Poking my head around the door of The Ninth restaurant in London's classy Fitzrovia neighbourhood, I take in the artfully exposed brick walls and carefully arranged tables. The place is deserted.
"Hello!" I shout. "Anybody in?"
Several minutes pass and I start to worry that I've stumbled into the wrong restaurant, until suddenly, the perfectly ponytailed Jun Tanaka pops out from behind the bar. I almost have a heart attack.
Aside from his apparent skills in stealth, Tanaka is one of Britain's foremost Japanese chefs. Born in New York City, he moved to the UK as a child and cut his culinary teeth under the Roux brothers at the Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, aged just 19. He soon worked his way up in the London restaurant world, and his now 25-year cooking career has taken him to the kitchens of Marco Pierre White and The Square, as well as TV cooking shows like Saturday Kitchen and Chopped.
And it all started with a hopeful letter written by the teenaged Tanaka.
"I wrote to four different restaurants and the only one that got back to me was Le Gavroche," he remembers. "I was incredibly lucky because I didn't have any cooking experience and at that time, the restaurant had three Michelin stars."
Back then, Tanaka didn't even own a set of knives.
"I took one of my mum's kitchen knives and turned up looking absolutely ridiculous," he says. "My first job was to julienne celeriac and that took all morning, honestly I was completely ignorant, but that was probably a blessing."
It was at Le Gavroche that Tanaka got a grounding in French cuisine, as well as the rigours of Michelin star cooking.
"I often dreaded going to work because it was that intense. When you're cooking three Michelin-starred food, everything has to be absolutely perfect," he says. "Did I enjoy working at some of these places? No I didn't. I worked there for the knowledge, for the experience, and to get that restaurant on my CV. But on a day-to-day basis, I hated it more than I enjoyed it."
Which is where The Ninth comes in. Named for the ninth place he has cooked, Tanaka's first solo restaurant is a deliberate break from fine dining. It took him two years to find the right neighbourhood bistro-style premises, and he finally opened in November last year.
But the hard work had only just started. Shortly after opening The Ninth, Tanaka was met with flooding of almost Biblical proportions.
"It was a nightmare, I didn't survey the plumbing and I seriously paid for it," he remembers. "We must've had—no exaggeration—about 12 floods over the course of six months and once before a busy Saturday service where there'd be water dripping through the restaurant floors and onto diners."
Despite such watery challenges, Tanaka is happy to finally be manning his own ship, and describes the menu at The Ninth as French Mediterranean.
"This is what I've wanted to do for a long time and whether it succeeds or fails, it's completely up to me," he says.
Having turned his back on haute cuisine, there are no stuffy waiters or white table cloths at The Ninth, and dishes are made to be shared.
"A lot of dishes here I've actually cooked for friends and family," Tanaka explains. "The idea is to feel like they're coming round my house to eat."
Upstairs in the kitchen, Tanaka shows me one such dish: beetroot tart tatin. It has become The Ninth's signature veggie starter.
"We always use seasonal and fresh local produce. Whatever ingredients we bring in, we work with the ingredient," he tells me. "I always think to myself, 'How can I make it the best food that I possibly can?' I believe that honest and fresh food is the best tasting food."
Tanaka's years in French restaurants, combined with his Asian heritage, is evident elsewhere on The Ninth menu, too. East meets west not only in flavour mashups like sea bream and miso, but methods such as brining, which is prevalent in Japanese and European cooking.
"I've discovered a love for brining. It's when you mix salt, sugar, and spices," Tanaka says. "I came up with my own brine recipe for salt beef, after many failed attempts and finally getting it absolutely right was so satisfying. It's a recipe that I'll always keep on the menu."
As I head back downstairs to the restaurant's dining area to sample the tarte, Tanaka silently slips away. After finishing the dish in an embarrassingly short amount of time, I find myself with an empty blini pan on my hands. I search for Tanaka up and down The Ninth's seemingly never-ending sets of narrow stairs, trying to find him to give back the pan. When I finally bump into him downstairs, he laughs.
"Ever since opening, I've probably lost about two stone from walking up and down all these stairs," he says. "I wish I had a pedometer so I could track how many steps I've done from running around."
Tanaka may have left the world of fine dining behind, but he's still being kept on his toes.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.