Image courtesy of Ta Vie (Tabi)
Attracted to the path of cooking by interesting transformations of ingredients
When did you start down the path of cooking?
I took university entrance exams but didn’t do well, and while I was waiting for the next year, I took a part-time job at a Western-style restaurant in Karuizawa; that was what started it. It was an ordinary Western-style restaurant that served things like omurice, but the chef did French cooking and had previously worked with a French chef.
In those days in Nagano, cake usually meant something with whipped cream, but during my time there we were making tarts that were like real French pastries. I heard the chef saying that French cuisine was wonderful, and it was as if I could actually see France hazily, like an island across the sea.
It was interesting how in cooking, one thing could change in form and flavor, like mixing flour and water, letting it rise, and baking it into bread; I worked there from the spring until around December, for two seasons, and decided to enter the culinary world.
So it was a completely different career path from those who graduate from high school and enter culinary school hoping to work at a three-star restaurant. I truly started with manual labor.
I decided to go to Tokyo first, and started working at a wine bar there, but the working environment itself was not very good, and I quit after about ten months.
I returned to my parents’ home, and worked at an Italian place in Nagano, but as fate would have it, I got a job as a head chef cooking French cuisine when I was 25.
You seized an opportunity at quite a young age.
Yes, I think having the experience of serving my own food in my mid-twenties was very meaningful to my career. Recently I mentored a young Singaporean chef who opened a pop-up restaurant called Magic Square for just a year, and I felt that what they are doing now is very similar to what I was doing then.
Being a head chef at a young age and serving your own food is not all advantages. There is also the downside of losing the chance to learn in the way my generation did. That’s exactly why I need to touch and think about the ingredients for myself.
If you learn from someone, you also learn about their successes and failures and their process of trial and error, and you can start from beyond that, but becoming a head chef at a young age means you have to encounter and think about everything by yourself from the beginning. It’s certainly a more roundabout way than being taught.
When I look back now, that time was a detour, but I think it really had a major effect on how I worked afterward. I quit that restaurant after two years, and started working with a local chef who had returned from France.
That chef had experience training at various Michelin-starred restaurants in France in the 1990s. He’d had an unusually spectacular career for Nagano at the time, training under famous chefs such as Marc Veyrat and Olivier Roellinger during the golden age of the 1990s.
That restaurant had over 20 customer seats, but the chef and I were the only two working there.
Our routine was to go into the kitchen for preparation, and once the doors opened, we started the service in front. Until then I had made food in my own self-taught style, so it was the first time I had worked with a chef who had experience in Michelin-starred restaurants. So, after trying various things in my way, I think it was a very good opportunity to learn from someone else. This chef had a gifted palate, and the flavors of his dishes were amazing. Even using ordinary ingredients, there was a wonderful balance of flavors. He was the type of chef that did not use recipes, but went by his own taste.
But he was a little unusual; for example, he used newspaper ads instead of parchment paper when he baked cakes, and he didn’t preheat the oven. Anyway, he was a little different. Sometimes it was tough to do things well, but I learned patience, and the cooking itself was amazing, so I respected him. That was from when I was 26 until I was 28. During that time, I also studied wine and got qualified as a sommelier.
To the famous Nagano restaurant Hermitage de Tamura
Once again, an encounter here led you to your future path, didn’t it?
Yes, this chef was a former coworker of Chef Tamura from Hermitage de Tamura. Through that connection, Chef Tamura came to our restaurant and liked my service. The restaurant where I was working at the time was just about to close, so it was great timing when Chef Tamura invited me to come.
The restaurant was located inside the renovated holiday home of author Tsutomu Mizukami, with a garden, and the study turned into a private room, and even when I remember it now, it was really a beautiful restaurant.
At first, I was hired to work in the front of the house. But after two months, I was permitted into the kitchen, and went back and forth from the service to the kitchen.
I had been working in small restaurants all along up until then, so seven people in the kitchen and five in the service felt very large. There were even proper sections.
It was my first time to work in such a large kitchen, and the first thing I thought when I went in was that there were so many people it would be hard to remember everyone’s name. It was my first time in fine dining, and my coworkers of the same age had a completely different approach to service, which motivated me.
While doing this and that, several months later, a more casual sister restaurant called Musai-an opened, and I started working in the kitchen there.
The restaurant offered light meals such as curry and sandwiches, and there were three people in the kitchen. I was in charge of the kitchen, service, and cooking, and the next year I was put in charge of wine both there and at the main store, so it was a fun and fulfilling time. All I remember is running around all the time. It might have been the time in my life that I worked most.
Hermitage was closed on Sunday and Monday, but on other days I worked from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., and went to further training as well.
Led by the desire to know more and learn more, this was a time of pursuing knowledge in various places
The situation in Karuizawa is that restaurants close for about two months in the winter. During that time, I did training at a bakery, went to France to go around and eat different things, and also did my first training at Ryugin.
I was making bread at Musai-an, so I was sent to Mikio Koda at Levain Bakery in Ueda to learn about making bread with wild yeast, which was still rare at that time, and learned about desserts at Patisserie Rond-to in Obuse with Masaaki Toyoda, who trained at Au Bon Vieux.
I went early in the mornings, or did training only on weekends. I sent letters, or went and asked directly, feeling like I was devoting myself to going around knocking on doors. Anyway, I wanted to learn about all kinds of things. It was fun, too. When I did that, it affected my coworkers as well, who started going to training. It was like a training fad at work.
I’ve been that way since I was a child—when I get involved in something, I feel neither pain nor hunger. The adrenaline kept coming, and I was like that for a long time, I think. When I look back, I think I worked really hard. I felt like I would learn anything.
So it was a little different from the career path followed by many chefs, who are attracted by a famous chef and enter their “castle.” I enjoyed the work that was before me at the time, and at times I thought I wanted to look a little further ahead or above, and it felt like before I knew it, I was here.
Conversely, if I’d had high ambitions from the beginning, I might have given up along the way. However, I had a pure love for French cuisine, and thought changing the form of things was interesting. When you simmer meat with savory herbs and wine, it produces a flavor unlike any other. I like that process, and even now the thing that makes me happiest is when I learn to do something I couldn’t do before. Both now and in the past, there are so many things I cannot do.
At the time as well, I would think that I was lacking in this area or that area. Rather than comparing myself to someone else, I had a vague sense that there were a lot of things I did not know.
I was always imagining myself being independent in the future, so in order to succeed with cooking, I thought I had to know and learn all kinds of things. Of course, I was working with people the same age as me, so in a sense they were also my rivals, which motivated me as well.
After that, I entered the kitchen at the main restaurant of Hermitage de Tamura, and there was talk of a sister restaurant at the Mercian whiskey distillery, so I worked there from age 30 to 32.
During the winter break, I trained at a restaurant in Paris, and I went not only to France, but also to Spain, which was popular at the time. In particular, the delicate cuisine of Josean Alija of Nerua in Bilbao left an impression on me.
He was younger than I was, but his aim in cooking was detailed, and it was impressive that his cooking was not swayed by accepted practice. For example, with beans, chefs usually try to bring out their sweetness. But he would highlight their raw grassiness. His cooking would surprise you with his courage to show that side of things. In a way, it was cooking that got fans.
I still collaborate with Chef Josean even after opening my own restaurant in Hong Kong.