Aspiring to be a chef at a French restaurant, he was hired as a server
You have been in service for more than 30 years. How did you get into it?
When I was in elementary school, my father ran a tiny Chinese restaurant with only counter seats. That is how I became familiar with the culinary world. I started working part-time at a cafe in my high school years where I used to make fruit parfaits, spaghetti, and coffee. I eventually started doing the same work as the full time staff and wanted start working full time myself. My family wasn’t very well-off, so I wanted to get a job and become independent as soon as possible.
That’s when I decided to get into the prestigious Tsuji Culinary Institute. I was yet to have concrete plans about whether I wanted to do French cuisine or Chinese cuisine. However, I would acquire a cooking license upon graduation and thought that I could even help out at my father’s restaurant.
You started out hoping to be a chef. After entering culinary school, at what point did you decide where you wanted to work?
I started getting a concrete idea of where I wanted to work around fall. At the time, the course at the Tsuji Culinary Institute was one year long and the curriculum included everythingー Japanese, Western, and Chinese cuisine. I developed an interest in French cuisine and came to know a restaurant called Le Pont de Ciel.
It was an authentic French restaurant located on the 30th floor of the first high rise building in Western Japan, the Osaka Obayashi Building (Current name: Kitahama NEXU BUILD). The restaurant had an amazing view and I was so excited to work in a place like that.
Since French food could only be found under the framework of “Western Cuisine,” it was also great to see actual French chefs working there.
So you entered Le Pont de Ciel after graduating.
After the orientation ceremony on April 1, I was told that there were no openings in the kitchen. I was stunned because there was not a single mention of service work in the job posting. There were already three senior colleagues waiting for a vacancy in the kitchen at that point. I was told that since I was the fourth person in line, I would have to do service for a while. I was handed a uniform, jacket, and bowtie. I was apprehensive, but I was only 19 at the time and decided to do it. That is how I got into the service side.
You continued as a server. How did you get from an aspiring chef to your current occupation?
I worked part-time at a cafe in my student years. There, I got a vague idea of kitchen work, but it was my first full encounter with service. I realized that the customers were not just paying for the food. Great service adds value to their time. That’s also a part of what they’re paying for.
Initially, I had no idea how to arrange cutlery. However, once I became more familiar with things, I realized serving can be quite interesting. I also had a chance to serve people you only see on TV, like movie stars from abroad or ministers. That was also a part of the fun. At the time, there were not many restaurants serving authentic French food, so we got a lot of VIP customers.
After two years of working as wait staff, I decided I wanted to continue serving. I did have a chance to work in the kitchen, but I declined. I was at a crossroads in my life and I made an important decision.
The service world has no manual and no correct answers. That’s what makes it interesting
So you realized the value of service and decided to take that path. What does service mean for you personally? What is the nature of service?
If a place has great food, it also needs great service. A restaurant can only achieve excellence through great service. It’s a requisite. Just handing out food on a plate is not service, it’s mechanical.
For example, in a situation where the plate is empty but the customer is still chewing, most waiters would want to pick up the plate and move on to the next table. However, it’s important to wait. You wouldn’t want the customer to feel rushed. When explaining dishes, some customers want to hear everything in detail, while others prefer a general outline accompanied by a “bon appetite.”
Having no manual makes it difficult. But that’s also what makes it interesting.
Exactly. I still don’t have a set manual. It’s not a world that operates on theory. It’s important to have a sense of what the customer is seeking.
Knowledge and technique are, of course, important.
For example, trimming meat or presenting food with showmanship. Presentation techniques enhance the value of the dish. Wine opening, decanting, being knowledgeable about cheese, linguistic skills; these are all important. It’s necessary to be able to converse in French and English in a restaurant. There are an infinite number of things to master.
Serves also need to know the basics of French cooking in order to convey the originality of the chef’s dishes. If you don’t know the basics, you won’t understand what makes the cooking special nor will you be able to communicate that to customers.
A server should not come across rude, but it’s important to be prepared with witty responses so that customers can laugh and relax. If the customers feel comfortable around you, they are sure to remember you. Through my service, I hope to have customers come back looking for me to serve them. That is one of my goals and that’s what makes my job worthwhile. As a serviceman, I want to be able to connect with customers as much as possible.
With no correct answers, it’s seem like a world where originality trumps over everything else. Does personality play a big role?
Each restaurant has its own color and branding, so as long as you don’t deviate from that, I do think personality play a big role.
Even for each individual customer, there is the issue of compatibilityー who they feel more comfortable around. That can vary.
Regardless of technique or knowledge, if you’re arrogant or wear masks to suit each person, you will drive away customers. In order to provide warm hospitality, a server has to acquire a wide range of skills. That can be a valuable tool and it is ideal to have a team made up of unique personalities.