When you’ve worked in eight of the most legendary kitchens in the country, including Chez Nico, The Capital, and The Square, how do you ensure your next venture will measure up? For Chef Jun Tanaka, the answer was simple: you open it yourself.
By Ina Yulo
Born in New York City and raised in the United Kingdom by Japanese parents, Tanaka’s palate was exposed to different flavours from a very early age. He attended hotel management school, but realised he loved cooking more than he did the business and theoretical sides of things and was kicked out for poor attendance. At 19, he took matters into his own hands and got himself an apprenticeship at famed French restaurant Le Gavroche. The years that followed saw him honing his craft and mastering the art of French cuisine under the likes of the Roux brothers, Philip Howard, and Eric Chavot, to name a few.
Tanaka soon became a regular on television as a host on Channel 4’s Cooking It and with appearances in BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen and UKTV’s Great Food Live. In 2013, he won the grand prize of $50,000 on American show Chopped Champions. He would eventually use the prize money to help set up his first solo restaurant, The Ninth.
Situated on Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia, The Ninth serves French-Mediterranean small plates with a strong vegetable focus. Standout dishes like oxtail croquettes, langoustine ravioli, and razor clam ceviche all helped the establishment earn a Michelin star in 2017. Despite its refined menu, The Ninth’s warm and approachable style make it very much a neighbourhood restaurant that sees guests coming back on a regular basis. Food writer Ina Yulo chats with Chef Tanaka to find out more about his journey towards opening The Ninth and the individuals that inspired him along the way.
You are an American-born, Japanese-British chef. Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and whether those cultures had an impact on your cooking style?
Growing up, food was always an important part of our daily lives. My mother is a fantastic cook and would make sure that there was something delicious every day for our family dinner. She would try different recipes to keep it fresh and exciting. Even my packed lunch was different from everyone else. Most kids had sandwiches and crisps but mine consisted of onigiri—steamed rice wrapped in dried seaweed and filled with salted plums, sliced saucisson,and salad. I don’t think the different cultures have directly influenced my cooking style but they definitely opened my mind to various cuisines from a young age.
What are your first food memories?
When we were living in Japan, my mother used to teach housewives how to bake. While she was giving her classes, I would quietly sit under the kitchen table enjoying the aromas of the freshly-baked pastries and cakes. As a treat, my mother would sometimes give me a whisk that had just been used to cream butter and sugar. I loved the texture of the sugar crystals in the freshly-whipped butter.
You’ve had some stints on television both in the UK and US. Do you agree that cooking shows have turned everyone into a food critic?
I think cooking shows have helped to improve everyone’s knowledge of food and the restaurant industry, but I wouldn’t agree that they have turned everyone into a food critic. I think people have been food critics for a very long time. The only difference is that now there are many more mediums to voice an opinion.
What made you decide to finally open your own restaurant?
I realised that the only way to create a restaurant exactly the way I wanted—from the style of food, service, and décor, to how the employees are treated—was to open my own place. Also, partnering up with Jim, an old school friend, gave me the confidence to make the decision.
How did it feel to open The Ninth?
It took us two years to find the perfect site, so there was a huge sense of relief mixed with excitement and nervousness.
What is your ethos at The Ninth?
First and foremost, to look after the people that work for us and to ensure that they are happy working at The Ninth. A happy team in turn provides a genuine and personal experience for our customers, many of whom return time and again.
What are some of the most important lessons you learned working out of other chefs’ kitchens? Who do you look up to in the food world?
I was the sous chef for Eric Chavot when he worked at The Capital and he taught me the importance of flavour over all else. It seems like an obvious statement, but sometimes we chefs can get side tracked worrying too much about presentation and originality. When I worked for Joel Antunes at Les Saveurs, I saw the family ambiance he had created between the employees. I knew that this was something I would want to recreate in my restaurant. Though I have never worked for him, Danny Meyer is someone that I admire greatly. His book Setting the Tablewas truly inspirational.
What would your last meal on earth be?
A bucket load of Carabineros prawns.
You earned a Michelin star at The Ninth in 2017 and have kept it ever since. Not an easy feat, especially in London! What has that journey been like for you?
When we were awarded the Michelin star, it came as a complete surprise, which made the whole experience even better. It was definitely the highlight of my career. Every year before the awards are announced, I feel a slight nervousness because retaining the star is so important. It definitely keeps you on your toes!
Though I’m sure there are many, what is your favourite dish on your menu at The Ninthright now?
The Gigha Halibut, lobster sauce and charred cabbage.