Pardon my French (cooking): The Impossible Cooking Challenge

L’Apéritif

French cooking is notoriously difficult. Chefs train for years to perfect these complicated and delicate techniques to create some of the world’s most intricate, yet deceptively simple-looking dishes. So when I was challenged to recreate three dishes from a high end, fine-dining French restaurant in Ginza in my not so high end, little Japanese apartment kitchen, I knew I was in for a struggle.

But I didn’t realize just how much of a struggle it truly was going to be. I had to create three gourmet dishes only using the photographs and names of the dishes. I wasn’t allowed to look up instructions online, and I couldn’t consult a cookbook. 

While I may be able to whip up an “award-winning” tuna melt out of conbini ingredients, these dishes were way out of my comfort zone. I have zero formal training and am best known for meals such as “slightly burnt but still tasty meatballs” and “It looks a little rough, but it tastes good, just trust me pasta”. 

After attempting to make the dishes, I would then get a chance to eat the original meal at the restaurant; a fancy, high-end French restaurant in Ginza, Chez Tomo. I would also get the chance to show a professional French chef my sad attempts.

I had every reason to be nervous. The chef, having both great skill and a sense of humor, sent over photos of some of his restaurant’s most intricate dishes. Seeing the photos for the first time, I panicked and did the first thing I could think of. Thanks to a little loophole in the rules, I called my mom halfway across the world. “Have you ever cooked a sea urchin before?” I asked, trying not to sound too panicked. She just laughed and said, “Good luck!” 

Hors d’oeuvre

Now that I had my three photos, it was time to strategize. First, I’d attempt to identify all the ingredients used in each dish. Second, I’d go to (multiple) grocery stores and supermarkets to find and buy the ingredients. Finally, I’d attempt to cook (but mostly assemble) these ingredients into a dish mimicking the professionals. 

Identification

For the amuse-bouche, titled “Ladify sea urchin” the primary ingredient was pretty obvious – uni, or sea urchin. The dish featured the uni shell on top of two different colorful seaweeds. The uni appeared to be in some sort of cream-based sauce.  

The second dish thankfully had a long, descriptive title “Ayu Part Philo Wrapped Grilled Gold Ginger Gourd Salad with a Lime Scent”. I needed Ayu (a type of Japanese river fish), spaghetti squash, lime, and an egg roll.

The final dish, the signature dish of Chez Tomo, was the “28-35 organic vegetables”. Don’t let the simplicity of this dish fool you – this one took the longest to prepare by far! I went line by line, trying to guess the contents of the dish. I wrote my guesses under the photo below. 

From left to right, row 1: Tomato gelatin with miso paste, daikon, mango, gelatin?, squash, pear, carrot, the world’s tiniest cacao bean. Row 2: purple onion, red thing, snap pea, daikon with a bean?, broccoli, purple root, cucumber. Row 3: purple thing the remix, okra, yellow pepper, eggplant, asparagus, mushroom cap with cream?, big green bean thing, cauliflower. Row 4: goopy seaweed, baby corn, microgreens, red pepper, zucchini, potato, shiitake mushroom, cherry tomato. 

I was going to have to buy a lot of vegetables.

Shopping 

Since I received the photos on a Sunday, most of the local shops were closed, so I was left with the large supermarkets and stores near the train station to hunt for my ingredients. 

First, I tried to buy the 30 different vegetables I needed. In order to save time and money, I went for packs of pre-chopped mixed vegetables – that way I didn’t have to buy a large amount. Not exactly organic, but it got the job done. 

I was naïve to think I’d have enough time to shop and cook in just one afternoon/evening. Have you ever tried looking for fresh uni in its shell in East Tokyo on a Sunday? Spoiler alert: it does not exist.  It took hours to find all the ingredients – and after a while, I had to admit temporary defeat and go home. 

On Sunday I managed to buy all the ingredients for my vegetable plate but was unable to find a single one for the other two. I told myself I’d try again on Monday, but I was already wracking my brain thinking of substitutes for uni – could I make it out of mashed up sweet potato and pureed carrot?

Thankfully, on Monday the local fish shops were open and I was able to purchase both uni and ayu. I asked at multiple shops, but none had any uni shells, just the meat. And since it wasn’t against the rules, I went ahead and bought the pre-grilled ayu.

By Monday evening, I’d been to four different supermarkets and six local shops in the search for my ingredients. Along with one trip to the dollar store for a plate and “tablecloth” (a bath towel was as close as I could get from Daiso). I had everything I needed to create my dishes.

Amuse-bouche: The “Cooking”

The cooking was split up between Sunday and Monday evening. I originally planned on completing everything on Sunday, but shopping took way longer than I expected and I wasn’t able to buy some of the key ingredients until the fish stores opened up again, so it became a two-day prepped meal.

On Sunday night I assembled the vegetable plate. With a big question mark for some of the ingredients, I guessed my way through cutting carrots and daikon into little squares. I boiled single beans, okra, and asparagus. One by one I cut random vegetables to match the shapes in the photo. My plate was a little too small, but luckily that hid the fact that I missed some of the vegetables. 

One of the vegetables I really wasn’t able to identify was the dark brown, spiky textured looking lump. It looked like the world’s smallest cacao fruit. I substituted a lychee and called it good. 

A friend came over with a bottle of wine expecting an extravagant, beautiful French meal. She was met with a plate of meticulously cut, but mostly raw vegetables. We ordered a pizza and I put my vegetable plate in the fridge. 

The next evening, having procured the rest of my ingredients, I got to work on the other two dishes.

First, I attempted to make the amuse-bouche. I had no idea what the sauce was made of, so I took some of the raw uni and mixed it with some cream. I whipped it into a light orange soup, which I then added hot water two. If it wasn’t clear yet, I really had no idea what I was doing. I put the strange uni soup into the fridge to cool. 

To create my uni shell, I used a pile of hijiki, or black seaweed, to try to mimic the look of a spikey sea urchin shell. Unable to find the brightly colored seaweed, I pilled it on top of the dark green seaweed I found at the grocery store. I garnished it with the cherry tomatoes leftover from the vegetable dish.

To finish the dish, I propped up the rest of the raw uni in my uni soup with some of the shredded daikon that had been packed with it. So, I had created a cold cream soup of raw sea urchin, garnished with a pile of raw seaweed. I know that doesn’t sound too appetizing, but trust me when I say, it tasted even worse than it sounds.

Finally, I prepared the ayu dish. Since there wasn’t any spaghetti squash available, I had bought the only local squash the grocery store had. I thought I was getting something special, but it turns out I just bought a nice looking kabocha, aka the most common gourd in Japan. 

After struggling to cut it open, I sliced it into small chunks. I put the kabocha slices onto some aluminum foil and popped it into my toaster oven, the closest thing I own to an oven. When I moved to Japan, I never thought I’d pine after a lovely, full-size American oven, yet here I am. 

While the squash was cooking, I put my grilled ayu onto a plate and attempted the most futile part of the challenge yet – making foam. 

Foam is the quintessential pro move for a cooking challenge. It says “I have the skill and professional chemical cooking equipment, and you don’t”. I had a lime and a whisk. 

I squeezed the lime juice into a bowl and whisked it into bubbles. In a moment that’s embarrassing to admit, I attempted to add more “air” by blowing directly into the lime juice with a straw. It was extremely successful and getting lime juice all over the kitchen but did not make my “foam” foamier. I settled for more whisking. 

My toaster oven dinged to let me know that cooking squash for 30 min at 500 watts was way too long. My poor, dehydrated squash chunks were then squished through a cheese grater, in an attempt to make the strands of squash present in the photo. 

I placed the dry, grated squash bits on top of the ayu, then poured some of the lime juice over it. I topped it with the egg roll I purchased from the grocery store. I’ve never fried an eggroll at home before, and I figured since I wasn’t able to look up directions it was safer to go with a premade one. I scooped the “foam” (lime juice bubbles) with a small spoon and transferred it to the plate. Finally, I added a few dabs of wasabi to match the green sauce in the original photo. 

Pulling my vegetable plate out of the fridge, I arranged all three dishes on my coffee table. The result wasn’t very pretty, and it wasn’t the most appetizing either. But it was finally time to try my Frankenstein creation. 

Tasting

I tried the uni first. I’ve only eaten uni a few times before, and almost always raw. Usually, good sea urchin has a creamy, rich, and buttery taste with a hint of brine. My dish, however, tasted more like a mouthful of ocean mush. I lamented over the waste of this expensive ingredient (apx 10 USD) and forced myself to eat it, cringing through the process.

Thankfully, while the other two dishes were hardly examples of French cooking, they were easier to eat. The bitter ayu went well with the sweetness of the kabocha and lime juice. The egg roll didn’t match the rest of the dish at all, and I didn’t even bother with the wasabi since both elements were just added for visual effect.

The vegetable dish, having spent a day in my fridge, was unsurprisingly cold and completely underwhelming. I had created a dish of precisely cut, raw, and boiled vegetables. Having only a photo to go off of, I was at a loss on how to prepare most of the ingredients, and the result was a mediocre dish. 

Overall, I give the whole meal a big “meh”. For the amount of time I spent searching for ingredients and preparing the food, it was pretty disappointing but not unexpected. I know so little about French cooking that I was just happy it was still edible. 

Le Plat Principal

At the Restaurant – Chez Tomo

After creating my makeshift French dishes, I felt pretty nervous going into the posh Chez Tomo in Ginza. I was embarrassed thinking about showing my photos to a professional chef. The beautiful open interior of the 12th-floor restaurant did little to ease my nerves. 

Chez Tomo is an open, modern restaurant with comfortable chairs, beautiful wood accents, and huge windows providing a lovely view of the Ginza skyline. We were greeted by the managing director and wife of the chef, Mariko Ichikawa, who greeted us with a smile and perfect English. 

She explained that she was interested in the project and had also come to help with translation. Her friendly demeanor and American accent instantly made me feel more relaxed. 

We were shown to a large wooden table where I was served the three prepared dishes that I had attempted to recreate. We then met the chef, Tomoji Ichikawa. A tall, imposing man in a white uniform, Chef Ichikawa introduced each dish and explained the ingredients used and how it was made.

The amuse-bouche uni dish was the complete opposite of mine – it was fantastic! Sea urchin is not a common ingredient in French cuisine, and it would never be served raw. Therefore, this dish consisted of the uni cooked in a sauce américaine with a lobster and egg base. The confit combines the sauce américaine with butter, fresh cream, white wine slowly whipped together.  

The level of complex flavors in this small portion was shocking. It didn’t have the briny flavor of raw uni – it tasted a lot more like a thick, creamy lobster bisque. Ms. Ichikawa mentioned that even customers who dislike sea urchin love this dish, and its creamy, warm comfort food flavor is mild enough for kids to enjoy as well. I had been so vastly off the mark with my creation. 

The next dish was the ayu. This was the dish I had felt I came the closest to recreating – but what was put in front of me looked completely different! I was told that they were still experimenting with the dish, so they had changed the presentation and style. 

The ayu meat had been mixed with olives, anchovies, and butter, pureed and served on shredded spaghetti squash, topped with filo dough mimicking fish scales. The foam was made from soybean powder and lemon juice, using molecular gastronomy (aka chemical cooking) techniques.

The presentation of the dish I meant to look like the ayu is swimming down a river. Parts of the ayu can be quite bitter, especially the stomach, but pureed with the other ingredients and served with the sweet spaghetti squash it had a more balanced flavor. The filo was a nice salty edition that highlighted the flavor of the squash. Like the amuse-bouche, it had a deep complexity of flavor. 

Finally, it was time for the restaurant’s signature dish, “Variety of seasonal organic vegetable plate – 28 to 30 kinds”. 

28 meticulously prepared vegetables arranged on a clear square plate. All of the vegetables are organic and come from mom and pop local farms in Yamanashi prefecture. The chef explained that he accepts any of the vegetables that are sent by the farms, so the dish is always different.

Each vegetable has a different preparation process. Some are served hot, others cold, some at room temperature. Boiled, grilled, pickled, marinated, steamed, each technique and flavor were different. Every bite has a distinctive texture and even sound. The amount of work and detail that goes into preparing this dish isn’t something a photo can truly capture. And it certainly wasn’t something I was able to recreate at home. 

I’m happy to report that the meal was fantastic. This kind of intensive, detail-oriented cooking was incredibly difficult to recreate from just a photo. However, eating the dishes prepared by a professional really made me appreciate French cuisine.

Le Dessert

The interview with Chef Ichikawa at Chez Tomo 

After my meal, I got a chance to sit down with chef Ichikawa and ask him a few questions. (The original interview was done primarily in Japanese) 

What type of cuisine do you consider your food to be? 

Chef Ichikawa: All the food is prepared using French cooking techniques. This is classic French cooking. Although I use Japanese ingredients, the textures and techniques are typically French. It’s not fusion. The textures and flavor between French and Japanese cooking are very different – of course, I use local ingredients, but it’s always French cooking. 

Ms. Ichikawa: The technique and base of everything are very French.

What kind of training and background do you have in this?

Chef Ichikawa: I started learning French food cooking in Japan, then moved to France at 25 and learned from chefs all over France for six years. I went to different locations around France to learn different styles. Just like the cooking in Hokkaido differs from the cooking in Okinawa, different parts of France have different techniques and styles.

When did you return to Japan?

Chef Ichikawa: In 1991, when I was 31. Since I spent 6 years in France, my soul was completely French. I worked in a few restaurants in Japan until I founded my own. I have been running my restaurant for 18 years now.

Why did you decide on these 3 dishes for the challenge?

Chef Ichikawa: For 3 reasons. The urchin plate is my specialty which I have been making for over 20 years, and the vegetable plate is the restaurant’s specialty. The last dish is the specialty for the season – I wanted to use dishes that featured very Japanese ingredients that are not as common in French cooking for an international guest like you. Of course there are many many other recipes that I wanted to choose, but that would’ve been very difficult for you (*chuckle*)

I think these plates were very difficult to make without a recipe. And to buy so many vegetables at once… must be very expensive. 

Ms. Ichikawa: He kept asking me, “doesn’t she need a recipe? How will she make these dishes from just the photo?”

How do you create your set course menu? Do you base it on ingredients that you want to feature or techniques you want to use?

Chef Ichikawa: The dishes are based on what is available seasonally, then I try to imagine what kind of dishes I can create using what’s available. I’m always thinking about how I can cook from my imagination.

Ms. Ichikawa: For example, sometimes we ask the customers to pick which ingredients they’d like in their desserts – based on that, we create a unique dish. That way, every time they come to the restaurant, even if they choose the same ingredients, they will always get to experience a new dish featuring seasonal ingredients. 

They are always surprised! We have a customer who comes in every time white asparagus are in season. They always order the white asparagus, and every time it’s a different taste and texture, always a different type of dish. 

Katie: Very Creative! I want to try this dessert. 

Chef Ichikawa: In Japanese cooking, things have a strong tradition. For example, unagi has to be prepared the same way every time, it cannot be changed. It’s the way it’s always been done, and the chefs like to keep that tradition. However, with French cooking, it’s an obligation to always keep changing and developing. Every year the quality of ingredients may change, the type may change, so every year I make a different plate.

Ms. Ichikawa: Customers get bored if they’ve already tried it once – they want to try something different. It’s always something different – just like in fashion, there’s a version one, version two, and it’s always changing – never going back to the original. 

Chef Ichikawa: To keep up with the latest trend in French cooking, I would like to go to France and stay for a month once a year, to breathe its air and feel the changes. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to do so since I opened my restaurant, so I learn the news online these days.

Dishes like your vegetable plate can look deceptively simple to make – do you think most people realize how much work goes into the preparation and presentation of each dish?

Chef Ichikawa: I don’t think people recognize it. People may not realize how complicated it is until they have the first bite. It takes a skill to make a complicated dish look deceptively simple, but it also takes a skill to make the complicated process visible at a first glance. Yes, the food goes through a very sophisticated cooking process but presenting it in a simple way would make a striking contrast that surprises the guest. 

Ms. Ichikawa: Simple stuff is often more difficult to perfect- one second off of cooking, how it’s baked, the amount of salt, every detail can greatly change the flavor. They may think it’s simple, but once they taste it, they’ll know it’s not. That’s the technique. 

Katie: That was the case for me, just having the photos and name of the dish to go off of, it looked simple but I know French cooking is not, so I really didn’t know what to do… 

Chef Ichikawa: It’s one of the most difficult types of cuisine. Even if you have years of experience in fancy French cuisine techniques, you probably can not make these vegetable dishes, because it requires precise control of the very basic technique like boiling – something simple like a potato can be different each time you make it, depending on the potato’s “personality”.

Katie: With the variety of seasonal vegetables, the different farms and ingredients, that must be very difficult. You have to know how to work with each one.

Ms. Ichikawa: One of the things he says is “No other restaurant can copy this dish, because every time it is different” 

Chef Ichikawa: I think this principle can be said in any type of cuisine – it is so basic and simple, but without mastering it, you can not make a better plate.

I noticed you prepared a dish with foam – a notoriously difficult thing to recreate at home. Can you tell me about the most difficult technique used for these dishes at Chez Tomo?

Chef Ichikawa: It’s Boiling. I think there is only a handful of a french cuisine chef that can properly boil the potato, even with 10 years of experience.

Ms. Ichikawa: One extra second can spoil a vegetable – that’s how sensitive it is. 

Chef Ichikawa: There are many other techniques that look better and everyone goes for it, and simple techniques like boiling are something often neglected. Boiling the same quality potato every day throughout the year is the hardest technique to master. You have to feel the potato’s condition in your palm and precisely calculate how it should be boiled for the best flavor.

Ms. Ichikawa: He has written a book titled “French Samurai” – because the editor said that his soul is like a samurai – a very traditional Japanese man. His soul and passion for French cooking are like that of a samurai. 

Chef Ichikawa: Mastery of each technique, however simple it may look, is very very deep. There is a certain beauty in its simplicity.

Ms. Ichikawa: Dishes that use smoke or mousses can easily impress customers, as it looks so fancy, but that surprise can only be served once. Our vegetable dish is made differently every day, with many simple techniques. But the result is always satisfying and it always brings surprise to the guest. You can always expect an element of surprise in our dish.

The final verdict

Finally, it was time to face the challenge head-on and show the photos of my creations to Chef Ichikawa. With a lot of nervous laughter, I presented my photos. First, I showed the uni. 

You created quite a challenge for me – how did you think I, a very untrained chef, did recreate your dishes? 

Katie: Here are my photos… I’m sorry in advance.

Katie: First, here’s the uni dish. 

Chef Ichikawa: What is this?

Katie: It’s hijiki. I couldn’t find uni in the shell, so I tried to recreate the look with hijiki. 

Chef: Good idea. It looks pretty! Maybe I’ll try that next time.

Katie: Thank you. But unlike yours, my uni was raw. I mixed it with cream to make the sauce. The texture and flavor were… terrible. 

Chef Ichikawa: Very interesting.

I’m thankful that the restaurant’s dish was so much better. 

My next dish was the ayu. I was excited to boast about my local squash to the chef, who took one look and quickly determined that my local squash was, in fact, kabocha. I was crushed that my special squash turned out to not be so special after all. He was surprised at my use of a cheese grater for the squash. 

Chef Ichikawa: Wow, new technique! I never thought of doing this

Ms. Ichikawa: Your imagination is super too! 

I also explained, in great detail, how I tried to whip lime juice into foam. 

Chef Ichikawa: Well, we were whipping the exact same way before the special soy powder was invented –  That’s a very old way of doing it. 

I also explained that I bought my egg roll from the supermarket for safety – no frying at home without directions. 

Ms. Ichikawa: At least with the cooked ayu and eggroll, it was edible! 

The final dish was the specialty, the vegetable plate. He was very kind about my makeshift dish. 

Chef Ichikawa: Everyone thinks this was the most difficult one.  

I showed him my photo of the vegetable plate. 

Ms. Ichikawa: For the first time, yours looks perfect! 

Chef Ichikawa: I’ve been making this dish for over ten years, and when I started it looked a lot like that. This is nearly perfect.

I also explained that my Daiso plate wasn’t quite as nice as the restaurants, as if it wasn’t obvious. 

Ms. Ichikawa: How was the taste? 

Katie: Most of the vegetables were boiled or raw, so it just tasted like a basic vegetable plate… nothing like the restaurants. 

Le Digestif

Both the chef and Ms. Ichikawa were very kind to me about my dishes. I was relieved Chef Ichikawa had a sense of humor about it and wasn’t insulted by my attempt. With the embarrassing reveal finished, I thanked them for their time. 

While I have some confidence in cooking simple dishes, my recommendation for others wanting to try fine French dining is don’t try this at home – at least not without a recipe and instructions! To really appreciate the complexity of French cooking, it’s best to go to the pros. 

I left feeling full, satisfied, and still just a bit embarrassed. I guess the only real connection between my creations and the pros dishes was the use of creativity. Chef Ichikawa had said that a restaurant is somewhere you go to lift your mood and to feel refreshed – and in my case, to be schooled in French cooking. I’m looking forward to my next French meal and hope to visit Chez Tomo again soon, sans cooking challenge. For now, I’m going to go back to cooking my specialty of “vegetables leftover from a cooking challenge that will now be stir-fried”. 

About the restaurant

GINZA Chez Tomo [銀座シェ・トモ]

Address: 1-7-7, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo

Website: http://www.chez-tomo.com/ginza/

Opening hours: 

Lunch: 11:30~15:30 (L.O. 14:00) Dinner: 18:00~22:30 (L.O. 21:00)

Holidays: Monday, When a public holiday falls on a Monday, closed on Tuesday instead of Monday

English menus are available and vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dietary needs can be accommodated with a call ahead.

 

Katie Thompson

Official site: The Tasty Traveler
Facebook: The Tasty Traveler
Instagram: thetastytraveler.kt

An American based in Tokyo, Katie writes about food and travel as “The Tasty Traveler,” cataloguing and rating anything edible. She firmly believes that every place has something good to offer and is determined to find it. A life-long nomad, she has lived in seven different countries, visited over 30, and has had serious bouts of food poisoning in at least five of those beautiful places.

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