He's of Japanese origin, was born in the US, grew up in London and has been cooking his version of classical French food for the past 20 years. If ever there was a chef who reflects Dubai's staggering multiculturalism, it's Jun Tanaka, executive chef of London's Pearl restaurant and the main attraction at this week's Taste of Dubai (TOD) food festival.
It's Tanaka's first time at TOD, although he has been involved with the London version, which he calls "my favourite foodie event of the year". A man of two styles — he cooks high-level food in his restaurant and teaches novices at home in his TV show, Cooking It — he's looking forward to demonstrating his skills in haute cuisine in the chef's theatre and his home-style cooking in the cookery school. "When I got asked to do Dubai, I thought, it's the same as London in terms of all the different restaurants and being outside, except you can be sure of good weather. So it was a done deal." tabloid! on Saturday grilled the chef ahead of his visit about what he'll be cooking for us, his last meal and why he won't cook Asian food.
So what will you be bringing to Taste of Dubai?
I am going to be doing demonstrations at the cookery theatre and the school. For the chef's theatre I am doing something that is more my style from the restaurant, venison in a salt crust — which is the best way to cook venison — with beetroot. Those dishes really reflect the kind of cuisine I cook in the restaurant.
For the cookery school I am doing something simpler for the home cook: a miniature goat's cheese wrapped in really thin rolled bread, dipped in butter and sesame, and then baked until its crisp on the outside and served with pears and walnuts. Then a pudding which is a baked rhubarb custard; and lamb with a parsley crust.
You're known for your TV show, where you take novices and turn them into great cooks. Do you like sharing your knowledge?
I love teaching. How many times have you heard people say, "No, I can't cook"? Actually cooking is something anyone can do. First of all, it's just the confidence to go ahead and go it. Then you need to be organised — organisation is 50 per cent of cooking well. Whenever you pick up a cookbook, read a recipe from start to finish and try to understand what you want to achieve. Make sure you have all the ingredients and equipment sitting in front of you. When you do it in a methodical way, it makes your life so much easier.
Your cooking at Pearl is of a completely different level. Do you think of bringing your Japanese background into your food?
I purposefully stay away from it because so many people expect me to do it. Innocently, people say, "Oh you're a chef, you cook Chinese". I have no Japanese influence in my cuisine at the moment but people will try to find something about it which is Asian. It's not what I do. I don't like fusion cooking.
All the restaurants I worked with previously were classic French restaurants, including Le Gavroche. All my foundations are classical French but then I've added my own take — a lot lighter and some European food in there too.
Do you cook at home?
I am a home cook and I would never do anything fancy at home. A restaurant is all about show. When you cook at home, it's for a different reason. The last thing I cooked at home was chicken livers and artichoke salad, the time before that it was some grilled mackerel with a carrot salad and some couscous. I braised a shoulder of lamb a couple of weeks ago, with parsnip mash and spring cabbage.
What's in your fridge?
Not a lot. I only shop for the day because I work so much. I think all that's left in there is some vegetables. I have a few things in the larder. Couscous. It's funny, I went to the shop and thought, I need couscous and bought it but found I had a whole bag in my cupboard already. Isn't that the thing you do? There's always one ingredient. With my mum it's tinned sardines. She's got about 20.
Tell us about your favourite cookbook.
I've got over 200 cookbooks and all have been well-thumbed but if I had to pick one, it would be The Complete Robuchon (left). It has about 500 of [French chef Joel] Robuchon's recipes. It's his version of the classic French dishes and he's one of the greatest chefs in the world.
Most memorable meal?
Really simple things in great locations — street food in Bangkok or octopus carpaccio with lemon juice and paprika in Taormina, Sicily. But for restaurant food, it has to be Noma in Copenhagen [ranked the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine, serving only Nordic ingredients]. I went with two chefs and we were truly humbled. We were there from 6pm-1am, with 22 courses.
Katsu curry, or Japanese curry with breaded meat and rice. I was brought up on Japanese food, so that's comfort food for me.
Don't miss it
Taste of Dubai will be held from March 3-5 at Media City Amphitheatre. Jun Tanaka will be in the Philips Chef's Theatre on Thursday (3.30pm and 8pm), and Friday and Saturday (2.45pm and 7.15pm). He'll be in the Miele Cooking School on Thursday (5pm and 10pm), and Friday and Saturday (4pm and 9pm). Other chefs cooking for the public include Gary Rhodes and Vineet Bhatia.
Standard tickets are Dh60 online, Dh75 on the door. A VIP ticket with fast-track entry, two beverages, four dishes and access to the VIP enclosure is Dh200 or Dh500 for a three-day pass. Visit tasteofdubaifestival.com to buy tickets.