Combining Korean Cuisine with Other Styles of Cooking, Endlessly creating new styles
Based around seasonal vegetable dishes and seafood dishes by Masahiko Arai, including Namul made using Western vegetables like watercress, the restaurant created a sensation by serving healthy and nourishing food. Even before it was listed in the Michelin guide, it was all the hype among foodies as a "restaurant where it's extremely difficult to get a table".
In July 2015, Hoba relocated from Tenjinbashi to a new place on the 2nd floor of the Shin Daibiru Building in Dojima. It stands side by side with Edo-style sushi restaurant "Kurosugi Sushi", another Michelin-starred restaurant. Customers coming from other cities like Kobe and Kyoto are already on the rise in this new location with a wide window opening to lush greeneries.
In October 2015, Hoba achieved the feat of obtaining a second Michelin star. Together with the relocation, Chef Arai has figuratively stepped onto a new stage. Chef Arai has, surprisingly, a background in Italian cuisine, but according to him, there are many similarities between Korean and Italian cooking.
I sat down with this unique chef and interviewed him about the trajectory of his career and his thoughts on starting a restaurant.
Family circumstances and the TV show “Iron Chef” led him to the road of cuisine
Now, Hoba has an established reputation as the first Michelin-starred Korean cuisine restaurant, but let’s go back to the beginning. How did you enter the world of cooking?
Initially, I had some vague plans to go to college, but at the time of my high school graduation, I was suddenly expected to work due to family circumstances. Because it was so sudden, I found work at a factory manufacturing plastic molds at East Osaka through a relative. Three years later when my mother remarried, I became happily free again. Maybe it resulted from working in silence with precision machinery for such a long time, but I decided to work at a job that involves communicating with people.
The TV show “Iron Chef” was popular during that time. My mother ran a Korean restaurant, and as a child I would help her buy ingredients, so the restaurant business was something that I was already familiar with. At that time, desserts like tiramisu and panna cotta were all the rage and it was a time when the notion of Italian cuisine was transitioning from “Italian food = Spaghetti” to “Italian food = Chic”. My relative had also brought me to a restaurant where I tried Italian ham and melon. When I ate it I was like “Oh wow, I didn’t know Italian food was this delicious!” so I decided to start learning Italian cooking. From that moment, I was already thinking of running my own restaurant.
Apprenticeship and developing skills through friendly competition and learning from each other, while keeping the goal of starting a new restaurant in mind
So you were learning Italian cooking at first. Which restaurant did you work at?
Yes. First I worked at a restaurant in the city. In order to save money for starting my own business and for training, I ate bread for breakfast, then bread again for dinner with some Hoppy beer. Anyhow, I just worked like a dog for three years to save money.
When I had reached my savings target, I decided I wanted to level up my skills. So I switched to working for “Caravaggio”, an Italian restaurant that was at the ranks of “Ponte Vecchio”.
Out of all the Italian restaurants out there, what made you choose “Caravaggio”?
From that time, I thought it was important for chefs to try many different restaurants. Even though it was important to save, I would visit restaurants that had good reviews, regardless of their genres.
So I applied to some restaurants where I felt would be a good learning environment for me and it was “Caravaggio” in Osaka who had accepted me.
It was in the nineties and I was around 25 years old. There were five of us who were about the same age and we really competed with each other. We would read cookbooks everyday at lunchtime, think about cooking all the time, and want to learn as much as we could in as little time as possible. We really went all out to become better than one another. Here, I worked from 8am until the last train everyday.
Amidst the friendly rivalry, was there anything you did in order to stand out from amongst your friends?
While keeping an eye on what everyone else around me is doing, I would finish my work quickly and ask for other tasks that I could help with once I was done with one task. I would always work while keeping in mind what the chief wanted. It’s important to be attentive and considerate.
Did you have a mentor during your training days?
Yes, the owner of “I VENTICELLI” at Kyomachibori, Chef Takuji Asai, was the second manager at “Caravaggio”. He read a lot of books on ancient Italy and would modernize ancient recipes. He came up with some really bold dishes. I was constantly stimulated by his powerful and aggressive outlook on cooking, and would think to myself, “I want to be like him! I need to work harder!” Actually, we are friends even today. Sometimes when I have some troubles or problems about restaurant management, he would lend me an ear as well as give me advice.
- 2F, Sindai Bld., 1-2-1, Dojimahama, Kita-ku Osaka-shi, Osaka, 530-0004, Japan
- Store hours
- Days closed