A chef who transitioned his playing field from a hotel to a French restaurant in the city
Mr. Fujimoto, the owner chef, worked at the restaurant in Nikko Hotel Osaka for 11 years, all the while winning various French cooking competitions. Moreover, he was selected as the sous-chef for the French restaurant "Les Célébrités" at the same hotel in 2012 at the young age of 29. When he gained independence in 2013 to open "Différence", he gained one star from Michelin during his 2nd year, in 2014. He is an up-and-coming chef leading the ideal cooking life so far.
We asked Mr. Fujimoto how he has grown as a chef, and the relationship between building the restaurant and the chef in his 3rd year at the restaurant.
His students years, when he just didn’t want to study. When he looked for something he could do, it was cooking
Have you wanted to become a chef since childhood?
Not at all. Actually, I kind of wanted to become a teacher when I was a child.
Originally, I did not enjoy doing housework but my mother insisted “even boys have to help around the house!”, especially since both my parents worked. However, I did not hate making meals. Since high school I would invite my friends over and cook for them, or make curry from scratch using spices.
I started hating studying when I got into high school. I was completely devoted to my part-time job in a sushi shop. I wasn’t studying, so I felt bad about having my parents pay for college tuition. So I spent my days asking myself: what can I do?
During that time, I was a little carried away because I was given the job to roll sushi in my part-time job, even though the other kids didn’t get to do it. (Haha!) That’s originally why I decided to go to school to become a chef. However, after some research, I learned that it was actually more expensive than going to a normal college. I realized it was difficult, so I gave up on continuing with my school. So I talked to my dad, who was a hotel staff, and he had me put into Nikko Hotel Osaka. In other words, I used my connections.
So that means you were not enthusiastic about starting to work at the hotel?
To be entirely honest, I was not. For about 4 or 5 years I worked at the teppan-yaki restaurant. But I didn’t have goals or anything, and all my co-workers were older people with a cooking license, so for the first half of the year I was desperate not to get yelled at. Even though I was a chef, I didn’t even have my own knife. At the time, I was just doing my work everyday, thinking “I just don’t want to cause trouble for my parents”.
The opportunity to enter French food opened up after agreeing with an upper-level chef
I was surprised because from your career, I assumed you were always actively engaged with the world of cooking. So how did you shift to French food?
Even during my high school years, I was the type to be more friendly with employees than with other part-timers, so even after entering the hotel I would gladly go out with my superiors, and in turn they would take care of me. I actually don’t mind being friendly with my superiors. I was also in the baseball club of the hotel, and that was how I became friends with an upper-level chef who was a sous-chef for the French restaurant.
One day, that chef asked me, “don’t you want to do French food?” I actually didn’t want to all that much, but since I liked that chef I answered, “I do!”. Now that I think about it, it was a big turning point for me.
So that’s how you entered the world of French food at age 23. Is that when you started engaging with French food?
Actually, after transitioning to French, I was unable to keep up once again. For example, a chef one year older than me would be creating new menus, but I would not be able to understand the plate’s name or the way to make it. I didn’t even know the names of the cooking tools someone asked me to grab. I almost gave up, saying, “I can’t keep up…”
But I couldn’t quit, thinking about my superior who gave me this job. I was able to barely squeeze by because he would look after me.
Wow, so you started from the bottom. How did you overcome that?
I really had some unnecessary pride at the time and couldn’t ask my co-workers, and I couldn’t ask superiors since they would be busy. So I devoted myself to reading books and observing intensely what was around me.
In the beginning, when it became my turn to come up with new menus at the workplace, I would just copy a recipe of a chef from a famous restaurant, and hand that in.
But because I had no knowledge or skill, I would often mess up or get yelled at. Because we had to explain all the plates to everyone, my stomach would turn upside down when I was speaking. But throughout that repetition, I was able to make the plate my own.
As a habit from that time, I still collect cooking books like I’m some kind of collector. However, the places I look at are different than back then. Recently, I would look at combinations of ingredients or the designs and decoration, and if there is even one page that I notice, I would buy the entire book. I might own most books lined up at the book store.
So reading books is important. How did you observe your surroundings?
This has nothing to do with cooking techniques, but I would observe things like “if you do that, you get yelled at,” or “if you do that, they like you”. Little aspects like that are different depending on the person. That is why, after realizing how best to interact with specific people, it became more fun to go to work.
I would also learn the job that way, and because I was well-liked I was given opportunities not given to my peers. I think it also means I had more opportunities to learn.
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