Putting a Dream Before his Personal Life
It all began one day during Yamamoto’s 2nd year of junior high school, when he tried making a simmered eggplant dish from a cook book. His parents praised him on the quality of the dish, and he found himself wanting to try more. Cooking quickly became his hobby, and then his specialty, and he had no reservations about enrolling in culinary school. After graduating, he began working at the Japanese restaurant, Takada Hassho, in Gifu, where he devoted himself to his craft for ten years.
Why did you choose Japanese cuisine as opposed to other genres of cooking?
My parents and my grandfather, originally from Ashikaga City in Tochigi Prefecture, loved food so much that they sometimes traveled as far as Tokyo just to visit a restaurant. They would bring me along, which gave me the opportunity to try different kinds of cuisine. I found myself drawn to the atmosphere of Japanese cooking – the way the chefs treated the customers and the way the tables were set. It felt very profound and left a deep impression on me. Once I became interested in cooking in junior high school, I started studying on my own, buying cook books and ingredients with my allowance. I’d get excited whenever my friends or family praised my cooking, and as I experimented more and more, I realized how much I enjoyed Japanese cuisine, and I thought, “I want to master this.”
What made you decided to work at Takada Hassho in Gifu? Were you already familiar with the area?
Not at all. The master came to my culinary school to give a lecture, and I was fascinated by what he had to say. He had a really open-minded approach to cooking. If it would make the customer happy, he didn’t care what kind techniques were used. Chinese ingredients, French ingredients – anything. I really sympathized with that attitude, and his dishes all looked beautiful. I also remember being impressed by his attentiveness towards the students. I knew this was someone I could learn from and that I would enjoy it.
You lived in a dormitory in a completely new place, with no friends or family. That must have been difficult.
I had originally planned to study in Tokyo, so I had some doubts at first. But then I met the master at my school, and I was presented with a choice between Tokyo and Gifu. I decided it would be best to get away from friends for at least a few years if I wanted to pursue my dream.
That takes a lot of determination. So what was that “dream” exactly?
Ever since aspiring to be a cook, I had decided that I wanted to be a first-class chef and open my store by the age of 31. I had lots of friends in Tokyo, and I knew if they were nearby, I’d end up killing a lot of time with them. But if I moved to another prefecture, I wouldn’t be able to see them even if I wanted to.
The master told me to come with “only a change of clothes and a futon,” so I did just that. My first dorm room was with three people, all of whom were my seniors, so it was a bit rough. I was generally treated as the underlying. Even at work, my superiors worked me hard, and I got stuck with all of the odd jobs around the restaurant. I had to come in before everyone else in the morning, and I stayed late to clean up. For a while, I was only getting two to three hours of sleep a night.
Overcoming his First Trials
Yamamoto quickly stood out among his coworkers, earning the recognition of the store owner, Takada Haruyuki (the master). However, this also earned him the jealousy of his seniors, and he was frequently subject to mistreatment. One day, when he got into a big fight with one of the seniors, he ran out of the store and headed home to Tochigi, feeling neglected, only to find Master Takada waiting for him at the front door. This happened about five months after beginning his training in Gifu.
They really pushed you to your limit, huh?
The restaurant had a very hierarchical environment. There may be no way around that in this line of work, but I couldn’t even speak my mind openly. I was frequently mistreated, there were constant meaningless conflicts, and no one listened to reason. A kitchen should operate as a team, but the cooks were holding each other back and badmouthing each other. It was ridiculous.
There was one senior that I could talk with, to whom I left my final words: “This restaurant intolerable. I quit.” I left the restaurant without notice and stopped showing up for work. I don’t think that was excusable and I wasn’t really thinking of the consequences, but I couldn’t handle being there any longer.
But Takada came after you, all the way to Ashikaga City.
He was standing in front of my house when, and he said to me, “Yamamoto, what the heck are you doing?” I started crying.
He continued, “You’ve worked so hard to come this far. Don’t throw it all away now. I’ll give you another chance, so come back to the store. You can take two or three days to think it over, but even if you decide to quit, make sure you come to the store and end things properly.” He was absolutely right. And when I received a letter from the head chef apologizing for not managing his team better, I decided to head back.
In any case, running off like that was pretty pathetic, and I felt ashamed. I apologized in front of everyone, asking them for another chance. They acknowledged that they were out of line as well, and from then on, we were finally able to communicate with each other, and I was able to tell the master how I really felt. The mistreatment stopped, and the environment at the restaurant improved significantly.
So from that point on, you were able to focus on your training?
There were other barriers to overcome. I had been confident in my ability to compete with some of my coworkers from the start – at least the ones with up to three more years of experience than me – but I realized I was no match for the seniors six or seven years above me.
I felt like I had too much extraneous knowledge, and it was holding me back. I still had so much to room for improvement with things like handling knives, my sense of taste, and arranging dishes and displaying foods. However, I had run away once and I wasn’t going to do it again, so I put aside my pride. I listened to others’ opinions, and I asked my superiors to teach me things. With that, I was able to overcome a lot of walls.
You were promoted to head chef at the age of 25, correct?
Yeah, the previous head chef got into a traffic accident and fractured some bones. The master told me to give it a shot, and I declined at first, telling him that I wasn’t ready for that kind of position. He told me, “you can cook anything you want, as long as you think it will please the customer,” and I was thought that was a pretty amazing opportunity. When he assured me that he would help me out when I need it, it gave me the confidence to accept the position.
The kitchen staff at the time consisted of ten people, eight of whom were older than me, and there was an elderly server as well. I was worried this would become an issue again…and I was right (laughs). People don’t like it someone young suddenly becomes their superior. Everyone started doing the bare minimum they could get away with and refused to work any harder.
How did you resolve that?
I worked as hard as I could to make sure there was nothing to complain about. I showed up at the restaurant earlier than everyone to clean, and I stayed after everyone went home, experimenting with new dishes, making menus and handling odd jobs. I would just have to make them realize how silly it is when the boss is working his tail off but the subordinates aren’t pulling their weight. I still remember how everyone’s attitudes slowly shifted over time.