Jean-Christophe, originally from Joinville Le Pont, France, has lived in Japan for ten years and has been pastry chef and owner of Aux Delices in Yakuin for six. Fukuoka Now met with him to talk about creating French sweets, the unique challenges and pleasures of being a chef in Japan, and introducing Japanese customers to original dessert creations.
How did you become interested in becoming a pastry chef?
When I was young, in my town on the street where I was living, there was a boulangerie and patisserie and I always went in to buy a croissant. And I was interested when they were making the cakes. I went to pastry school, and I stopped [regular] school when I was fourteen, because I knew I wanted to do pastry. I just wanted to do cakes. And all the family of my stepfather, they’re in the food business: bread, restaurants, cakes, and one of his brothers has a shop in Paris, close to where I was living. I went so many times there to see how he was, because he made bread and cakes. And because of this I started to like pastries.
What originally brought you to Japan/Fukuoka?
I met my wife in San Francisco–I was a pastry chef there and I met my wife there. She got pregnant and we decided to go to France or Japan. She said, “Oh, let’s go to Japan,” and we just came here.
What are the unique challenges of working as a foreign chef in Japan?
I think Japan is more difficult than other countries. I worked in France, England, and America, but in Japan, you need to have an image before you come here. If you come here by yourself, it’s harder to become somebody. It takes a long time [to become established in Japan.] I’ve been in Japan ten years, and my shop has been here for six years.
What’s your opinion of French and European-style sweets in Japan? Do Japanese chefs make authentic desserts?
I haven’t been all over Japan yet, I’ve just been to Tokyo and Fukuoka and Kyushu. I went to Tokyo for three days and I saw that the level is completely different from Kyushu. Tokyo is the city in the world with the most three-star Michelin restaurants. All the famous pastry shops I went to, it was competitive. Here, in Fukuoka, you don’t have a lot of nice pastry shops. I don’t know if it’s only Kyushu–I didn’t go to Osaka or Kobe to see how it is, but for me Fukuoka is still late to appreciate what is nice and what is not nice [with pastries]. I have some customers who come from Tokyo to Fukuoka and they always come to my shop, and they say “If you were in Tokyo, it’d be so busy.” But Fukuoka–it’s hard. It takes more time.
What are your customers like?
Mostly Japanese. Sometimes I have some gaijin, but not a lot. Around here, I have a lot of guys from offices who come to buy, and a lot of girls. You see that uniform and badge. A lot of moms, like 30, 40, come with their kids. I have some customers who always come.
Do you incorporate any uniquely Japanese ingredients into your recipes?
Yes, I use a lot. But most of the products are from France, things that I know. But I try, of course, the Japanese ones before. If I find a nice ingredient, I’ll use it, but mostly I use ones from France.
What are some of the most popular desserts at your patisserie?
What people like the most is the choux creme, caramel eclair, and chiffon cake. That’s the top three. They’re not like in other countries, to be interested [in unusual cakes]: ”Oh, what is this? I’ve never seen this cake before,” and they buy right away. Japanese, they don’t. They have to hear from somewhere else if it’s a nice cake or not. I really have to push them, give tastings. I want to do one product that everybody loves. But it’s hard to find.
What is one successful pastry you’ve made?
This summer, I did cookies with brown sugar. In the middle I put ganache. It was three different ones–raspberry, bitter chocolate, and caramel. I sold a lot pre-order, it was special just for summer. But you never know. Even if you do TV–you never know if [a pastry] will work or not.
What do you think of cooking challenge shows like Iron Chef and Top Chef? Would you ever consider appearing on one for pastry chefs?
No. I don’t like this. I did some contests in France before, and I didn’t like it. They don’t give an equal chance to everybody to win. I don’t have time for this–you need so much time. The only contest I wish to do is only in France. Every year, you have this contest, MOF, for the best worker of the year. And when you have this title, you’re good. All the best pastry chefs in France do this. They judge techniques, quality, creativity. I have a friend who won MOF and he said, you almost die when you do this, it’s crazy. You prepare two years before, you work only on this. You need a lot of experience to be ready to do this kind of contest.
Who are some chefs you admire?
Pierre Herme, a French chef. He has a shop in Tokyo. I worked with him, too, in his shop in France. He came last year for Valentine’s Day. For me, he’s the best chef. Everything he does is crazy. In Fukuoka, Patisserie Jacques–they make three-star cakes. It’s the best pastry shop, for me, in Fukuoka. [The chef] is a very nice guy, and what he does is nice. He’s Japanese, but he studied in France when he was young. He just opened a new shop by Ohori Koen.
What are some challenging aspects of being a business owner in Japan?
The system is different compared to other countries. Here, you work a lot of hours, you have only one week off a year. It’s good for the owner, but no good for the people who work for him. For me, it was my first time to own something, but it was not a hard thing to do. You just have to be careful about everything you do, to manage money, your staff. It’s hard to find good staff. It’s rare. When you find one you have to keep them for a long time.
In other places I worked before this I took care of the administration. But of course here it’s more hard for me because I don’t read kanji. My wife helps me with this. I speak Japanese, but I don’t study Japanese. But I learn a little bit because my kids talk to me and I want to understand everything they say. I speak to them in French, but they talk to me in Japanese.
What are you planning for the upcoming holiday season?
We start in September to be busy getting ready for Christmas. Everything is planned, we just have to make it. The most popular thing is the chiffon roll, with cream and fruit. I always try to do my own style. This year, I’m making the buche de noel with apricot, almond, crunchy chocolate, apple mousse with bitter chocolate. It looks so nice, like a present–I do a ribbon on top with chocolate.
When are your busiest seasons?
Valentine’s and White Day. We start now, and until White Day we are busy. End of May, beginning of June–we can relax. Christmas is OK, but Valentine’s and White Day we make the most.
How has your life changed since coming to Japan?
Maybe I’m more relaxed. In Japan, people are calmer. I became more calmed down. I have my wife, and I have my kids–you have to relax more.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I talk with my wife, she says I should do a product with this fruit, there’s this thing that people want. I start to think about it, look at some shop where I like what they’re doing, and always do my original cakes. I don’t do it exactly the same as the one I saw–I always make it mine. But of course, with chefs, I like Pierre Herme, everything he does, the technique he has, the tests he does–it’s crazy. I don’t do it 100% French style, but I always try to satisfy my customers. Japanese customers say, “Oh, if I eat pastry every day, I’ll become fat!” I say, “Oh, look at me, am I fat?” I eat butter, bread, cakes, but look! I’m not fat!
What are your hobbies?
When I’m off my job, what I do is go mountain biking. This is the thing that puts my stress off. I go by myself, it’s totally quiet, in nature, and it makes me feel good. I go every Monday. There’s a lot of tracks in Kumamoto, Saga. If I don’t do it, it’s no good! I’ve been doing it for five years.
Checkout the Aux Delices website here http://aux-delices.jp/
Hometown: Joinville Le Pont, France
In Japan: 10 years
Identity: Pastry chef and owner, Aux Delices
Interview and text by Alanna Schubach
Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn144, Dec. 2010)