February 16, 2022

Marybeth Boller: Discovering the kitchens of the world

April 05, 2021

The renowned international chef Marybeth Boller was the latest guest in the Japan Times’ Roundtable series, and she did not disappoint. Interviewed by Ross Rowbury, the conversation was delightful to watch: two curious intellectuals, sharing their experiences of Japan.

Begun earlier this year, the Roundtable series has been truly eclectic, ranging from a Japanese AI-pioneer physician to a Singaporean environmental activist. But a commonality is clear: These are interesting people, pushing the boundaries of their profession here in Japan. Rowbury, an Australian senior PR executive who has lived in Japan for over 20 years, is a delicate and urbane host, and gives his guests space to tell their story while often adding delightful details of his own experiences. Together the conversations often reveal little-known aspects of Japan, and his chat with Boller was no different.

Marybeth Boller and Roundtable host Ross Rowburry discuss the use of soy sauce as a sweetener in baking. | Yuico Taiya for Photomate

Kitchen trailblazer

Boller has lived one of those lives that should be a multiseason BBC series, both lucky and challenging, sophisticated yet gritty, pursued with a kind of off-hand bravery that only the best hero could hope for. Now a striking professional blond-haired woman, her commanding presence is softened by a light laugh and self-depreciating frankness that comes from having nothing to prove (or “zero f**ks to give,” depending on how old you are). Encouraged by Rowbury, she started from the beginning: in Manhattan.

Born into a cultured family of medical professionals, she traces the roots of her love of cooking to the presence of two sophisticated aunts who held “international nights” of cooking different cuisines for the children of the family. One aunt also had the tradition of taking her niece to the finest restaurants in Manhattan for afternoon tea, where a young Marybeth first tasted French cuisine. Post-college, a lucky family introduction led to her first sweaty job in one of the city’s finest kitchens, with Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

It is here that Boller’s story of a trailblazer begins. “My biggest challenge was being taken seriously, as a young woman. I mean … there just weren’t that many of us back then! But it never stopped me. My family were seven females!” Sharing the memories of that time, she has the sense of looking back with bemused amazement. “I mean, in England and in France, people would ask me: ‘Why are you here? You’re 21, you should be home having babies!’” But then a frank laugh and a shrug of her shoulders dismisses any sense of outrage. “It was hard. It’s still hard. And if you don’t really love (being a chef), you really shouldn’t do this. I love what I do, and I’m very happy with the choices I made.”

Chef Marybeth Boller combines Japanese and Western ingredients. | Yuico Taiya for Photomate

Food can take you anywhere

Boller’s training started in Manhattan, but simple ambition meant it couldn’t end there. “After two years, I told Jean-Georges I was a bit bored. And that I had realized that because I was working with such … experienced gentlemen, that I would never be in charge, not even of my station. And that’s when he organized sending me to France.”

And just like that, a young kitchen assistant went international. It is here that Boller’s story continues as the bingeable nostalgic series we all want to watch. “The food there was so different. So heavy! I remember cleaning 15 kilograms of foie gras every couple of days. It was amazing!” Her training and experiences weren’t limited to the kitchen.

Telling her story to Rowbury, that same light laughter rippled out: “I lived in a farmhouse with migrant vineyard workers for four months. There were farm animals roaming the house. I wore sneakers in the shower. … It was great! I was very afraid of those chickens!”