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Nelson, New Zealand – Jonathan Berguig, 40, is the owner of Citron, a Parisian-style cafe in Tokyo’s trendy Gaienmae neighborhood. A pioneer of the capital’s growing vegetarian dining scene, Citron focuses on serving affordable, healthy French home cooking while also promoting animal welfare.
1. What first brought you to Japan? I first arrived in Tokyo in 2004, when I was sent over from Paris by the company I was working for, in the banking industry. After 10 years dealing with financial markets, I decided to start an adventure in entrepreneurship by opening Citron in Aoyama.
2. When did you learn to cook? Did anyone teach you? My mom’s home cooking was my inspiration. She used to bake quiches every Sunday for lunch, and she’s a remarkable gourmet. All our recipes are based on her traditional French home cooking, we just turned them into fun vegetarian dishes. My mother actually came to Tokyo before the grand opening to train the kitchen staff, making sure the recipes were perfect.
I have never been a great cook, so I knew I had to find a chef I could closely work with to share my vision and my concept. I have been vegetarian for over 10 years, and I wanted all our dishes to be vegetarian or vegan.
3. Do you have a signature dish? Our tarte au citron (lemon tart) has been a massive hit with Japanese customers. They usually praise the tanginess of the lemon juice and the sweetness of our creamy lemon curd. Although we started as a salad bar in 2015, before it became popular, we shifted to a quiche and tarte cafe, which is much less common in Tokyo (though we still serve salads).
4. Was opening a restaurant in Tokyo more difficult than you anticipated? Opening Citron was extremely hard, I won’t lie about this. Writing the business plan and funding the project was actually fairly easy, as I knew the exact concept I wanted to create. However, finding the spot was very hard. I was solely set on Aoyama for our first store as it has always been the spot for niche restaurants and new concepts. The competition of convenience stores, the expensive rent, the fact that I was non-Japanese and that my company was new (no credit history!) really did not help.
Finally, a very nice building owner who loved our concept gave us a chance and we opened in Gaienmae on July 4, 2015. This month, we are celebrating our sixth anniversary, and sometimes I still cannot believe it.
5. When Citron first opened, did you get the sense its vegetarian menu was unusual in Japan? Definitely. Japanese people often confused vegetarian and vegetable-based dishes, so the definition of “vegetarian” was quite unknown. It was also hard for some of them to imagine a meal without fish or meat, so we had to explain and somewhat educate them, such as the presence of protein not only in animals, but also in legumes or soy.
The concept of a “salad bar” was also a challenge. People were expecting an all-you-can-eat salad bar, and could not really imagine a big bowl of salad as a main dish.
6. Has that changed over time? Six years later, everything has been assimilated. In the beginning, our customers were 90% female who wanted to eat vegetables to stay healthy. Now, the vegetarian/vegan population in Japan has grown and men also started to enjoy our quiches, gratins and salads. We are really proud to be one of the pioneers in this growing industry. Not to mention eating less meat and fish is beneficial for the environment and for animals.
7. Do you think there’s any overlap between the Japanese and French approach to food? I think both Japanese and French people are gourmets. And there’s a mutual love — Japanese love French cuisine, and French are crazy about Japanese food. There is a similar attention to detail and finesse in both cultures, so there are similarities in being more about quality than quantity.
8. Are there any ingredients you find difficult to source? Some of the vegetables we use, which are mostly organic, are nearly impossible to find. Bell peppers, for instance, are not grown in Japan but we use them a lot in French dishes like ratatouille. Other than vegetables, we can pretty much find all French seasonings thanks to our dedicated suppliers.
9. How would you describe Citron’s concept to someone who hasn’t visited yet? At its core, Citron is a Parisian cafe serving modern French and vegetarian cuisine. But it goes beyond that: We love animals and want to spread awareness about animal welfare by supporting organizations that lack visibility. We have a charity corner dedicated to animal shelters who do a wonderful job rescuing and rehoming pets.
10. Citron donates 1% of its monthly profits to charities in Japan. How do you pick what charities to support? From 2012 to 2015, I had been in touch with many dog and cat shelters across Japan, as I wanted to help as a volunteer. I started to spend time at ARK (Animal Refuge Kansai) in Osaka and AFJ (Animal Friends Japan, now run by Animal Guard) in Niigata Prefecture to walk and spend time with animals, clean kennels, rescue and rehome dogs, and discuss animal welfare in Japan. Digging up information about how pet shops source their animals and how breeders sell the best puppies and kittens to auctions made me realize the lack of a safety net in Japan for all unwanted animals.
When we opened Citron, it was clear to me that we would do our best to help them. Now they even contact us to promote their efforts, so this is an amazing way to raise awareness.
11. What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received? “Citron’s lemon tart is the best in the world.” I believe this is the best one can get! And just seeing customers who keep coming over and over again, that’s a wonderful compliment.
Reading Instagram or Google reviews always brings us a lot of satisfaction. The comments about our lemon tart are always so nice, but so are ones about the atmosphere at Citron. Our team is made up of 50% Japanese staff and 50% French staff, and I believe it’s quite unusual but it works very well!
12. The interior of your restaurant was designed by Ishinomaki Laboratory. Why did you reach out to them? Yes, the architect Keiji Ashizawa has been a good friend of mine for quite a while and opening Citron was the perfect opportunity to collaborate. I have always been a big fan of his modern interior designs and Ikea collections. I was really proud to have his creations at the shop, as his concept supports the local communities devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
13. Have you had to make any business changes since the COVID-19 pandemic began? 2020 has been a difficult year for Citron, but we were able to survive and not close for a single day. Our regular customers were very supportive and kept coming despite the crisis. Our online shopping and all delivery platforms exploded, with customers from all over Japan buying whole quiches, lemon tarts or cakes. We took every sanitary measure possible, such as social distancing, alcohol dispensers, partitions and masks so that our customers would feel safe.
14. Did you apply for any small-business support from the government? We did apply for many subsidies — a new one pretty much every month, as we complied with the shortened business hours and not serving alcohol for two months. I am lucky my accountant is managing the application process, because it is quite time-consuming.
15. Do you collect anything? I used to collect watches, but they are now safely stashed away in a box. I cannot take the risk of wearing them and scratching them at Citron.
16. You’re hungry, and all you have is ¥1,000 for food. What would you buy? Our famous Parisian baguette sandwich is ¥680, and I’d add a tasty lemon cup dessert (¥270). I’ll have enjoyed great food and still have some change in my pocket!
17. Are there any local traditions or customs you miss from home? Hosting home dinner parties. In Japan, people rarely host at home, so I do miss this spontaneous conviviality.
18. What’s your guilty pleasure? Cheese, French cheese and raw milk French cheese. I’ve always wanted to shift to a 100% vegan diet, but I just can’t say goodbye to cheese.
19. What does “wellness” mean to you? Having a life balance: running a lot, doing yoga, walking with my dogs, laughing with my friends and eating healthy.
20. And finally: Should dogs wear clothes? Of course! All dogs wear clothes in Tokyo. My French bulldog, Lucien, and my Staffordshire bull terrier, Lili, love wearing down jackets in winter. You can come and see them at Citron, as our restaurant is dog-friendly.
By Claire Williamson, The Japan Times