Michelin-Starred Chef Jun Tanaka Shares His Path to Success

October 31, 2016 Updated: October 31, 2016

LONDON—Jun Tanaka’s light and tasty French-Mediterranean sharing plates at The Ninth gained a Michelin star at the beginning of October. The flavours are simple yet refined, and the same care has gone into the restaurant’s ambience.

With warm tones of brick and copper, old books and mood lighting, it’s a restaurant that has a timeless and homely quality to it. Designed to feel “not overly of the moment”, in Jun’s words, it’s “the kind of space that will age well.”

Looking out at Charlotte Street from the first floor of The Ninth, so named because it’s the ninth place he as worked, Jun tells me about starting out as a chef – how it all began with a letter, and a lack of attendance at college.

The only day he enjoyed on his hotel management course was a Tuesday, he recalled – which was the only day his lessons were based in the kitchen.

“Actually it was the only day I used to go into college,” he said.

Jun Tanaka. (Palida Boonyarungsrit)
Jun Tanaka. (Palida Boonyarungsrit)

“I got kicked out, after the first year, for lack of attendance. Once a week wasn’t enough I guess,” he said with a smile. “I felt a little bit guilty at the end of the first year, so I started to turn up to my lectures. And the lecturers thought I was a new student, that was how bad my attendance was.”

He realised his true passion was in cooking and creativity, so Jun decided he wanted to be a chef. He asked his father, a chemical engineer who often took his clients out to London restaurants, which restaurants he rated as the best.

So Jun wrote to those top restaurants, which included Pierre Koffman’s La Tante Claire, Marco Pierre White’s Harvey’s and Chez Nico, asking for some work experience. Also on the list was Le Gavroche, which at the time had three Michelin stars and was run by the Roux brothers.

“I wrote to Le Gavroche saying I was a student looking for work experience. I wrote to all these restaurants saying, I love food, I don’t have any experience, would you give me a chance?

“I was very fortunate that Le Gavroche gave me the opportunity and gave me the job. I didn’t realise how lucky I was until probably five or six years after I worked there.”

It gave Jun a stepping stone to the world of classic French cuisine in London. He’s learnt a lot since his first day at Le Gavroche.

When things come easily, you don’t really appreciate it as much.
— Jun Tanaka

“The first day I turned up, I had no experience whatsoever. Normal chef clothes is a butcher’s apron like this,” he said pointing at his chef’s apron. “Black trousers or check trousers, usually a chef’s jacket, then you have a skull cap.

“The only chef’s clothes I had was from college, which was completely inappropriate: a white pair of trousers, white clogs, a chemistry lab coat, a trilby hat like cricket umpires wear, a white neckerchief, white trousers … it was ridiculous. The first job I did was julienne three celeriacs and it took me all morning.”

Twenty-five years on, with experience working in top London restaurants, his approach to cooking is simple. “For me, it’s all about how can I make it taste as good as it possibly can, and that’s it,” he said.

Born in New York to Japanese parents and raised in England, he considers himself British, but still very much has a Japanese demeanour.

“I’m pretty calm in the kitchen, I don’t really lose my temper that much. I think that side comes from my parents and is part of my Japanese heritage,” he said.

Setting up The Ninth came with plenty of challenges, so many that he nearly gave up twice. It took one year to write the business plan and get the money together, and then two years looking for a site.

“You know, when things come easily, you don’t really appreciate it as much,” he said.

A selection of dishes from The Ninth. (Steve Lee)
A selection of dishes from The Ninth. (Steve Lee)

“You know how sometimes, the odd day, maybe every day for some people, you wake up and think: ‘I really don’t want to go into work.’ I never feel like that, ever. Not for one moment … because it’s my thing.

“I don’t feel any negative thoughts. There are days that I feel stressed, things don’t go well, with the building when we’ve had problems with it, but I never feel unhappy about coming in to work. I never feel resentful for having to work long hours, I feel very lucky and amazing,” he said.

His hopes and dreams to open his own restaurant have become real, so right now he’s just enjoying the moment.

“It took such a long time and I really did struggle, that now that I’ve got it, I really appreciate it,” he said.

The Ninth, 22 Charlotte Street, London W1T 2NB
Average spend: Lunch: £25 Dinner: £38