Mr. Jonathan Berguig
Jonathan Berguig discusses his challenges, rewards and reasonings in opening a French vegetarian restaurant in central Tokyo.
—What made you open a vegetarian restaurant in meat-loving Japan?
I moved to Tokyo at the end of 2012 for the second time. As a vegetarian living in Japan, I really struggled to find food that was suitable for my diet. Indeed, there is no denying that Japan is a meat and fish-loving country. However, having close ties with the animal rescue community here, I felt that I was not the only one looking for more vegetarian (or vegan) options in the city. One evening, I decided that instead of searching forever for what I could eat at convenience stores and spending hours deciphering kanji on packaging at local supermarkets, I would open my own restaurant where I could eat every day!
Japanese people like eating meat and fish but they also love vegetables. I sensed the frustration people were feeling about vegetables because it’s so incredibly expensive to buy them in Tokyo. Considering that the country may not be quite ready to understand vegetarianism, we decided at CITRON to focus more on the concepts of ‘delicious French cuisine’ and ‘healthy eating’. CITRON customers eat vegetarian food, but usually do not even realize that there were no animal product in it. We use dairy and eggs but also have vegan options.
—What did you struggle the most with as a foreigner in setting up your own restaurant?
Wow! The list would be long! I guess starting any business as a foreigner is difficult. Having an idea, a good concept, defining it, making a business plan… all those steps were quite personal and easy as I just had to work on my own. Setting up a company was also an easy part because I had a good lawyer to help me. However, after raising enough funds, finding a location for CITRON was extremely difficult–it actually took us 15 months to find our current location in Gaienmae! Around Omotesando, it’s extremely competitive to get retail locations on the first floor. For each potential location we found, there were always 5 or 6 other applications for the property. Being that we were a small Japanese company run by a foreigner, it was very challenging to be picked up. Fortunately, in April 2015 one building owner could relate to our project and accepted CITRON’s application.
—Can you tell us a bit about the ingredients and recipes of your dishes (tradition, organic, inspiration, etc.)
Tokyo already has so many sophisticated, French gastronomic restaurants and I did not want to go that way. I wanted a restaurant that looked like me: Parisian, simple, vegetarian, healthy, and friendly. This is how CITRON was born. The first part of the concept is about salads and the idea is for our customers to make their own salad that they want to eat by choosing a base and several toppings. This concept of “salad bar” was almost non-existent a few years back and Japanese people did not really understand at first. Their notion of “salad bar” was a tabehodai version, like a buffet in hotels.
In addition to salads, I wanted to have simple French dishes, not like the usual ones we often see in French restaurants in Tokyo such as Pot-au-Feu, choucroute, and coq au vin. We never really eat those heavy dishes anymore as they are very time consuming to prepare. My mom, who always worked and raised two boys at the same time, had to make easy meals like quiche, gratins, soups, and savory cakes and that is where I got my inspiration from. I then asked her to come to Tokyo in order to train the chef, share her recipes… it was a real “Proust’s madeleine” moment for me. I was back in my childhood! We get most of our vegetables from two local shops in Minami Aoyama: 50% are organic, 50% are not but we can track where the products come from in Japan.
—What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I guess that the smile of our customers when leaving CITRON, the nice comments about the food, the service or the Parisian atmosphere with pictures on social networks are very heartwarming and rewarding. The food business is never easy, especially in Tokyo where competition is huge (the city has more than 100,000 restaurants!). Finding the right concept that Japanese people will embrace is tough because the range of food is already gigantic! A lot of chains from France, the US, and Canada have huge marketing and promotion power, convenience stores are at every corner… so having more than 150 customers eating CITRON food on a daily basis after 14 months of opening is a beautiful reward of our team’s hard work!