Jun Tanaka, head chef at Pearl restaurant fervently believes that quality ingredients and flavour combinations are the key to successful cooking. Here he talks to iLoveMyGrub about the bar menu he created at Pearl, for diners in a hurry, and the restaurants he loves to eat in when he catches a moment away from the kitchen.
What inspired your menu at Pearl?
Whenever I create a menu, the first thing I do is I start with the main ingredient. Inspiration comes from many different things whether it’s eating out, reading a book or walking round the market, but the best source of inspiration comes from the produce itself. So I might get a delivery of aubergines - really beautiful Italian round aubergine for example, and just looking at them inspires you.
I’d start of with something like an aubergine and I’d come up with a dish based around a combination of flavours. Aubergine goes really well with tomatoes or ginger for example, so I’d start off the dish with two ingredients that go really well together, and then base everything else around it. My dishes often consist of something seasonal, using great produce and another flavour that goes really well with it. I use that as the foundation to build everything else on.
Different chefs come up with dishes in different ways, but I prefer to use classic flavours. I don’t necessarily prefer classic food, because classic food can be uninspiring, but a classic combination of flavours works without a doubt. When my dishes finally end up on a plate, they do look very modern. I like modern presentation and dishes that look atheistically beautiful. It can be really difficult sometimes, when you have a dish where you’re happy with the flavour of it, but you can’t quite get it looking how you would like on the plate. That can be very frustrating because you know it tastes great, but getting it to look good on the plate as well can be quite a difficult thing to achieve.
What kind of food do you offer up at Pearl?
I don’t use Japanese or Asian influences throughout the menu – the foundation of the cooking is French, with other European influences. I don’t restrict myself from using other styles; it’s just that I don’t tend to steer towards my homeland.
How did the lunchtime bar menu come about at Pearl?
We used to have a lot of walk-in diners and they were always in a rush. They’d say “we’ve got forty-five minutes for lunch, can you do something for us?” When you’re busy in the restaurant, forty-five minutes for a three-course lunch would be a real push. So I wanted to provide something for customers who wanted to be in and out, and have something great to eat. The idea of doing an express lunch or business lunch felt so tacky, and I hate anything tacky. I thought, how can we do something quick, but still represent who we are and my style of cooking? One of the head waiters came up with the idea of the bar menu. In New York, it’s a really big thing to eat at bars. If you go to a lot of restaurants, they have counter-style eating at the bar. We only have eight seats at the bar, so it doesn’t affect the service, and diners in a hurry can be in and out in half an hour.
How is the bar menu served up?
We have twelve dishes to choose from, including vegetarian, meat dishes and desserts – all tasting size portions. They are all a representation of dishes that we offer at the restaurant but paired down a little in size. They come out as they’re ready – which is what speeds up the process. You can order a minimum of three dishes, and for lunch you would probably need about four. You come, sit down and order three or four dishes and you’d have all of them in front of you within the half hour. Dessert always comes last though!
Where do you eat in London when you’re not in the kitchen?
I eat out at least once a week and usually somewhere that’s new. Every week new restaurants open up in London so there’s an endless supply of places to go. The last place I went was Wild Honey, in Mayfair, which was great – run by the same people that own Arbutus in Soho. It’s a really great restaurant: French, simple, good value and very informal. I always choose restaurants according to the chef that’s cooking there – that’s my main reason for going. I love Arbutus, and Roka – a modern Japanese restaurant in Charlotte Street with a beautiful bar downstairs.
Which bars in London stand out for their cocktails?
I don’t drink that much, but I find that cocktails vary – not so much from place to place, but depending on the barman that’s making it. You can go to the same place and have the same cocktail, but it might taste different due to the barman that’s making it. It seems less consistent than going out for a meal.
What would you predict as the next food trend in the UK?
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but health is a really big part of people’s lives these days. People spend so much time in the gym and watch what they’re eating – smoking is a thing of the past now etcetera. I run cookery lessons and people are always talking about the amount of salt they use and the amount of fat they put in their cooking – it’s a really big thing.
The problem is that healthy food and what chefs are cooking go against each other unfortunately. The things that are considered unhealthy often give food great flavour such as salt and butter. Ultimately, if you cook your own fresh food every day, use salt and butter in moderation and cut out all the fast food and pre-packaged stuff – you’re going to be so much healthier anyway.
Personally I think the next big chef will be the one that can combine healthy food without compromising on flavour or the integrity of the dish. If you could do that well, I think people would love it.
Try Jun’s banana tart recipes:
Pearl restaurant & bar
252 High Holborn, London, WC1V 7EN