There is no Spanish or foreign chef visiting Japan who does not call Jérôme Quilbeuf to know restaurants, markets, ceramists and other special places. Alain Ducasse, Dabiz Muñoz, Albert Adrià or Jorge Vallejo are just some of the colleagues who have lately hosted this French sensei (teacher) who has an extraordinary radar to discover gastronomic secrets in Tokyo: the hidden little restaurant without a sign that only the initiates know, the safest and most delicious shirako dish (pufferfish semen), the Toyosu stand where the best tuna is cut, the best edged knives of Kappabashi or a reserve with the famous sushiman Jiro thanks to the friendship he has with his son.
"In the world they pass my name. I'm going to have to open a travel agency," jokes Quilbeuf by video call from Japan, where he manages the Mediterranean cuisine venues Gracia, Tinc Gana and Mi Casa in Kamakura, the cocktail bar Abajo, the Nonna María pizzeria in Yokohama, and a physical and online store of Basque-style cheesecakes, Jérôme Cheese Cake, which even serves the famous Nobu and cheers the culinary programs of Japanese television.
The small Quilbeuf empire, with a team of 150 people, does not stop growing. The next thing will be new openings in Tokyo, associated with the Dutchman Jacob Jan Boerma and the Argentine Mauro Colagreco (he already collaborates with Maz Tokyo, of the Peruvians Virgilio Martínez and Pía León). And next autumn, another restaurant of Catalan essence, Carmen, in homage to his beloved Carme Ruscalleda, guilty of this hyperactive chef born in Argenteuil in July 1977, landed in the country of the rising sun almost 20 years ago to lead the kitchen of Sant Pau Tokyo, which received two Michelin stars under his command.
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Japan is already his permanent home since 2020, where the pandemic did not stop his business, and it will be where his first daughter will be born this summer, who will be named Renee in homage to the butcher grandfather who infected his grandson with the virus of the love of cooking. After his culinary studies in Paris, Quilbeuf landed in Barcelona in 1997 and began working at the Hilton Hotel. In 2001 he received the Young Chef of Catalonia Award and in 2004 he entered the kitchen of the Sant Pau restaurant, in the Barcelona fishing village of Sant Pol de Mar, where he lived the brightness of the three stars and remained until its closure in 2018. At that time, his trips to the Japanese branch of Sant Pau were continuous.
"I have a shared heart: I am a Frenchman who makes Spanish cuisine living in Japan. It's an amazing fusion, isn't it? The Catalan names of my restaurants are a tribute to my origins and identify my Mediterranean cuisine. In Barcelona are the roots of my cuisine and to Carme Ruscalleda I owe everything I am today professionally. Carmen is my sensei. With her I grew as a cook, I learned to develop my sense of taste. She has never been difficult to work with. It has always been a pleasure," says the pupil of the star self-taught cook.
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And Ruscalleda has supported him on his solo flight. He participated in the Quilbeuf Cook Japan Project initiative, in which over ten months, between April 2019 and January 2020, 30 leading international chefs met the challenge of creating new dishes using Japanese ingredients in Tokyo. "The guests came with a vision for the future. We opened doors to their entry into the Japanese market," explains the chef, who is fluent in the language and is the link for the hotel projects in Tokyo of those who were his guests. "Cooks always come with a super open spirit to eat Japan, like kids going to an amusement park. It is very easy to receive and advise them and we had a great time. Dabiz hallucinated with the puffer fish — and went viral on social media when he uploaded a photo of a plate with semen (shirako) of this cooked fish — but he has Asian inspiration in his blood. He comes to Japan very happy," says Quilbeuf.
The French-Spanish-Japanese chef maintains an umbilical cord with Barcelona and has temporarily taken to his land the team of Bobby's Free, the cocktail bar hidden in a barbershop in Barcelona and owned by the French chef Eric Basset. Bartenders Lola Carbou and Lidia López Molero arrived in April and will be until next July at the Abajo bar (adjacent to Tinc Gana), with curious drinks and a secret tapas menu, since it is a speakeasy and plays with the clandestine. Media such as The Japan Times have echoed the novelty. "It is being a very dynamic experience, many people come, so we are thinking of continuing," says this gastro entrepreneur, very active on social networks.
Jérôme Quilbeuf's dishes have the Mediterranean flavor learned in Catalonia, but are in harmony with the seasonal ingredients and culture of Japan. Thus, for example, sautéed squid have nanohana (rapeseed flower) and daikon cream (Japanese turnip). Both in the gastrobar with Gracia bar, opened in 2020 and considered by Michelin as Bib Gourmand (high affordable quality) and in the more formal and with tables Tinc Gana (I am hungry), inaugurated in 2022, there is no lack of pa amb tomàquet or the succulent rice, although the shrimp is Japanese and not from Palamós.
Fried squid with 'nanohana' (rapeseed flower), cheese and turnip cream, in an image provided by the restaurant Tinc Gana.
In its establishments in Tokyo it offers an extensive wine list and the Iberian vibe keeps it in the coastal town of Kamakura, in the Mi Casa restaurant. The family atmosphere "is inspired by Kamiya, a small and delicious omakase restaurant run by women that no longer exists." The setting is a traditional Japanese residence, with tables and tatami mats in private areas, where "you eat with chopsticks and Japanese ceramic crockery, but it is Spanish cuisine, which is what I know how to do," explains the chef.
"In addition to discovering surprising things about Japan to my colleagues, I try to be a good ambassador of the authentic and varied Spanish flavor. I show my clients that there is more to it than paella and potato omelette, and that there is a lot of creativity. With our restaurants we try to give a different experience, apart from the typical tapas bars. Spanish cuisine in Japan has long been underrated. They spent more money on French restaurants that seemed more luxurious to them. I want to give another image and we are succeeding. Our audience can enjoy excellent cuisine at competitive prices," says this man with a well-earned reputation as a tireless worker.
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"I have offers to open more shops and restaurants. But I choose the proposals very much. I want to do things that I can have control over and maintain the level, because if there is no follow-up there is no quality. I only jump in if my nose tells me I can succeed. What matters is not the amount of business, but the team, the energy it brings, and that can grow and follow in your footsteps. I only open places if my people are motivated and fancy something new." At the moment, it seems that they are going to a next Gracia in the Mori Tower of Azabudai, gastronomic complement to some exclusive apartments.
And on the horizon is also the export to other Asian countries of the high-end pizzeria format Nonna María. Created in 2016 in Barcelona with his then wife, the head waiter of Sant Pau, Rie Yasui, Nonna María established the custom of ordering the pizza of the month to prestigious chefs and the initiative gave rise to a book, Pizza to take away (with 3 editions in Planeta Gastro). The Barcelona pizzeria is no longer active, but the Japanese pizzeria in Yokohama, overlooking the bay, is.
Jérôme Quilbeuf with his team in Tokyo, in an image provided by the cook.
"My work philosophy is a creative and fun cuisine. I'm used to working in a good environment. What gives me the most satisfaction is that the team is happy so that customers are also happy," he says. And he's happy in Tokyo. "I don't know if I'll be here all my life, I don't know if I'll go back to Spain or France, but in Japan we are building something very solid and learning. I'm not going back tomorrow. But you never know."