New York City was the center of the universe has been shaken off. Even if I end up a debauched character in a dirty seersucker suit—like someone out of Graham Greene—shacked up over a noodle shop on the city's outskirts, playing air guitar along with "Free Bird" like some of the characters at Mistral Bleu, how bad could that be?
I call New York later, still feeling the effects of the hot sake, and run this idea past my wife, who is less than enthusiastic. Apparently the idea of me shedding my identity, learning to speak Japanese, and abandoning my life in New York—truly "going bamboo" as British officers used to call this syndrome back during the last World War—does not sound like a reasonable thing to do right now. I am informed of a recently acquired box of Krispy Kreme donuts and a fresh batch of bialeys from Columbia Bagels—laid in for my scheduled return. I stagger back to my apartment to pack.