If you live anywhere long enough as a foreigner, you’re bound to feel homesick at some point, and doubly so for some hometown food.
We interviewed Brice Petitjean, a French thirty-something, who felt just that way—though, what started out as just wanting to share French food with his non-French friends ended up as a business importing his hometown culture to Japan.
Where were you before you came to Tokyo?
I was in my hometown near the Alps in France.
What brought you to Tokyo/Japan?
I first came to visit Japan as a tourist for about a month, and a year later I had to find an international internship so I came back. I guess what brought me here first was curiosity. I am still a tourist.
Tell us a bit about your work life in Tokyo.
My main job is teaching French. But on my days off I help local companies from my region selling their products or communicating in Japan, and I organize cheese parties.
How did you start organizing cheese party as a business?
A famous park, a former black market and a whole heap of museums—get to know Ueno:
It organized itself. First I would invite some friends to my rabbit box/apartment until one of them suggested we should do it at their place. They invited some people that they knew and then those guests wanted to do another party the next week—so I ended up throwing parties for people I didn’t know at their apartment. Then I had the opportunity to host cheese parties at a restaurant.
Brasserie Iizumi. It’s a French brasserie in Hatchobori and the chef’s really into French culture. I remember that he was really worried at the beginning of the first party we threw. 3 hours later he was smiling from ear to ear. Now it’s become a monthly thing.
Why is it important to import a piece of culture from your hometown?
Two reasons. The first reason why I started the cheese parties is I was touched by the passion my Japanese friends put into sharing their national and local cultures with me. I wanted to repay them with something surprising that represented my culture well. The other reason is that the products that I find are exquisite and not getting the popularity they deserve. People should be more curious towards regional cuisine and leave aside the multinational chains.
How do you feel when you see how successful the cheese parties are?
I am lucky because my activity is rewarding on both sides. The reaction and feedback from the guests is very encouraging, and I also feel I benefit my region to some extent. I want to put more time and energy in it. On my last trip back to France I was awarded “Chevalier de la Commanderie des Nobles Vins du Jura et du Comté”, which would translate to “Knight of the Brotherhood of Noble Jura Wines and Comté Cheese”. I am counting on this title to find more restaurants to collaborate with.
What are the requirements to get that title?
Action! This traditional brotherhood is well respected internationally and honors people’s efforts at protecting and sharing local fine cheeses and wines. It groups together renowned food professionals, media personalities, and even an ex-French President.
What comments/feedback have you received from people that you shared a piece of your culture with?
Most guests try to attend the parties on a regular basis, they like the products and the atmosphere. We usually end up drinking wine together and discussing food pairings or studying French. I love my cheese and wine, but I was not expecting so much enthusiasm at the other end of the world. Japanese society is opening up to the cheese culture and my parties arrived at the right time.
How do you get the word out on your cheese parties?
It’s mostly repeat customers. I have a Facebook page and a small but growing community of people who are interested in fine cheese. I post recipes, information about the products and the next parties and try to share the Alpine lifestyle. Once they see the cheese pictures, most people want to try it.
Can you tell us a bit more about the cheese you serve?
It’s called Raclette cheese—that’s the cheese you can see in the animé Heidi (which I have never seen). It has the best balance of creaminess and character as well as the particularity of being eaten exclusively grilled, done with a special oven. It is such a local cheese that it is hard to date its creation, but we know that the XVIth century shepherds of the Alps were already melting Raclette cheese in front of the chimney. I serve it with its traditional side of pickles, ham and potatoes and my killer salad dressing. I also bring Jura wine made from the rare Savagnin wine grapes (the grapes that make yellow wine).
What makes a good cheese?
The more natural the environment, the better the cheese. So personally I tend to avoid processed cheese. Apart from that, weird, tasty, smelly, cute, young, old… there is plenty of natural cheese for everyone’s own taste—about 500 recorded types just in France. Reaching the perfect conditions of maturity can only be the result of a long experience transmitted through generations and generations of makers, so if the recipe is old it may be worth tasting it.
How much is it to join your cheese party and what should a customer expect?
I make personalized plans with each party host so it may vary, but if you plan on hitting a party at Brasserie Iizumi expect a copious menu: 1 drink – 2 traditional Raclette servings with Savagnin wine (or 1 drink) – meat or fish with 1 drink – more Raclette for the glutons – Dessert – Coffee or tea for 5,400 yen per person. It is fine food, it is rare, in copious amounts and fun. Seriously, it’s a great value.
What do you hope to achieve by importing a piece of your French culture to Tokyo?
The goal now is to collaborate with more restaurants in as many areas as possible so more people can discover and enjoy it. I also want to promote more makers from my region mostly in the fields of gastronomy and arts. In the long term maybe open a chalet in or around Tokyo that is dedicated to this.
Are you a one man show or do you have help?
I am a one-man show but I have friendly collaborators, cool friends and a dope family, that helps.
What advice would you give someone who would like to do something similar: bring a piece of their culture to Japan?
Be passionate, patient and à-l’écoute.
Can you give us some cheapo tips about living in Tokyo?
Cook at home, invite your friends to your rabbit box/apartment or party with them outdoors. I don’t spend as much money since most of the things I do are outside, where there is much more to enjoy.
Lastly, where can people/stalkers find out more about you and your cheese parties?
Tokyo and Japan have a reputation for the strange and unusual museums.