Bruno Menard weaves his Michelin magic in Asia
Celebrated French chef Bruno Menard has brought his magic Michelin touch to restaurants in Asia and beyond for the past 20 years, writes Bernice Chan
Tattooed on the left forearm of chef Bruno Menard are three Michelin stars, an indelible souvenir of his culinary achievement at L'Osier, a restaurant opened by cosmetics maker Shiseido in Tokyo. "You can't use the Michelin logo if you don't have any stars," says Menard, settling into a glass of red wine after a photo-shoot of his dishes. "It's a touch of pride and joy of the many years we spent in Tokyo."
The 52-year-old Frenchman was recently in Macau as guest chef at the Michelin one-star restaurant The Tasting Room in Crown Towers, where he presented a six-course menu reflecting his love of Asian ingredients, such as mini tomato stuffed with blue shrimp tartar with yuzu and tarragon ice cream, and roasted Japanese beef with myoga, a Japanese ginger combined with black cherry pickle.
"I've been in this part of the world for 20 years, so I really understand the flavours that people like. Those flavours go into my everyday cooking, so it's part of my everyday life," Menard says.
He has spent most of his time in Japan, where he relocated from France in 1995 to open his own restaurant, Tatou Tokyo, before joining the Ritz-Carlton Osaka two years later. Menard then headed to the United States for a stint at The Dining Room in the Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta, for four years where he gained five stars and five diamonds (only 14 restaurants in North America have this designation). In 2005, Menard returned to Tokyo at L'Osier.
Michelin had announced it was launching its guide in Japan, and Menard was determined to get three stars - which he achieved in his first attempt.
"It's rare but not unique because in Macau and Hong Kong you have restaurants that achieved three stars [the first time]. You need to have a big organisation behind you, big companies where they have tycoons who have the money and allow you to set up an amazing restaurant and to put together the right team," he says.
"It's a big investment but also you have to have free rein to do whatever you want."
During Menard's tenure, the restaurant hired more than 40 staff to look after 36 covers. "There was never one time when the company said no to me. We were doing the experience for the guest."
To reach this pinnacle, Menard worked his way up the kitchen from the age of six and decided to become a chef two years later.
His father was a pastry chef, one of his grandfathers also a patissier and cook, the other charcutier and so it was natural for Menard to follow in their footsteps. He started by cleaning pots and pans, cutting apples for compote and removing the hull of strawberries for strawberry tarts.
"It was normal for me ... yes, as a child I wanted to play with the other kids, but I think my parents gave me the right education by giving me the values of what working is all about. Nothing is free in life and you have to work to make things happen."
At the age of eight he worked at a one-Michelin star restaurant in a small French town. "My father said, 'If you want to be a chef, you can work here for one month.' And I wanted to do it - I wanted to cook in a real restaurant. I learned how to make croquettes Pojarski, where you grind some meat, mix it with onions and fresh herbs, make them into slightly flattened balls and then pan-fry them," he says. "The first time I made them for my mother, she thought I was God on earth. She was so proud of me. Every time we had a special occasion, I had to cook the famous croquettes Pojarski."
He also has vivid memories of what he ate during his childhood in Tours, France, particularly on Sundays when his grandfather roasted a free-range chicken stuffed with garlic and made a potato galette made with mash, parmigiano and ham inside, accompanied by salad dressed with homemade red wine vinegar. His father made choux crème every Sunday and, in the summers, they would have strawberry parfait and fresh goat cheese on toasted bread.
These days, Menard describes his dishes as neoclassic. "I have a strong base in French cuisine, and I try to evolve it and find a new way to bring out those dishes."
One of the highlights of his guest chef menu is foie gras steamed in fig leaf with extra virgin olive oil and vinecao.
"Foie gras is nothing fancy, but what is fancy is using fig leaves. We are in fig season now and we put fresh fig and foie gras together and steam them and put on top a bit of vinecao or cacao vinegar, something I created."
The dish defies the usual expectations of goose liver because steaming makes it a light tasting dish with the cacao vinegar cutting through the richness.
"It's very difficult to make the food simple and to bring out the flavours in cooking. People tend to add on, add on. I try to take everything away to keep the essentials in the middle of the plate," Menard says.
This is why he stresses the importance of sourcing good products and knowing suppliers are crucial to a chef's success. "Knowledge is as important as technique. If you don't have a good product it's very hard to do good cooking. We are chefs, not magicians," he says.
For the past 2½ years Menard has been in Singapore where he worked with restaurant group Déliciae developing food concepts such as burger joints and brasseries. But last month he parted ways with the company and started his own consultancy, which he hopes will lead to interesting projects.
"I'm very happy I left my country 20 years ago to cross the world. I don't mean to say I don't like my country - I love it. I just love to be a part of the world today and to be able to experience new flavours, new things, new languages. I love it."