July 2004

no confusion with his fusion

L'Etranger is a neighbourhood restaurant, and in Kensington your neighbours are well heeled, stylish and happy to pay top dollar for top food. L'Etranger is full every night, a joyful state of affairs that isn't easy for restaurants in Soho and Covent Garden to achieve. So what's the secret? The menu is eclectic, mixing classic French with Asian influences and ingredients. It might sound like a marriage made in hell, but it works and works very well.

Jerome worked for a while under Pierre Gagnaire, now of Sketch fame, and is aware of how close the line is between love and hate when adventurous food is presented to paying customers. It's a line he walks very successfully, however.

We met up after a typically busy lunch service on a weekday. A puckish young Frenchman, he has a cheerful twinkle in his eye and, despite his obvious love for his craft a passion for his food - he admits to being always open to new ideas and actively searching all the time. But there is no pretension, he's happy to admit that many of the ideas he tries don't work at all. 'Straight into the bin' he laughs. The Holy Grail is the invention that works better than expected and instead goes straight onto the menu. There are some dishes that are so loved by his regulars that they always appear - the amazing Black cod with Miso is one - flashed under the salamander and finished under the pass lights. But keeping on four or five 'favourites', while always experimenting, means L'Etranger is never stale and boring and never too wild and whacky either.

So on with the probing questions:

What made you decide to be a chef? !

It wasn't a matter of decision; I was born into a world of cooking. My father was a chef and I literally grew up in his restaurant. In my hometown there is a picture of me putting something into the oven at the age of six. My friends laugh a lot when they see it. Therefore, it wasn't that I had that much of a choice but took everything on from my father.

However, although I learned the fundamentals from my father I feel I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to develop myself further by working with master chefs such Henri Roux, Ducasse, Gagnaire, Guerard, Legay. I also had the opportunity albeit briefly to work with Marco Pierre White.

How would you describe your food style?

In this day and age I believe every person has easy access to many cuisines of the world. Just go to the west-end and the choice is phenomenal. I get a lot of ideas just by observing different cuisines. The shoulder of lamb I do is influenced by the Ottoman Turkish way of cooking. I let it cook for 8 hours slowly. However, the Japanese Kobe beef I do is a flash wok stir fry type of cooking adopted from china.

Therefore I would say that I would take the fundamental cooking techniques of major cuisines and very subtly bring them up-to date. I also like blending sweet and sour textures such as jam, kumquat etc. You will see a lot of oriental and Middle Eastern spices throughout my cooking. However, I also believe that this approach demands a lot of respect to the product. Some things just don't mix. Therefore you could describe my cooking style as infusion but with absolute respect for the originality of the product.

What do you think your menu says about you as a chef?

As a chef it would say that I am not your classic boring French chef. I like to tease the taste buds, keep them guessing. What is it in the black cod that makes it melt in your mouth - is it the marinade or the fact that I finish its cooking under the lamp?

I would hope that it portrays me as chef with utmost devotion to quality, value for money and a product offering which is different from the norm. But I like keeping faithful to the tried and tested formula. I am against this egg and bacon pudding or sardine sorbet stuff. If a cooking technique has survived for hundreds of years, it must have for a very good reason.

Is there any particular place that you get your inspiration from?

I go to Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Japan on a frequent basis as my girlfriend is from Singapore. It's becoming a pattern that I change the menu every time I come back from a holiday! I love the spontaneous and non-artificial approach to cooking they have over there.

What is your favourite dish on the menu?

It changes; I had the sashimi tuna salad on the menu once. When the supplier brought the tuna, I would eat like a mad man about 2 pounds of sashimi tuna with the marinade. I also went on black cod frenzy, eating black cod non-stop. At the moment my favourite is the Kobe beef. This particular type of cattle is raised on beer and massaged with sake to make them lean. The quality in comparison to other normal beef is amazing.

What's the best compliment you've ever received about your cooking? From who?

A friend who has a café in Staines wanted me to do something for a member of his staff who was taking her husband for a birthday meal. She apparently told my friend that when they had a bite of the black cod they started crying because it was so good. My normal compliment would be a handshake but to actually cry because the food is so good is a first!

What one thing would you like to achieve in the industry?

Create a brand, a chain of worldwide luxury huge restaurants where you can eat the best authentic Japanese, Thai, French, and Chinese food all under the same roof, with shop to get products.

Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years time?

Turning up to barbecues with the same friends I have today!

What would you like to be remembered for doing cuisine in the UK ?

There are a lot of people out there with phenomenal talent and exposure. Could I leave the field to them and let the people judge I only wish to keep close the friends I have today.

Does a head chef have to be a terror in the kitchen?

I think it changes with time. I was quite bad before. I broke a lot of plates on walls; I threw a lot of meat that was overcooked back at chefs so that they could have a closer look. But lately I have mellowed down, I don't shout as much but concentrate on finding the right type of persons to work for me. However, the odd occasion does come when I do throw things about.

Would you want to be a household name? Would it help or hinder?

I'm extremely shy and can't really act. I would want to be only if I can be my true self!

Who'd you like to cook for if anything was possible?

Lucy Lyu, she's Very pretty.

Jimmy Morrison when he has just come of stage. Preferably I would be drunk and he would be high!

The presentations of some of my plates are inspired by Jackson Pollock, I would love to cook for him and present to him food on plates which carry his surreal theme.

What's the best and worst thing about being a chef?

Best; when every domino hits the other one and the equation is complete, resulting in both staff and customer being happy.

Worst: when everything that can go wrong goes horribly wrong..

What words of advice would you offer anyone thinking of becoming a chef?

Fundamentals first; I would ask do you understand the basic concepts of cooking? If not attend a course. Once you are confident do not be afraid to express your character on the menu. Never compromise on quality. If a supplier starts messing you around just look for another one. Same goes for staff. If you feel they are not up to it just tell them to move on. If you think that your boss is pushing you unfairly, you move on yourself. But my main advice would be; this is a job, your happiness is at stake, concentrate on your life outside the restaurant as much as you do in the restaurant and you will be happy! A chef should achieve success at the restaurant without having to sacrifice from his or her private life.

If you had to swap places with another chef for a day, who would you be?

First: My father when he was teaching me how to bake bread at the age of 6!

Second: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa for the empire he built around him based on his wonderful food approach.

What music are you into at the moment?

Thanks to Opal, our club downstairs I am well acquainted with the latest R & B hits!

If you weren't a chef - what would you be doing?

I think an interior designer or property developer. I love doing diy around house I buy and let. But to be honest with you, because I was born into this profession, it never even crossed my mind that I should be anything else other than being a chef!