The French Restaurant as Culinary Cinema
The restaurant, like a theater, is a symbolic medium, a space of public performance that connects to other media, including music, literature, and art. While the restaurant is a space for withdrawing from the irritants of the everyday world, it simultaneously transports us to distant imaginary worlds. We see such evocations in “restaurant films,” from “Tampopo” to “Ratatouille,” but restaurants also evoke film and music. Few restaurants do this more brashly than the French Serge & Jane in Nishiogi. Offering up a sensory overload of French pop music and film memorabilia, some obtained from the artists themselves, and of course, the tastes and aromas of French cuisine, Serge & Jane has to be one of the most expressively “French” restaurants I have encountered.
Serge & Jane was opened in December 2015 by Saito Toshikatsu who came to Tokyo from Yamagata City. It lies along the western extension of the Chuo Line as the trains leave the station towards Kichijoji, on the edge of the constellation of French restaurants, sometimes called Nishiogi’s “bistro battleground.” Through the shop’s glass window, you can make out a wall papered in Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg movie posters. Likewise, when you enter, you can see a back wall covered with CD cases, representing a full collection of the music of Serge Gainsbourg. In short, the restaurant is a shrine to the music and filmography of the Gainsbourg-Birkin family. Not only is it about France, but also a singular moment in French pop history.
Though Serge & Jane is a slightly peculiar French restaurant, in the words of the chef, the cuisine served is "a beautiful and elegant taste that adheres to the basic tenants of French cuisine."
Saito is from Yamagata. He described the circuitous route he took to opening up a shop in Nishiogi. Earthquakes and other dramatic events punctuate this peculiarly Japanese coming of age story of a French cuisine chef in Japan. After graduating from high school, he began by studying pastry, planning to open a cake shop. But when he went to Kyoto, he was hired to cook Japanese food. Then he took up a job with the Japanese Self Defense Forces. For three years, he cooked on a ship, stopping in Long Beach and Honolulu, and then in the Philippines. In those three years, he obtained a chef’s certificate. And in the end, he finally landed a job in a cake shop in Osaka.
But it wasn’t what he expected. "Well, the cake shop looks cool, but it was hard work. There was no staff lunch, and the salary was low. But, reflecting on it, I saw that French cuisine is pleasing to the eye. The appetizers are beautiful. You can also make dessert. So, I entered the world of French cuisine. You can still make cakes doing that.”
Saito worked in Osaka for 14 years. "After Osaka, I went to Akashi in Kobe. In Akashi, I experienced the big earthquake [Hanshin Awaji Great Earthquake January 17, 1995]. It was my first time as head chef, and on the next day, there was the earthquake, I was like ‘oh, oh, oh, oh.’ So, I worked there awhile, and then I was contacted by a cousin in Yamagata who was opening a restaurant so I went back to Yamagata City to help with that. In fact, Tsuruoka is about two hours distance from the actual Yamagata City. It’s on the Sea of Japan side. It was completely different. I had never been there. So, I did that for about three years.”
The relationship he fostered between movies and cooking began in this period. "I always liked movies. At the time, Yamagata was holding the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. And it so happened that the movie theater was relocating. So, when I was talking to the owner of the cinema, we agreed that when he moved the cinema, I would open a French restaurant next to it, and people would be able to eat the dishes that appear in the movies after watching the movie. I did that for some time.”
We were curious as to what kind of dishes he produced from movies. And he showed us an example on YouTube that he made to go along with the film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Rather than a sweet chocolate dessert, he created an innovative savory appetizer using a small mound of stewed beef, green vegetables, and a flowing chocolate dressing to recreate a scene from the film in which the protagonists scurry over a raging chocolate river along a translucent vegetal bridge.
Borrowing the name of the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, Serge’s actress daughter, Saito named his restaurant, L’Atelier de Charlotte. But why Serge Gainsbourg? "The music is cool, right? Whether I am busy or not, it just melts right in. Although it is twenty-six years since Gainsbourg has passed away, I think that when I came here I still wanted to use the name Gainsbourg. At that time, there was the Miyagi Great Earthquake [Great East Japan Great Earthquake March 11, 2011], a direct hit in Yamagata ... There was not much damage, but at that time, Jane Birkin, who really likes Japan, immediately volunteered to help out. After quite a few activities in Shibuya, we visited Miyagi and we cooked together in emergency facilities there.”
Following upon that experience of cooking with Jane Birkin in the aftermath the earthquake, he attended her concert in France, where he visited her in the dressing room. When he told her that he wanted to come to Tokyo and name the restaurant Brasserie Gainsbourg, she drew the logo for him. In order to make it more recognizable to Japanese customers, he changed the name to Serge & Jane, inspired by the logo of a Moet & Chandon champagne bottle. Crazy about the music of Serge Gainsbourg, running a shop with the daughter's name, and now after the earthquake, meeting Charlotte's mother Jane Birkin, Saito has finally opened a restaurant with the name Serge and Jane. It is a curious relationship.
Of course, as a restaurant, the cuisine is the main attraction, and many of his ingredients are sourced in from Yamagata. "In Yamagata, we have many special ingredients, such as cherries and French pears. So I have them sent regularly. It costs for shipping, but these slightly crooked carrots, what do you think? Besides, there are things you can’t find in Tokyo, especially the fish. "
"I am preparing pork now. It is Yamagata pork, so it is tasty. It is baked, and used in a terrine, and the flavor is locked into the terrine. If you make a hamburger or cut it, then there is a loss of the broth. Well, that is okay sometimes, I suppose; however, French cuisine preserves all the umami in the ingredients, and you consume it all.”
To increase customer traffic he is now promoting a "marché lunch" which features a colorful assortment of appetizers, a main dish, and a dessert, all for a very reasonable price. Even this set menu lunch is beautifully presented. "My French cuisine is in a word ... enjoyed with the eyes before eating, enjoyed while eating, and for having fun after eating. When you first see it, you should say, ‘Wow! That’s gorgeous.‘ You should be able to anticipate the needs of regulars. Like that person really needs more quantity. Or this person wants to photograph the cuisine, wants a cuisine that can be photographed, and so forth."
Saito waxes eloquently talking about his annual trips to France to sample the distinctive flavors. "There are also French chefs in Japan, but the soil and ingredients are different over there. What a [French] grandmother makes will also be good. Over there, the vegetables have such a concentrated flavor. When you eat the real thing, it is like the wind stopped blowing. Bordeaux style, Provence style, like that "
As a relative newcomer to the area, Saito made some interesting observations about the restaurant scene in Nishiogi. One characteristic of the customers in Nishi Ogikubo is that they are meat lovers. "As far as fish is concerned, there is not much demand ... Older people here also like meat, and they know meat. There are also people who want to eat Yamagata beef. And they don’t want it stewed, they like grilled meat, steak. This is not just Nishiogi, I think, but Ogikubo as well, this general area.”
Also, Nishiogi has many people dining alone. This has been a bit of problem for him, because he removed the counter in his restaurant. "Nishiogi has a lot of people dining alone. Many of them want to chat with the service staff, so some of them say they wish there was counter seating here… "
And perhaps, most troubling, people in Nishigi seem to have a special definition for French cuisine related to local history. "I named this place Serge & Jane French Cuisine, but in Nishiogi, you have the French Cuisine Kokeshiya. But actually, Kokeshiya is really a classic yoshoku [Japanese style western food] restaurant. So, I think it is better to just not talk about French cuisine in Nishiogi, because when you talk about French cuisine here, people start expecting what they get in Kokeshiya. So, most of the other places here call themselves ‘bistro.’ It’s really crazy, but Nishiogi has a special image of French cuisine. "
Certainly, there seems to be a special image of the "French cuisine restaurant" in Nishi Ogikubo. However, a restaurant that serves authentic French cuisine in such a cinematic environment with a special tie to French films and music also is unlikely to be found anywhere else in Tokyo (James Farrer, May 1, 2017)