Childhood interests on not only cooking, but also creative thinking.
Mr. Yamane, I heard that you are turning 56 years old this year, but you look young. I am sorry to say, but according to your achievements, I thought you would be from a past generation.
I was 24 years old when I had my own restaurant. I am at this age but it is my 31st year since my independence. Since I started early I tend to be thought of as in the same generation with Mr. Murata of “Kikunoi” and others, who actually are from one generation after me. There are many chefs who are the same age as me like Mr. Sasaki of “Gion Sasaki”, but there might be quite a few more for Italians. One of the reasons for that is because of the historical background then.
In the 1980s I opened my first Italian restaurant, which was very small. I trained a historical Italian restaurant in Kobe, that used ingredients that were very limited. Asparagus and broccoli were okay but bamboo shoots or rape blossoms were not. Basically, we were not allowed to use any vegetables except western harvest. For fish, they do not have sweetfish, pike congers, or blowfish, so it was an era that people said if we use them, it was not Italian food.
For example, when we use eggplants, Italian harvested ones were with hard skin and a strong alkaline taste. On the other hand Japanese ones contain a lot of water so when we used them for cooking, we used them after removing the water.
But what I thought back then was, “There are Japanese eggplants that are not good?”. Kamo eggplants and mizunasu are delicious as they are. Trial and errors of how to prepare this ingredient delicious were the fun part. But back then it was not something that Italian chefs did. I wanted to change that.
Then it was PONTE VECCHIO that I opened when I was 24, wanting to make high quality dishes which mainly used delicious Japanese food ingredients. I think there were people who wanted to prepare high-class Italian cuisines, but the generation before me dealt with severity of restrictions of visa and training abroad was difficult. Additionally it was tough to run a restaurant while going against the politics back then.
So Mr. Yamane, have you been interested in Italian culture since the beginning? I heard that you like Italian cars but is that also related?
Yes. Admiration to the nation of design was the start of my aim to becoming an Italian chef in the end.
It is the same with Italian, French, and Spanish cuisines but Latin countries have delicious food as well and they have an assortment of vivid colors, right? This is something I noticed when I went to Italy, but over there the “light” is different. So colors of the streets and food look very beautiful.
It made me think that they could use those colors because they were integrated into this place. Furniture and cars with modern designs are very cool, but they look even cooler in old buildings made of stone. There are many historical and artistic buildings. Perhaps I had been strongly interested in those “designs themselves” ever since the start.
So your admiration of the designs was from the start. Were you also interested in creative jobs as well as cooking?
I had been roughly thinking about becoming a chef since I was a junior high student but I had ambitions to become a designer at one time.
When I was in elementary school, my cousin gave me magazines like, “Car Graphic” or “Motor Magazine”, which was back in the 60s and 70s. It was very cool and in those days the designer of a famous workshop in Italy was Japanese. I admired him a lot. I thought of going to Europe someday and wanted to try creative jobs.
My father also complimented me, “This is unbelievable” when he saw my drawing, and my art teacher of high school told me, “If you want to become professional, come see me.” But back then I thought, “being an artist was not in demand.” and did not listen but when I think of it now, I might have missed an opportunity. When I was a high school student, I told my father, “I want to become a car designer.”, and then he said that an industrial designer is a star job so if you really go for it, you must go to the engineering department of Tokyo University or Tokyo University of Arts.
I gave up. Thinking it was impossible to become that adept.
On the other hand, I had been cooking since I was in elementary school. I often cooked for my family, but that skill was also said “to be futile”.
Indeed I might have been eccentric because I went out to pick herbs and wild vegetables while removing the bitter taste by burning grass.
From that time one, was cooking European style adapted?
Yes, on a TV program called “Show of world’s cuisines.” was on and they were cooking soups and stews. Pouring red wine and all. Then I asked my mother, “Please buy me a bottle of red wine.” and cooked food by boiling.
My mother also liked cooking so we had a water purifier and pressure cooker.
When my father went fishing, my mother would open the fish that were leftover and make salt-and-dry the fish. I would help her and slice the fish.
Ordinary lower elementary students cannot do such preparation.
I liked the kitchen. I was learning to sharpen knives by watching others. It did not go well though. But it was interesting to sharpen a knife with a stone so you could smoothly cut.
I also wanted to make noodles, so I cooked udon and soba from scratch and I also made pasta by looking through foreign cookbooks that were at home.
Even as an elementary student, I could understand the recipe when I would read the ingredients like “eggs” and “water”.
Then you must have been a fast learner when you became a chef?
When I entered culinary college, I had already thought, “I became a chef”. I thought it was a school to train professional chefs.
On the other hand, there were many students who came to college with a mind of going to average schools. There were students who had never cooked before. Exams were easier than high school, but some failed. I thought, “why are they doing it so slowly? This is a race, right?”. I thought how they were slacking when we were becoming professional through hard working.
When I entered culinary college, I was thinking, “French and Italian…. Which one has a future in cooking for a living.”. I studied the history and cultures of both and ate at both types of the restaurants. Back then French was delicious but still heavy. I thought it was physically impossible for Japanese people to eat it on a daily basis. On the other hand, Italian used fish and flavoring that utilized the materials without adding flavors, which was more like Japanese food and was not that heavy for stomach though we ate every day.
French is satisfying by eating it once a year and eating Italian once a week has a difference in the frequency of going several times or more.
For that reason I chose Italian.
Another reason was history. History of Italian cuisine in Japan had still not made an impact yet and I had thought that chefs who understood the essence of Italian food were still scarce. I thought I could take advantage of this.
You were still a teenager, right? I think there are a few who think with a perspective of win or lose.
I think there were a few. When I was first hired by a restaurant, I asked about management like cost rates and turnover ratio, and was told, “There was no one who ever asked those kinds of questions.”.
But I thought the ones who did not ask those kinds of questions were unprofessional.
I thought these were things we should know. When I think of it now, I might have been self-trained and mindset on professionalism since I was little because my father was running a business.
Learning at the old Italian restaurant and moving to Europe.
After graduating from college, what I considered were the points of choosing the first workplace?
It was “DONNALOIA”, an old restaurant in Kobe, that I chose for my training.
It was originally an Italian restaurant that was owned by an Italian who came to Japan during the war. From the time it opened, it was the oldest Italian restaurant in Kobe.
The restaurant was built before the Taisho era. In the basement the flooring was spacious and it had a particular smell and the lights were a bit dark. Once I stepped in there, I thought, “This is not Japan.”. It had an exotic atmosphere and I found it interesting.
If I were to apprentice to be a chef, I wanted to work at a restaurant like this. I worked there for 3 years.
What was your training period like?
Back then our income was low and there was not much time off from superiors who acted loud. So there were many tough times. But I thought it was okay because I considered myself a better chef and undefeated.
There were times when I was very upset and thought of getting myself fired by causing a fight, but I thought it would damage my resume, so I stopped.
I was doing service during my first year, but since my superiors quit one after another, I happened to become the second in charge of that restaurant in my second year.
I began cooking staff meals which were fun. But before that my superior was in charge of cooking but he was cutting corners. Once I made the same menu that he used to make and it was not good. Of course he resented me for that. But chefs are like that in a way the ones who prepared the most delicious meal was the winner.
Even their conduct was aggressive like superiors, I thought, “So what can you teach me?”. I did an honest day of work I did more things than I was told to. So if they act like superiors, they should work like superiors. I thought people are no good if they abuse their power just because they are older.
I cooked staff meals almost every day. As a result friend of the owner came to the restaurant to eat. When I listed the menu, there were about 60 orders.
Every day after finishing my work I went to Nankinmachi to buy ingredients and did prework. In the end, no one cooked staff meals except me.
Why I was into staff meals… Actually when I began to work the food of the restaurant was not appealing to me. Of course it was classy and there were many good aspects, but there were areas that I could not understand.
Though I wanted a challenge, I was not allowed to try new food. Even when I went to the market and saw what was available. I found seasoned and fresh food that I wanted to use, but I was told, “There is no such ingredient in Italian cuisine.”. Even when I proposed to use this sauce, I was told, “We don’t serve such food.”.
I found it boring to make the same food over and over again. So I fell into preparing staff meals.
After that you quit and went to Italy. Did you think that you wanted to learn in the home?
Yes, back then there were many people around me who had experience learning abroad. There were ballet dancers who went to England and those who went to Spain and achieved a certificate of graduation as a gemologist.
They told me, “Go and be a man. Don’t you come back.”. Nowadays it is a standard but back then it was rare to train in Europe so there was a time that I had hesitated. But when I think of it now, it was a good chance that they pushed me into going.
Did you decide where to train?
No, I did not decide anywhere. First, I studied at a language school, and then entered a culinary school.
But the school over there was like a college that junior-high school students and high school students went. to I made it up to the 2nd stage at ““DONNALOIA””, being able to make pasta from the dough and had absolute confidence in cooking.
But I was running and running on the beach in P. E. class with schoolmates who were 14 years old or so. Moreover the cooking lessons were quite rare and the range was not that high. Thinking that I could not spend 3 years, I quit over a month later.
After that I went to eat at many places and walked in and negotiated to where I was able to train at “Gualtielo Marchesi”, which was 2 star restaurant in Milano back then. Besides that, I worked at 2 other restaurants or so.
Was it any different training in Italy than in Japan?
I began as a stagiaire (trainee), so when it came to responsibilities of work, it was easier in Italy. Most of all, comparing to Japan with a fixed position, in Italy after proving my skills and being acknowledged I was allowed the freedom to do anything I wanted to do.
There were times when I felt a struggle in matters, but I never felt stressed mentally. I also went around Europe on my days off.
As long as you were stagiaire, I assume that you were running out of money, but how about after that?
I worked at a Japanese restaurant there. When there was a plan of making a Sushi counter-bar in a big club in Milano, they contacted me.
Sushi chefs would come to teach me how to make sushi and they offered me an apartment with 3 rooms and a living room, and they would prepare a car for going to the market and my salary was 200,000 yen at the rate back then, so it was not a bad deal at all. But the contract was for about 2 years.
Back then I saw many Japanese who came to Europe, but the Japanese who lived in Milano and Rome were not like Italian or Japanese. It was not like that they had some high skills but many lived like assistants who filled in spots, so they seemed like no one to me.
For myself also I was thinking whether I should encourage Japanese culture using a little bit of skills with sushi whether it was a target at the Japanese restaurant or not.
When I went abroad, I had more awareness of Japan that were seen from an outside perspective, and there was an identity of being Japanese rising inside of me.
In that situation, when I saw people who became, “undefined Asians who were not anybody.”, I thought, “Oh, I will be like that.” , and I did not want that.
I came to learn Italian cuisine and not to make sushi, so I denied the offer. Then I came back to Japan.