At the age of fifteen, Japanese-born Kei Kobayashi decided to pursue a career in French gastronomy. After years of hard work and training under some of the most renowned and influential names in French cuisine (including Gilles Goujon and Alain Ducasse), Chef Kei is now a recognised name in his own right – not only does he run the successful Restaurant KEI in Paris, but he also became the first Asian chef to win three stars in the Michelin Guide France 2020.
We recently met with Chef Kei, in Paris, at the launch of the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Elusive Umami. Read our interview with him to learn more about his career, Michelin myths and his recent collaboration with Johnnie Walker to create the Blue Label Elusive Umami.
Your parents are both chefs. Was it always thought that you would also follow this path?
No, not at all. I was never pressured into choosing this career; I just fell in love with it on my own.
You decided that French cuisine was your calling at a young age. What appealed to you in French cuisine?
Honestly, it was the chef’s whites!! I watched a documentary about Alain Chapel (who was also awarded 3 Michelin stars in his restaurant) and was impressed by the class and intelligence of this chef. He was very inspiring.
Please describe a typical day for you – if such a thing exists.
I go to the restaurant at 10 a.m. every morning and I have meetings with suppliers or with my restaurant team. I have a light lunch at 11:30 then I am in the kitchen checking the seasonings of the sauces for lunch service. I like to thank each customer in person after lunch service then it’s more meetings until 5 p.m., followed by downtime before the dinner service. I like to have dinner with my team and it’s a chance to do our pre-service briefing. I close the restaurant myself after the last customer leaves around 00:30.
What part of your job do you enjoy the most and the least?
Without a doubt, I love the creative aspect of my work.
I wouldn’t say it’s my least favourite part of my job, but the hardest part of the job is trying to please everyone who comes to Restaurant KEI. Some guests are coming for the first time, and others are regulars so the challenge then is to ensure that the food and the overall experience meet their expectations every time.
And what has been your greatest professional achievement to date?
My greatest success is Restaurant KEI and everything that entails! I am grateful for my committed employees who have been at my side for several years, the loyal collaborations with my suppliers and of course, my customers who appreciate my cuisine.
Restaurant KEI, your restaurant in Paris, has obtained three Michelin stars. How can you maintain your level of excellence and continue to innovate in such a competitive and demanding sector?
Michelin stars are awarded for the work you have done in the previous year, so for me it’s not about protecting and maintaining the star, rather it’s about starting from scratch – every year I must throw myself into it and seize the opportunity to be worthy of the stars.
Tell us more about what excited you most about working with Johnnie Walker.
The opportunity to create a blended whisky was extremely exciting: a blend allowed us to experiment with many different complementary flavours. It was a pleasure to have the trust and freedom to work with Emma (Walker) to find the ideal blend. Johnnie Walker Blue Label is known for its marine aromas and its smoky notes. With Johnnie Walker Blue Label Elusive Umami we wanted to bring the same smoky notes with the addition of what I would call “mountain aromas”. This balanced blend has subtle notes of caramel, apple, peach, and red fruits with a depth that lingers, each sip providing a unique tasting experience.
Is whisky a difficult spirit to work with, especially with your cooking style?
Yes, it’s a difficult drink to pair with food ingredients. It is difficult to work with any type of alcohol that is resistant to a certain temperature. This challenge required careful consideration and a lot of consideration.
How did you go about creating a menu to complement this new whisky blend?
Emma (Walker) and I worked closely on creating the final blend and through this process, I began to narrow down the main flavours I wanted to have in my menu. Then I asked my teams what dishes they would enjoy with a glass of whisky. Gathering this feedback helped me to create a menu that works perfectly with the blend but also with my style of cuisine. I refined and refined and refined to get to the final menu.
The Johnnie Walker brand is known for its progress, embodied in the “striding man” and the motto “keep walking”. How does the philosophy of progress resonate with you, both personally and professionally?
This motto actually applies to me in every aspect of my life, both personally and professionally. No one knows what life has in store. When faced with any challenge we have to know how to react and continue to move forward and – as I often say – look even further.
Johnnie Walker actively works to dispel traditional myths about drinking whisky and emphasises that the right way to drink it is, however, one likes it! How do you drink your whisky?
I always compare whiskies to the noblest ‘’eaux-de-vie’’ (brandies). A whisky can definitely be on par with a cognac or an Armagnac on a digestive menu to conclude a good lunch or dinner.
On that note, do you think there are any “myths” around Michelin-star restaurants and if so, which would you most like to dispel?
This is not really a myth but rather a perception. In the past, it was considered that a Michelin star was only awarded based on a political agenda or to those who were part of a “network”. Fortunately, this perception is no longer a reality.
Our philosophy at Restaurant KEI is to treat every customer as our best ambassador, everyone is a VIP and we strive to give everyone the best experience. If we keep on adopting this approach, we will continue to deliver excellence.
Luxury is very subjective – what does it mean to you?
Luxury has a different meaning to everyone, for me it means the ability to offer an experience and an emotional connection that can only be experienced at a certain moment in time.
What is your life motto?