Judo with the FT: Thierry Marx

Every Thursday evening, Thierry Marx runs three times around the Jardin des Tuileries with his kitchen brigade. On each lap, a certain number of runners drop off, but Marx continues. The French chef believes in fitness. He has run most of the marathons the world has to offer, including the Marathon des Sables across the Sahara desert, and the Marathon du Médoc, across the region where Marx lived until moving to Paris this year. (He has a new job, as executive chef of the soon-to-open Mandarin Oriental.)

But judo, not running, is his first and most passionately abiding sport. As a boy, he was a poor footballer and a shirky pupil, and his grandfather turned him towards the martial art as something that might beef him up. Years later, at the Institut du Judo in Paris, he has agreed to teach me, and he certainly looks tough enough in his suede jacket and motorcycle helmet. (He rides a Yamaha; scooters are “pour les bobos”, or bourgeois bohemians.)

Inside the dojo, trainee judo teachers are throwing each other on to the tatami mats. You can hear judo from a distance. With each fall, or chute, there is a loud smack as the body hits the floor. The French are good at this – “I have high hopes for 2012,” says Marx, who taught judo at a school in the Médoc. I must look worried as he offers a few words of comfort before he goes to get changed into his kimono, officially known as judogi. Buddha, he says, thought of the perfect man as like a mango – with a hard core but a soft padding, tough on himself, gentle to others. He will be like this in our lesson, he says with Zen assurance.

But facing him on the mat, I am reminded not of a mango but a description I had read in the French press: “le Bruce Lee de la cuisine française”. “I see straight away that you are intimidated,” Marx says, entirely correctly. Judo, however, is about understanding and vanquishing fear – and using it in your opponent. If you can find a weak spot in the person facing you, victory is possible. This comes in the form of a “belle chute”, or serious fall, which denotes a “mort symbolique”.

Marx, who has lived in Japan and studied judo there, instructs me to grab the scruff of his kimono with my right hand and the elbow with my left, and he does the same to my kimono. This hold is called “kumi kata” and it binds the two opponents together as they look for a way into combat.

As Marx then demonstrates, there are many ways to floor a beginner. By pushing their balance and toppling them over; by tucking a foot behind an unguarded leg and flipping the body down; by levering the body with the opponent’s arm; by lifting them on to your back; and so on. Each time I pick myself up from the floor, Marx encourages me to copy the move. “Even if I am heavier than you, you can still beat me,” he says. And when attacked, you must retaliate. This applies in judo as in life, Marx insists, if only to see if the opponent’s reaction might provide you with an opportunity.

We then practise one of judo’s easier techniques: avoidance. Marx pushes my shoulder with his arm outstretched, and as instructed I turn my body and step to the side, so that Marx rushes past me.

I leave the mat so that Marx can have a bout with Thierry Loison, one of the centre’s most accomplished judo teachers. They spar with professional speed and height: legs and arms flying and each man landing with heavy thuds and smacks. They rise quickly: a fall in judo is always followed by a righting to your feet. It’s one of the ways that the sport’s self-professed nobility shines through: no footballers’ malingering here.

I wonder how Marx throws his weight around in the kitchen. At the Mandarin Oriental, due to open next month, he will run two restaurants, Sur Mésure par Thierry Marx and Camélia, as well as being director of food and beverages. “The philosophy of judo, you will see everywhere in my business,” he says. “I can’t stand rudeness and bad language…not to lose my sang froid is very important in a kitchen team. And sincerity is key too – even if my cooking is modern, it engages very purely with the ingredients.”

Like Heston Blumenthal, a fellow Mandarin Oriental chef with his restaurant Dinner, Marx is a playful but scientific chef – author of dishes such as liquid quiche lorraine, and recipient of two Michelin stars at his previous kitchen at the Cordeillan-Bages hotel near Pauillac. The return to Paris has mixed pleasures for Marx. He grew up in Ménilmontant, a “quartier très difficile”, and he had an equally difficult childhood. He is now “someone lucky”, living in the smart St-Germain-des-Prés.

He will not give up judo when the hard work of the hotel begins in earnest. Marx finds that the concentration he puts into his two-hourly, four-times-weekly sessions of judo serves to re-energise him, body and mind. “Judo has an incredible energy that you get from the other person, and that you give to them too. And then you freshen up, have a beer ... the next day you feel strong.”

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