Jun Tunaka has worked in some of London’s top restaurants and worked for the likes of Michel Roux Jr, Marco Pierre White and Eric Chavot. Now, Tanaka has finally opened his own restaurant, The Ninth, and he tells The Resident about the blood, sweat and tears it has taken to get there
How long has The Ninth been in the making?
[Exasperated laugh] I left Pearl three years ago. I started thinking about my own restaurant seriously a year before I left, but the actual project itself has taken three years. I gave myself a year to find a place when I left Pearl [where he was Executive Chef and gained three AA Rosettes], find the money, write the business plan – it took me nine months to do the latter, do the market research and find the money, and then I spent just over two years looking for the property, which was… just… the most frustrating and painful experience I have ever had in my entire career.
You always have this idea, ‘this is the area I want to be, this is the number of covers’, but they very rarely come up and when they do you are literally competing against 20 others, who have more money, more experience in terms of running a restaurant, so from a landlord’s perspective generally you are not their top choice. It’s like going for a job interview – you have to pitch to the landlord, convince them why you are the best operator for their property and it’s quite difficult if you haven’t owned a business before, from their perspective it’s a risk. I looked at over 100 properties. Out of those I made an offer on nine of them… This was the ninth one, but that’s not why it’s called that! Looking back this is the best site out of all them and it’s worked out really well.
I nearly gave up in August. I had opportunities to go out and work in Dubai, which I turned down as that would have been an easy way out
I nearly gave up in August. I had opportunities to go out and work in Dubai, which I turned down as that would have been an easy way out. It’s difficult because it takes a lot of your time, energy, we all have to pay a mortgage and when you don’t have a full-time job it’s difficult to balance your finances. But I am lucky I waited. It has worked out amazingly well. This is the ideal location for me, the ideal number of covers – as a chef you don’t want a restaurant that’s too big as you lose control of the quality of the food and service, but then it has to be big enough to actually make business sense – 94 covers is perfect, on the best street in Fitzrovia in my opinion, the terms of the deal is fantastic and not ridiculous rent by London standards.
How important is the look?
Dale Atkinson is an interior designer who used to work for Russell Sage, one of the big names in design. He left about two and a half years ago and started his own company, Rosendale Design. I love Dale’s designs so we met up and we got on really well. We have been working on this project for over a year on different sites, getting to know each other and he knows what I am looking for.
I don’t like walking in restaurants where you know it’s new, it’s got to feel it has been around for a long time
There were two things I was looking for. It has got to be warm and inviting. I think the restaurant experience starts outside the restaurant. As you walk past, the lighting and the mood has to make you want to come in and I think this does that beautifully. And then it’s got to feel it has been around for a long time, I don’t like walking in restaurants where you know it’s new, whereas this does feel it has been well lived in. The adjectives were comforting, warm, familiar, accessible and that was the feel I wanted.
I definitely felt I wanted exposed brick if there was. The first thing we did day one when I got the keys was we got a hammer and chisel and broke into the walls, it was really thick, about four layers, and then right at the bottom we found brick – result! The layer in front was concrete and that look of the brick coming through the concrete I really like that, and to balance that with more high end finishes like the copper, the leather banquettes… It’s a nice balance. It’s not too rough around the edges, but it’s still not too high end. He did an amazing job.
How did you approach the menu?
I always knew it would be French… Out of all the cuisines, it probably is the most complex, and when you spend 24 years learning, you want to learn something that has depth. Actually once you learn the foundation of French cuisine it’s very easy to learn other cuisines.
The Mediterranean aspect is because I prefer food that is fresher and more vibrant, those flavours I really enjoy but marrying that with the classic French techniques. The whole sharing thing, people may think ‘oh another sharing concept restaurant, it’s been overdone’, but when they say that I don’t quite agree with that as essentially people have shared food for thousands of years. It’s nothing new and this is what we do at home as well.
I wanted a sharing restaurant because that’s the way I cook at home. When you have friends and put food on the middle of the table it’s more fun and people interact more. That’s the vibe I wanted in the restaurant and I wanted people to feel like they were coming to my house to eat.
Is there a USP when it comes a Jun Tanaka dish?
[Pause]… I don’t think this is special to me, but for ten years of my journey I only worked in Michelin star restaurants. The attention to detail was incredible, I would not replace the experience I got for anything, it was amazing. Then at Pearl doing fine dining food, I got to a point that I personally prefer to cook simple food. It’s all relative of course! It’s all about the flavour of the dish. You buy great ingredients and you treat it as simply as possible to maximise the flavour. Now I will not put anything on the plate unless it improves the flavour. I will look at dish and say if this particular ingredient doesn’t need to be there I will take it off. Even it looks like it could do with it to make it look better I wouldn’t put it on, whereas before I would have.
Why did London appeal back when you started working at Le Gavroche?
That was due to my parents. My dad was posted in London. I started cooking when I was 19, my parents were here at the time and that’s the reason I chose London. It’s completely different now. I started cooking in 1991 and, yes there were good restaurants, but not as many as there are now. You either worked at the top end or the bottom end, there was not a lot in the middle now whereas there are so many places in that bracket.
Have you had many tough times in the kitchen – and did it ever put you off the idea of pursuing a career?
Every day was a nightmare! Did I ever doubt it was the right thing to do? Not to the point I was thinking I was going to give up, but it was really tough. I can say this as it was such a long time ago, but there was a place where I was working I was literally so scared to go into work I used to wake up and cry a little bit before going into work! But all of that oddly makes you stronger, and working in those kind of kitchens it does make you a better chef.
It is a hard industry. It’s not just about putting up with the long hours and difficult chefs, you have got to be creative and have a palate, but all those challenges does make you… Stronger. If you weren’t that passionate about it you would give up, so it’s the truly passionate ones that get through it and therefore they are the ones that really love what they do and succeed in it. It’s completely different now, the restaurant industry has changed a lot, those kind of kitchens don’t exist – and that’s a good thing.
Are you calm in the kitchen?
I am pretty laid-back. We are week four into it and I haven’t shouted once! I am quite patient anyway and also I am not a young Head Chef. You can’t run a restaurant without people around, it is not physically possible, and any chef who thinks you can is delusional. You need good staff to cook the food and give the customers the service they like and then come back. Choosing the right people is incredibly important. With front of house I want more character than experience because you can teach how to serve a table, but you can’t teach character.
In the kitchen slightly different, but again I did choose people who I thought would gel together really well. I don’t want to say ‘back in the good old days’, but back in the good old days it was seriously tough. We worked crazy hours, it was amazing what we used to do, so when I became the boss I knew what kind of environment I wanted to create. I wanted somewhere where people were happy to come to work. If they are happy they will give a better service to the clientele.
What ambitions do you have for The Ninth?
I want the restaurant to be full of happy customers. If that happens every single day, I will be happy. Because I have spent three years on this and now it’s here… It’s odd because in your career you are normally thinking about the next thing, but here it’s about the next hour! I am living and working in the now, which doesn’t happen that much. I am happy – very stressed out – but happy I have finally got the restaurant.
WORDS Mark Kebble
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