The place for “Okonomiyaki” in Paris!
Hiroko Tabuchi （OKOMUSU paris ／Owner）
OKOMUSU is an Okonomiyaki restaurant located in the Marais district of Paris, secretly popular among those in the fashion industry. I interviewed the owner, Hiroko Tabuchi who enthusiastically accepted the interview, which ended up lasting for two hours. I will share in this article everything... except the “top-secret” info that she shared with me.
The area many people call “Marais district” actually refers to both Marais and North Marais. They are different districts, and the one I visited is North Marais of the 3 districts. In this district is a restaurant called “OKOMUSU”, currently secretly popular among the fashion industry people in Paris. To be honest, I had some doubts about an Okonomiyaki restaurant in Paris, but the Okonomiyaki that I tasted in this foreign land was surprisingly delicious!
The appearance of this restaurant is that of an ordinary restaurant in Paris. Across from the restaurant is boutique “eclectic”! It is well-known as a “Paris-style” boutique, so you may have heard of it. The place to dine in after checking out the stylish areas of Marais is “OKOMUSU”. The person I spoke with is Hiroko Tabuchi, the owner, who has a very powerful personality. In fact, she was so enthusiastic and full of energy that the interview recording became quite long, challenging me as an editor (lol). I felt that over-summarizing it would hide away Hiroko’s unique character, so I decided to try to maintain the features of the actual interview.
－ This is my third time is Paris, and the last time I visited was over 20 years ago. Since then, it seems that Japanese restaurants increased significantly.
Hiroko: Yes, but 80% to 90% of them are fake (lol). The ones in this area are known to be authentic… well, excluding a few (lol). The French people probably don’t know which of these restaurants are actually run by a Japanese owner, and many probably don’t really care. Most Chinese people nod their heads “yes” when asked if they are Japanese (lol). Most of these “Japanese-like” restaurants operating in a “Japanese-like” style, are actually owned by Chinese.
－ That doesn’t sound like a very good situation (lol).
Hiroko: Restaurants owned by Japanese are weak in promotion compared to Chinese owned restaurants (lol). To be honest, we don’t like to be pushy … (bitter smile).
It’s not just limited to this area. The Japanese restaurant over on that street is owned by a French owner. It’s very expensive!
－ Well, restaurants in France are generally expensive, though probably not as much as Tokyo. Are you connected with other Japanese business owners who came from Japan?
Hiroko: Everyone in the Japanese community is connected, even those who own French restaurants, but those who have been around for over 30 years in the Opera district aren’t. In that neighborhood, customers come regardless of quality, as long as the restaurant is “Japanese owned” (bitter smile).
－ Really. I recall that that area has always had many Japanese restaurants, like Ramen, etc. Yesterday, I was strolling around in Bastille and noticed that there are many Japanese restaurants there too. Are those also owned by Japanese people?
Hiroko: There are no Japanese people in Bastille. Those are all Chinese owned.
－ You seem to really know your stuff (lol).
Hiroko: Information regarding what opened where comes in naturally when you’re in this business.
－ I guess that shows how popular Japanese food is here. The situation was similar in New York.
Hiroko: The demand for Japanese cuisine is really rising, mainly because it is considered healthy.
－ Approximately how many people are in this network of Japanese owners?
Hiroko: I would say around 50 to 60 people. This includes some who are in the fashion industry, like pattern makers and makeup artists. It’s basically a community of people in Paris, under the age of 40.
－ Do you have French customers who have never had Teppenyaki or Okonomiyaki before?
Hiroko: Definitely. In fact, the majority don’t know what it is at first. I’m sure only a few people have actually been to an Okonomiyaki restaurant in Japan. I’d say 80% of our customers experience Okonomiyaki for the first time at our restaurant. Recently, repeaters have been increasing. Many come back for more once they try it.
－ Do some of them expect presentations like onion volcanos lit on fire, like they do in U.S.A.?
Hiroko: No way (lol). To the people here, Okonomiyaki itself is a performance, since they have never seen it. But maybe crazy performances like that would make us more famous (lol).
－ An Okonomiyaki restaurant in Paris itself is rare, isn’t it. Are there any besides yours?
Hiroko: There are four Okonomiyaki restaurants in Paris … One of them is owned by a French owner, one by a Korean who used to live in Japan, and another one is a Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki restaurant, which is Japanese owned. Ours is by far the best! (lol).
－ If this were Japan, you wouldn’t find an Okonomiyaki restaurant in an area like this. What made you choose this place?
Hiroko: I just like it here (North Marais)!
－ It’s definitely fashionable.
Hiroko: Fashion industry people are very conscious to trends, and they have been helping spread the word about us.
－ Is there anything you do differently compared to Japanese okonomiyaki, to make it French style?
Hiroko: No, not at all (lol). It’s just orthodox Okonomiyaki (lol). We do have options like gluten free and vegetarian, due to the high demand. Also, for Muslim customers, we try our best to support Halal, by not cooking pork on one of our two grills. We are not certified as a Halal restaurant or anything, but no one who expects that would come (lol).
－ I’m sure there are people of various origins here. On the contrary, are there certain types of people that rarely come?
Hiroko: I guess. I’m not sure about nationality, but we hardly ever have African American tourists as customers. But we do have many black people in the fashion industry as regular customers.
－ The concept of gluten-free has not reached Japan yet. Are there many requests for it?
Hiroko: Yes, more than I expected! Also, there are quite a lot of vegetarians. Maybe a few people per day. As for gluten-free, we have a few requests per week.
－ So what kind of food is popular now in Paris?
Hiroko: We are! (lol). Recently we are really doing great. For the past six months, we have been becoming more and more popular! The place gets filled by around 8 P.M.! Of course, there are some days, like on Tuesdays, when the place is dead quiet. It’s hard to know what to expect!
－ Wasn’t it difficult to explain Okonomiyaki at first?
Hiroko: Yes, but I don’t feel obliged to convey culture, and that makes it much easier. If I thought of it as an obligation, it may have been stressful. In that sense, everything is difficult living in Paris (lol).
－ What was the most difficult at first?
Hiroko: We didn’t have a menu, and had no idea what would be accepted. Now, I am starting to grasp what people want, including seasoning, ingredients, appetizers and side menus.
－ I understand why you have rice balls, since Japanese people on the east side eat Okonomiyaki with rice (lol). But what about “kimchi”?
Hiroko: They serve kimchi in restaurants in Osaka. I don’t feel the need to stick strictly to Japanese food. The people here seem to like kimchi. It’s also easy to manage for us. We also have cabbage pickles.
－ Most would say that Okonomiyaki goes well with beer. What kind of drinks do people in Paris prefer?
Hiroko: The majority order beer, but it depends on the customer. Some people like to enjoy it with wine.
－ Do regular customers order differently compared to new customers?
Hiroko: Many start to order plum wine! Plum wine is really popular. At first I had a stereotype that French people just want to order something unique, but I realized that there actually is no pattern. Everyone has different taste, so I try to be lenient about it.
－ Have you faced any problems while managing the restaurant?
Hiroko: Fortunately, we have not had problems. I often hear about people calling the police, arguing with residents in upper floors, complaints about customers chatting outside while smoking, but so far, we haven’t had any of that.
－ Sounds like it’s best to stay inside to avoid problems.
Hiroko: Yes, but we keep the windows open in the summer (lol).
－ The design of the place really does not look like a typical Okonomiyaki restaurant.
Hiroko: I actually brought an Okonomiyaki lantern from Japan but ended up not displaying it.
－ Did you design the T-shirt that everyone is wearing?
Hiroko: At first, we didn’t have this T-shirt or any uniform, and everyone was wearing whatever they want. Then one day, a guy from a boutique three stores away brought us this T-shirt that he made! I liked it and decided to order from him (lol). We even sell them on Colette now! I think they were about 40€. I’m not sure how many have been sold to Japan, but I do know that someone from Tsumori Chisato bought four, and someone from another brand bought one. They’ve been hash tagged on Instagram, so please try searching for it (lol).
－ I get the impression that this restaurant is not just about orthodox Japanese cuisine or Japanese culture.
Hiroko: I didn’t want it to be screaming Okonomiyaki. I just wanted it to look like a normal fashionable restaurant that you see every day in Tokyo. This area here is like the Nishi Azabu area in Tokyo. It’s not cluttered with restaurants. I like the feel of Daikanyama or Naka-Meguro, areas which are laidback, where stores blend in nicely with the city atmosphere.
－ Did you design the place yourself?
Hiroko: No, no. It was my first time opening an Okonomiyaki place, so I had a professional design it (lol).
－ The place is only open for dinner, right? In East Japan, many Okonomiyaki places are also open for lunch.
Hiroko: I really wish I could do lunch, and tried once alone. I tried my best but it was just too much work doing it alone (lol).
－ I can imagine! Running this place alone must be quite challenging. Going back a bit, you said that this is your first Okonomiyaki restaurant. Regardless of that, the quality is amazing. Would you say that is because you are from the East side of Japan, where Okonomiyaki is famous for?
Hiroko: Well, my standards may be high! The reason why I do not do Takoyaki is because I cannot reach the quality to meets my standards. Also, Takoyaki requires lard, because it uses a copper plate! If I could get that, I would definitely do Takoyaki! But I would need another chef for that.
－ Takoyaki is great when you want a small bite to eat. Are there Takoyaki places in Paris?
Hiroko: There used to be. They were selling for around 9€ for 6 pieces, and it was in the Opera area. That is definitely not my style! I would rather stick to Okonomiyaki than selling Takoyaki like that. Oh, by the way, I was taught how to make Takoyaki on iron plates in Hiroshima!
－ Did you have this design in mind from the beginning?
Hiroko: At first I was thinking about opening a “Moe (anime enthusiast)” style Okonomiyaki restaurant. But I was afraid that would only people attract people into that culture (lol).
－ Right. That would be quite crazy, even in Japan (lol). I feel your Okonomiyaki is orthodox, very fluffy and nice. It’s not easy to find Okonomiyaki like this, even in Tokyo. Some places use wheat, and serve Okonomiyaki that is rock hard (lol).
Hiroko: One thing that I should point out is that we don’t use yams. One time, a Japanese bistro chef in Paris said to me, “Ah, you use yam. Okonomiyaki is so much better with yam.” When I told him that I don’t use yam he was very surprised (lol). Due to my character, many people say they didn’t have high expectations for the food at first, but they end up telling me “this is delicious” (lol).
－ Are many of your ingredients imported from Japan?
Hiroko: No, the only things imported from Japan are Otafuku sauce, red ginger and broth. The bonito flakes are made in Vietnam and processed in England, and the mayonnaise is from Thai, though it is the Japanese Kewpie brand (lol).
－ Do you feel pretty proud when you present your Okonomiyaki?
Hiroko: My mentality is more like, “this is what I think is delicious, what do you think?” Okonomiyaki is something that I have been eating since childhood, and I don’t intend to push my standards onto others.
－ What made you think that Okonomiyaki would do well here?
Hiroko: I hosted a BBQ party once in Japan, and made Okonomiyaki since it is perfect to serve for a big crowd. The foreigners at the party responded very positively, and even asked for seconds! That experience drove me all the way to Paris to open an Okonomiyaki restaurant (lol).
Hiroko: This wall, consisted of stacked stones is from the 1600’s. This building was built in the 1600’s and we decided to maintain its features. Isn’t it nice?
－ It’s great! That’s something you can’t really do in Japan.
－ It seems there is a high demand for Japanese cuisine, to a level that there are even “fake” Japanese restaurants out there. I wonder why more chefs don’t come here.
Hiroko: There are special permits required which make it difficult to open stores in Paris. Also, there is the general knowledge that designs and construction don’t proceed as scheduled, so that may be another reason. It’s not uncommon that the opening schedule is delayed by a year or so (lol). The system is to limit the number of stores opening.
－ Right, so that’s the reason. In Tokyo, there are many buildings consisted by only restaurants. Instead, in Paris, the city is not cluttered with stores, meaning there is always someone living on the upper floors. That is really fascinating. Recently, I’ve been finding it strange that there are areas in Tokyo with no residents.
－ It’s amazing that you accomplished this much without speaking the language.
Hiroko: I did it on my own without the help of JETRO! I did receive advice from an adviser who owns a restaurant here. I could not speak French at all, so even going to offices for paperwork was difficult.
－ In New York, there used to be a system called the Sushi Police, trying to certify authentic Japanese cuisine. Is there anything like that in Paris?
Hiroko: Nope! It’s not really possible. I mean, those who made sushi popular are the ones that are considered unauthentic. So, what is the merit in trying to distinguish them? All I care about is that we serve authentic Japanese food.
－ Okonomiyaki itself is nothing new. What do you think fascinates your customers so much?
Hiroko: Everything. Food being cooked in front of them on an iron grill is entertainment to people in Europe. They also seem to like the sauce too. And even the bonito flakes, which I was concerned about at first, fascinate them. Many say, “it’s moving!” (lol).
－ I hear that dishes which use soup, like ramen, are considered too hot for foreigners. How is that with Okonomiyaki?
Hiroko: I just warn them, “Be careful, it’s hot!” (lol). There is nothing more I can really do about that (lol).
－ Do you have any other ideas of Japanese food that would succeed here?
Hiroko: There are no tempura restaurants here. By that, I mean “real tempura” that the chef fries in front of you. There are eel restaurants here, but they are grilled with charcoal.
－ I’m surprised that Tempura hasn’t reached Paris yet (lol).
－ Have you been going back to Japan at all?
Hiroko: Yes, I go back from time to time (lol). I am completely Japanese, and somehow haven’t become “Paris style” (lol). I did get used to the place, but I still always feel very Japanese. I have not forgotten my roots for a second. Although I started to only have coffee for breakfast (lol).
The interview felt more like socializing with a friend, with topics flying everywhere, and by the time we finished it was dark outside. I said my goodbyes, and though it was cold outside when I left the restaurant, I enjoyed my walk back. Walking in Paris is fun compared to Tokyo. A 15-minute walk in Japan can feel a bit tiring, but in Paris it is enjoyable. I can easily walk two stations without feeling tired. Buildings which appear white in the daytime are illuminated by yellow lighting, and above that is the darkness of the night, making the city look completely different compared to daytime. It was a fascinating night, eating Okonomiyaki and speaking in the East Japan dialect, then walking out into the night of Paris. Placing both my hands in my pocket, I walked back, listening to the sounds of my shoes against the stone pavement.Text: Koichiro Sato
Picture: Koichiro Sato
Translation: Yukie Haneda
11 rue Charlot - 75003 Paris
Tel : 01 57 40 97 27