A patriotic chef: Expressing the richness of Japan through cuisine.
■ I cannot understand the idea behind “cooking just to make money.”
Born in Kagawa Prefecture, Yamamoto helped his mother prepare meals from a young age. Looking back on those days, he remarks, “If I didn’t help with meals my mother wouldn’t speak to me and wouldn’t let me go outside and play. Rather than helping of my own volition, my freedom was taken away by cooking.”
Your freedom was taken away by cooking?
Every day during my elementary school years I sacrificed my playtime for cooking. It wasn’t that I particularly liked cooking or wanted to do it, but I kept at it and in the process I honed my skills at prep. In the 5th grade when we started to cook in the home economics class, I found so many actions came natural to me, even though that wasn’t the case for my fellow students. That just made it fun. After that, I started saving up my allowance bit by bit to buy ingredients to make nikujaga (meat and potato stew) as well as other dishes I learned in class and then presented them to my mother when she came home from work, saying, “Please try it.”
How did your mother respond?
She was pleasantly surprised, telling me it was “delicious” as she tried it. That was the moment I realized how rewarding cooking is. I realized how happy I am making a dish on my own and hearing others tell me that it was delicious. It also allowed me to understand why my mother worked so hard to cook for us. If she hadn’t said that one simple word on that day I doubt I would be the chef I am today. On top of that, it gave me the realization that when it came to cooking, I could make it work.
Making it work is more about not giving up than anything. I just felt like I could make a go at cooking under the premise that if I did the thing I liked how I liked it I’d be doing it as a job before I knew it. I just felt like cooking was the only path for me, and by the time I left junior high school I had decided to become a chef. Incidentally, my parents were completely opposed to it, and of course they never intended for that to happen by having me help out with family meals.
I suppose not. So they told you to go on to high school?
Yes, but I felt like that was such a waste of time. Around that period of my life, I was hospitalized with serious injuries due to a traffic accident, and it was then that parents relented.
So you were really seriously aspiring to become a chef even in your junior high school years.
At that time my only desire was to start working as soon as possible and be an adult, be in the real world. Even when I went to department stores, I didn’t care at all about clothing or video games or anything like that. I loved heading to the grocery stores in the basement of the department stores to see the assortment of meat from both land and sea. My heart would race with every new discovery, like when I would say to myself, “Wait, why is this chicken meat so red? Oh, it’s duck!” I absolutely loved those moments.
So during childhood it was, should I say, a bit more than just a hobby? Like it was chef or bust?
Yes, you could say that. That’s precisely why I can’t understand the concept that people have that you should cook just as a way to make money. I couldn’t help but think if money was all you cared about, there are so many other jobs out there.
■ Only Japanese cuisine can express the authenticity one shares with the world as a Japanese chef.
I started working part time at a café after graduating junior high, then went on to work at various kitchens, from izakaya (Japanese gastropubs) to little Japanese diners and big Japanese restaurants. Most of the time it was because I went as a diner and thought, “This is the place!” I would then dive right in, applying for the job and then starting at that new place. Not only were my skills honed by working in real kitchens, but it also gave me the desire to study theory. At the age of 19 I enrolled in the Shikoku Culinary College (now the KISS College of Culinary Arts).
Were you already aiming to be a chef of Japanese cuisine at that time?
At the time I was working at a Japanese restaurant in Kagawa Prefecture. I spent one year studying everything about Japanese, Chinese, and Western cuisine from customer service to the final presentation at cooking school, while returning at night to cook in a real kitchen preparing Japanese cuisine. That was when I realized that you have to be in France for authentic French cuisine, and you have to be in China for authentic Chinese cuisine. No matter how hard a Japanese chef tries, they likely will not be able to beat the authenticity of someone who was born in raised with another country’s cuisine. Looking at it from the opposite direction, authentic Japanese cuisine is right here in Japan. If I’m going to cook, I want to pursue authenticity. I felt that as a Japanese person, only Japanese cuisine would express that concept of authenticity.
You thought that because you had studied Western and Chinese cuisine?
Another thing I think made my decision was my experience of working at the site of Japanese cuisine. The soul of Japanese cuisine is making use of fresh ingredients. With sashimi, the very cut of the knife results in a completely different flavor. First-rate French and Chinese restaurants are the same way, but because I love Japan, I want to cook in Japan. As long as I live in Japan I can’t think of a single cuisine where I can source fresh ingredients on a level as excellently as I can for Japanese cuisine.
These days there is increasing interest in Japanese cuisine, even resulting in “Washoku,” the traditional dietary culture of Japan becoming inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Yet at that time (in the late 1980s), many people were enamored with French and Italian chefs, were they not?
That may be true, but I always felt that Japanese cuisine was very cool. I suppose it just suited my nature, because Japanese cuisine is about simple preparation that properly matches the fresh ingredients used. For example, when I saw how sauce is used to draw a picture on a plate in French cooking, I couldn’t help but think, “What is the purpose of doing this as cuisine?” Those biting thoughts are precisely why I wasn’t able to consider anything other than Japanese cuisine.
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