The fateful 3 days. Going solo, or being a hotel chef.
Is it common for people to leave the hotel to run their own place?
It’s actually quite rare. Most people either devote their career to the hotel, or train in France before becoming independent. I thought about going to France, but if I were to go I would want to stay for 3, 4 years, and I thought it would be too late at my age then, so I gave up. So in order to earn savings to start my own business, I worked part-time as a dispatch cook for one year.
I’m surprised that a sous-chef at a hotel also had a part time job on the side. Wasn’t it pretty rough to save up funds for a whole year?
Yes, at my part time job I became a Yes Man and simply did what I was told to do. For that year, since I had the motivator of wanting to be independent, I was working non-stop for 7 days a week.
So you saved up funds for a year, and you are finally going solo. Were you looking near Utsubo Park (Osaka Prefecture) for your location?
Actually, since I didn’t have time to look for a location by myself, I had someone else look for me, requesting “a floor of a building between Yodoya-bashi and Honmachi, but somewhere west of Midosuji” with the impression that I wanted it to be in an “adult city”.
Then one day, I got a phone call from someone at a design company saying “there’s a great property available,” but it turned out to be a 3-floored building. I thought, “This is wrong!”, but an elderly property owner was also there, and they said, “This is land that has been passed on for generations, so we want to rent it out to a good person. Thank you so much,” so I couldn’t really say no… Not only that, someone the interior of the store and the design sketches had already been made.
At that time, I couldn’t make a decision. I also heard that another French chef was going to visit later, so I said, “Please just wait for 3 days,” and went home. But, and this is still a mystery, but the next day the head chef of the hotel called me over and asked me if I wanted to become a chef.
A chef at a hotel in your 20s! That’s pretty impressive. That’s really a big decision to make.
Yes, of course I was stuck between the two. At the time it was really rare for someone in their 20s to become a chef at a hotel, so I think the hotel was also thinking strategically. I talked with a lot of people, but most people would say I should become the chef at the hotel. However, there was a part of me that couldn’t quite set my mind.
So I scaled my decision in terms of, which would I hate more if someone else took my position? It was easy to think of someone else being a chef at the hotel. But I really didn’t want someone else to be heading that restaurant. I could imagine myself visiting that restaurant later, and getting angry at the person running it. Ha ha, does this make me a bad person?
So that’s how I decided to go solo.
When I told the hotel I was going to run my own place, suprisingly two of the service men said they wanted to come with me. I would never invite someone, because I couldn’t take responsibility for the restaurant’s success, and I told them that, but they still came with me.
Since then, they have been running the restaurant with me.
So the two servers are former hotel staff. That’s why they had great customer service.
Wanting to become the most powerful back stage staff, so that customers could enjoy a fantasy world.
How was it, gaining your independence?
Of course, in the beginning I was really motivated, but I was really beaten down in the first month. I had no money to advertise at the time, so I had no customers. That meant all the ingredients went to waste, and I couldn’t make any decent food… it was a spiral of doom. On the 2nd month, I was even thinking, “I wish some car would hit me if I just lay on the road.”
But one day, I gave up in a way, thinking, “It’s fine if we go out of business! We’ve got a lot of debt, but even if I leave the cooking world, I can pay it back if I have 30 years or so.” So I decided, “I’ll go back to my roots.” When I think about it now, I still wasn’t thinking about our customers 100%, and I was just trying to look good for myself.
Until then, I was only thinking about cooking from the perspective of the kitchen. But from then I started thinking about cooking from the perspective of this seat (customer’s seat). For example, even if the plate is beautiful, if I thought, “This is hard to eat,” then I would change the decoration. I started thinking about how to make people want to eat my food. I changed my way of thinking and decorated my food so that customers could easily eat and enjoy the plate that I also think is delicious. When I started doing that, I started getting some regular customers.
So you had some hard times as well. Did you have any ideals about how you wanted your restaurant to be?
Of course, the food has to be good. I also wanted to provide some added value, so both the food and the atmosphere of the store was something you couldn’t experience at home. I wanted my customers to really enjoy their dining experience. The restaurant name “Différence” means “something different” or “off”, and I chose this name to express my desire for my customers to experience a fantasy.
In terms of the cooking, I am not too particular about making “French food”. I wanted to use fresh, seasonal Japanese ingredients since we are in Japan, and wanted to surprise people with my unique choice and cooking style of the ingredients. I guess that is my style.
You did use burdock roots as a desert.
Yes I did. While the format of the restaurant is French, it’s in Japan. That is why I think it’s important to use good ingredients harvested in Japan. If there is a good citrus junos that day, I would use it.
What kind of team is your restaurant?
I think that my store doesn’t belong to me, but to everyone on the staff. Because I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything by myself. I always say this, but the face of the store are the 2 servers. I want to be the “most powerful backstage staff”, so I can immerse myself 100% into cooking. Because the reason why I went solo in the first place is to do my own cooking.
It’s funny that you think the chef, who is the main character in any restaurant, is the “most powerful backstage staff”.
Yes, if my customers are having fun, I don’t care if they are coming to see the servers and the cooking is something on the side. I don’t mind good service being the main goal of my place. Of course, us chefs work hard too! That’s why I want the staff to do what they want.