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Interview with Pierre Gagnaire at Twist, Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas

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The iconic world-renowned Michelin-starred French chef (with a restaurants in Paris, London, Courchevel, Dubai, Moscow, Las Vegas, Berlin, Hong Kong and Seoul) was in Las Vegas recently on one of his frequent visits to fine-tune the menus at Twist and participate in events for Bon Appetit’s Las Vegas Uncork'd week. Having interviewed him on several other occasions this time my conversation was about a variety of subjects including Japan.

Much has been made of chef Gagnaire's fondness for sea urchin and other Japanese products and I wanted to hear what he had to say about a country that he has been visiting since the 1980's and where he has a Michelin-starred restaurant at the ANA InterContinental in Tokyo. He is obviously well-liked in that part of the world, with multitudes of die-hard fans of not just his food but his warm personality, wit, and keen interest in the world of food. This very intellectual and creative chef has a unique perspective on the world and he very generously shared his thoughts.

How would you define the taste of Japanese sea urchin?
The taste of uni is not the same as in France because in Japan right after harvesting it is washed with water to which a specific product has been added. This way they can consume it later and in France the process is different so the taste is different. The texture also changes and they are able to hold it for later consumption.

Is Tsukuji, the fish market in Tokyo similar or very different from one in Paris?
It's very different as it’s a very big fish market and the product is different. It is gorgeous but different from 20 years ago as 60% of the fish now are from farms and not wild. It’s all changing and everything is more expensive

Do you source any fish for your other restaurants, say in Paris for example, from there?
Yes I do, the variety and choices there are very good.

The barbequing of Ayu, a small fish, very popular in Yamaguchi province or archipelago and it tastes somewhat like cucumber, but the Japanese modified it by feeding it on fish farms with tangerine. How do you feel about such modification of nature since GMOs are such a hot topic in the food conversation right now?
Why not! That's not changing anything, just giving something improved to the consumers. The problem is that we have more people on the planet than any time before and food supply is not adequate, and at the same time it is very expensive. Today it is necessary to find a solution to solve the problem of hunger. We have people at the top with money and the ability to make choices and get the best and then there are those that need food. I am just a chef and not qualified to speak as scientist as such but it is just my opinion and my job is only to give pleasure to my guests. I don't think I have the competence to be giving a qualified opinion on this subject.

Fugu or blowfish is served as sashimi, but what is the fascination with consuming this fish that can possibly kill you and paying a fortune (300 Euros) for it?
It is part of the Japanese story and every culture has its own story and consuming such things is part of many other cultures. It's tradition, it's a fascination with danger and people enjoy that risk taking.

Would you serve it at your restaurants?
For the Japanese it is at the top in terms of quality and product. I would not serve it because I don't like it very much as for me it is very dry, the texture is not very interesting, but the Japanese love that.

After Fukushima, do you have concerns about the quality and safety of products in Japan?
It's true since it’s on the coast and it's dangerous but it is in the water, not in the air. The disaster is on a part of the coast not the whole coast of Japan and it's too early to say what the effects will be or evaluate the damage. We must wait to see what happens.

How many Japanese staff are in your kitchens?
One sous chef and one chef in Tokyo, one chef Ryuki here in Las Vegas.

You have used technology in your kitchen from very early in your career like molecular gastronomy do you continue that in your kitchens now?
I tried to understand and to familiarize myself with the techniques, but I am not the most technical chef even. I like to know what is out there.

Choix, your new pastry shop and cafe at the InterContinental in Dubai is a departure from your other restaurants, so why pastry?
It is more casual and it's a cafe/ bistro and we are doing pastry because the people there love sweets and pastry. We have very good partners and the InterContinental made it feasible for us to open and it's doing very well.

Do you use any local products there?
No local product from Dubai. We do get products from all over the world.

If I asked your opinion on the flavors of tomorrow what would you think will possibly emerge?
For example, in Las Vegas 20 years ago there not many good restaurants with good quality and now the new trend is to have big operations but it will take time to develop really good cuisine by learning to make the basics like good sauce for example, to cook a good piece of beef, to serve complex and different vegetables. Today food is becoming more of a show and without a real concept behind it. It's all about money and we ask where is the taste, where is the story. The pressure is all on looks and money not the art.

You rarely do collaborations, such as the one with Chef Shawn McClain at Sage at the Aria.
Yes I don't work that way and we just worked together for an event but I would not call it collaboration. It's just that we work for the same company and the same bosses and they decided that we should do this event. Shawn is a very good guy, honest and talented and it was a very interesting evening.

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