Kei Kobayashi is a Japanese chef making French cuisine, born in Nagano prefecture in 1977. Both his parents are chefs, and he decided to pursue French gastronomy when he was fifteen. After training in Japan, he flew to France at twenty-one and studied under the eminent Alain Ducasse. In 2011, he opened his own Restaurant KEI. He accomplished the extraordinary feat of becoming the first Asian chef to win three stars in the Michelin Guide France 2020.
Growing up with “Cooking”
Born as the second son to a family running a restaurant, Kobayashi grew up surrounded by food, watching the kitchen and the cooks around him. Everything he ate, including sweets, were all homemade, so he used to envy his friends for having packaged snacks and cup noodles.
For him, the cook was a familiar figure—certainly no one to admire. But this turned around completely when he was fifteen. As soon as he watched a television show featuring the chef Alain Chapel, he was spellbound.
He dreamed of becoming a chef wearing black trousers and a spotless, white jacket. To learn from a chef who had trained in France, he started to work at a local hotel.
The “Secret to Success”
Kobayashi, who runs his own restaurant in Paris, calls himself “one of Japan’s representatives”: “I’m a Japanese citizen, but they let me live in France and make French cuisine.”
He learnt to be modest when he first began his career as a cook. From fifteen to nineteen years old, he was taught more about the etiquette and conduct of a professional adult than about the ABCs of cooking.
Rather than ingratiating yourself with others, respect them. Observe others closely and think about what they want to do, and what they want you to do. These skills that he had picked up were precisely what enabled an “outsider” like Kobayashi to survive in the world of French cuisine and gain recognition. The fact that he was chosen as the sous-chef in Alain Ducasse’s three-star restaurant attests to this.
After training in Nagano, Kobayashi continued to work hard in Tokyo and France, always communicating with people with the same approach that he had learnt early on. “I can detect what other people are looking for better than anyone else,” he says. Even now, with three Michelin stars to his name, he remains attentive and genuine to the people around him, both cooks and diners.
Restaurant as “Theatre”: Discovering a Unique Perspective through the Pandemic
Kobayashi, who learnt how to connect with others around him even before he learnt how to be a cook, calls his own restaurant a “theatre”: a unique perspective born of his ability to read the room, to notice the feelings or needs of the people around him.
Restaurant KEI is a space of encounters with people, food, and space. Kobayashi sees it as a place where diners can not only enjoy their meal, but express and experience all kinds of encounters. “That’s our cooking,” he says. He even remodelled the interior design so that guests can have an immersive experience in the “theatre,” stimulating their five senses.
Plans for the redecoration came up in 2019. He joined hands with Tsuyoshi Tane, an architect who has designed Japan National Stadium, among others. The project was already underway when Kobayashi won three stars in 2020, but that didn’t diminish his aspiration to keep striving upwards, and he worked with Tane to draw up the new space.
It was around then that the COVID-19 pandemic became rampant. Paris went under lockdown, and restaurants had to close. Kobayashi, however, saw the silver lining. He took it as an opportunity to continue the remodelling project, rest his body, and think about what lies ahead.
On becoming the first Asian chef to win three stars, he says, “I was only happy for about the first five minutes.” Though he was highly praised for marrying Japanese aesthetics with French flavours, Kobayashi himself feels something is missing.
During the pandemic, he ruminated on “what’s missing” and “what we can communicate.” Through gathering knowledge from books and having discussions with his staff, he came to the conclusion that it’s all about “encounters.” As he continued to prepare for reopening, he focused all his attention on offering guests a pleasurable time and memorable encounters through food, space, and people.
More Encounters for a One-of-a-kind “Theatre”
Kobayashi has his sights set on creating and presenting the whole experience of being in his restaurant, which goes beyond the flavours of the dishes.
“It’s always about making it new when I’m cooking,” he says. “If there’s no change, there’s no ‘progress.’”
Just as technology keeps moving forward every day, the culinary arts are constantly evolving. Amid those movements, Kobayashi is also exploring his own new ways of expression. Far from being content with his Michelin achievement, he is always looking ahead: “Now I’m finally standing on the starting line.”
Remarkably self-disciplined, Kobayashi continues to expand his range of expression. His “theatre” has only just begun. With his unique performance, he will continue to dazzle and allure the world.