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David Bouley and Yoshiki Tsuji

Testing the Test Kitchen

Yoshiki Tsuji, president of the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka Japan and son of the famous founder, studied the chalk writing that covered a 40-foot slate wall in its entirety. Overflowing with hundreds of notes and ingredient lists, the floor-to-ceiling charcoal grey chalkboard represented the summation of three days of experimental cooking. Some of the notes and sketches were written with extreme care, while other depictions looked like they could have been scrawled by Tom Hank’s cave-dwelling character in “Castaway.” Moving skillfully around Mr. Tsuji was an assemblage of Japanese and American chefs, chatting happily and immersed in various stages of culinary business. Mr. Tsuji, dressed in black, is a handsome and slim man who looked more like a young architect than someone who runs a cooking school with over 3000 students. As he moved deliberately around the stations, he checked the work of his team of professors and chefs, offering suggestions like a teacher, and asking questions like an entrepreneur. Mr Tsuji and his team had flown in from Japan in order to play on David Bouley’s field of dreams, his just-completed Tribeca test kitchen.

“We’ve been here a week, and we are trying to use American ingredients to create a menu that is authentically Japanese in terms of purity,” said Mr. Tsuji. “The most important thing for us right now is the palette, for the taste to be acceptable, particularly for New Yorkers, because they are the ones who are the clients.”

In the middle of this multi million dollar culinary playground, Mr. Bouley was everywhere, both physically and in spirit. He seemed even more energized than normal, and he comfortably changed roles throughout the afternoon and evening. At times he was the gracious host, greeting each visitor at the door who had accepted his kind invitation to come and witness the first major event of his test kitchen. Other times he donned the hat of supply sergeant, making sure the chefs had every ingredient they needed and a few more they didn’t know they needed. He sent various staff members around the city to fetch items, even if it was bottles of water and cups of coffee for thirsty or tired onlookers. But his primary role was that of chief taster, conferring with everyone from the fish purveyor who was watching the show, to the line cooks who were chopping and boiling and experimenting with a virtually unlimited supply of local ingredients and carefully selected Japanese accoutrements.

“We’re studying a lot more about the local products,” explained Bouley, who had been frustrated by space limitations during similar experimental exercises in past years. “We’ve tried 25 fish today, and this Sunday we’ll have another 30. Now that we have a test kitchen, we can do a lot more. Before, we used to work in a small room downstairs in the corner and it was tough; we’d go upstairs, come back down then back upstairs...”

The joining of these two talents is not a recent development. They met nearly 20 years ago when Tsuji was a young New York investment trader. Bouley was invited to a private home in South Hampton by Tsuji’s father, in order to sample some authentic Japanese food. They kept in touch, and thirteen years ago Yoshiki Tsuji took over the rein at the school when his father passed away. Soon, he began to invite Bouley to Japan to perform regular demonstrations in front of classrooms. Once they decided to plan something more concrete together, they began taking turns flying to each other’s corner of the world: Tsuji and his team have been to New York several times, and Bouley has made 4 trips to Japan. So their collaboration has spanned many years and tens of thousands of miles.

While their stated goal this week was to apply techniques that are authentically Japanese to Bouley’s cooking methods and then create a new menu for his upcoming restaurants, it also seemed like a pretty good excuse for two friends to get together and have fun – almost like a vacation.

“It’s so much more fun being here than running a school back in Japan, this is completely different,” said Tsuji. He pointed to the Bouley team and then to his team as they worked together. “These guys realize whatever I am thinking, and they tell me what’s possible and what’s not possible, in respect to Japanese cuisine, technique-wise and flavor-wise. They keep their rules and we keep our rules, and I just go back and forth! But it has to be real, Japanese cuisine should never be ‘organized’, in the sense that it shouldn’t be mass-produced. As David always says, ‘It should have a heart,’ particularly with Japanese flavors.”

The collaboration between David Bouley and Yoshiki Tsuji is just the beginning of a series of talented culinary artists from around the world who will be invited to come here and demonstrate, taste, teach, and learn. Today it is being used as an incubator for future Bouley Asian-inspired restaurants. But it will also become a reciprocal environment, where guests will come to demonstrate various cooking techniques from around the globe.

“There’s a lot of opportunity now for us to understand more about technique and application to our current repertoire of ingredients that has been accelerated, I think, as the nicer restaurants are starting to bring in more Japanese cuisine,” says Bouley. “That’s what excited me about it years ago and I’ve always wanted to know more of it, but I never had time in the old restaurant because I was working 100 hundred hours a week. But now I have this huge opportunity for us to work together. There are many dishes that will be born here with us working together.”

There are chefs from as far north as Stockholm who want to come here to trade and create recipes with the Bouley group, Italian and French chefs, as well as a Spanish chef who is coming next month. An incredibly diverse cultural mixture will move through this 2200 square foot room in the years to come, a room whose primary attraction is culinary freedom. Talented chefs can come together to have fun in a less structured environment than they are used to, and this will hopefully lead to collaborative dishes that would not be possible in other settings. But amidst the optimism of good things to come, there were still subtle signs that the room was still not 100% done, such as electricians running in and out of the room along with a dozen or so finishing touches. But these won’t stop all the people who are already on their way.

“We’ve got a Peruvian chef coming in October to talk about the fingerling potatoes. They’ve got 6000 kinds of potatoes in Peru, every color known to man. We have a chef from Singapore that’s going to be coming in November. But I haven’t really totally committed everything yet, because I just got the electricity on last week.”

Don’t be looking for Bouley’s new Manhattan Japanese restaurant just yet. The menu for his new Miami restaurant, called “Evolution,” will evolve partially from menus developed here, and he is also working out the cost structure for the menu they are creating before settling on a Manhattan location. Evolution is the first restaurant outside of Bouley’s normal 3 or 4-block Tribeca radius, and he’s moving forward carefully.

“We’ve got to find a place but I think we are getting closer in terms of what kind of dishes we want to do. Like the homemade sesame tofu with the sea urchin, that was amazing. The whole meat inside is white and yellow and when you eat those two together, it’s amazing. But we have to think about it from the kitchen point of view, from the payroll point of view, how can we do it with the quality we want, how many seats we can do in that quality. And also keep one area open just for fun, for spontaneous cooking, where you just sit down and we say ‘we’re going to cook for you.’ That’s fun too.”

10 years have passed since David Bouley first began planning the construction of a cooking school and test kitchen. Through heartbreak and controversy and 9-11 he persisted and held on to his dream, and now with two new restaurants on the way and chefs around the world lining up to share techniques with Bouley and his dedicated staff, he must have felt a sense of redemption as he watched his test kitchen’s first menu unfold before him.

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