An encounter with Ryugin after being impacted by seeing it in a cooking magazine
I also trained at Ryugin at that time. I remember it clearly even now; it was 2005.
At the time, Chef Yamamoto was bringing cutting-edge techniques from Spain into Japanese cuisine, and I read about it in a cooking magazine and was really impacted.
In Japan, the only chefs who introduced cutting-edge techniques were those cooking Western-style food, so I wondered, “What kind of person is this Chef Yamamoto, who has been doing traditional Japanese cuisine but is now using a cutting-edge approach? It’s like he came from outer space!” So, I wrote a letter, called, and that winter I went right there to train.
When I saw it in the cooking magazine, my interest was caught by the cutting-edge culinary techniques, but once I got there, I was actually more interested in the traditional methods used in Japanese cuisine.
It was my first time in a traditional Japanese restaurant kitchen, and first of all, they had a different way of looking at the ingredients.
In the French cuisine of the time that I knew, it was normal to generalize ingredients as you looked at them. If it’s salmon, what are the sides, and what is the sauce? First, you take the common view of the ingredient, and then go through a process of creating the cooking technique, sauce, and accompaniments.
But Chef Yamamoto’s kitchen was different. This duck and that duck are different individuals, of different sizes and fat content. He would change the cutting method, sides, and cooking method based on that.
I think Japanese cuisine has always had this way of thinking, but the very idea of looking at and observing the condition of the ingredient in this way was deeply interesting to me.
For example, if five eels came in, he would cut off the end of each one, label them A through E, steam them, and taste them in advance. Then he would decide the cooking method based on the individual characteristics of each—this one has a strong smell, that one’s meat is tender, and so on.
This kind of cooking takes the raw materials and looks at their individual characteristics, really going into the ingredients. The process of not using the general way of thinking about an ingredient, but starting with the individual differences, was shocking. My first training session was in the winter, so I used my weekends during the summer to go see the summer ingredients, and I went to the celebration when Ryugin got its first Michelin star, gradually showing up there more and more often.
During the time I was doing this, I was starting to have differences of opinion with Chef Tamura. I had worked there for five years, and Chef Tamura had taught and helped me a lot, but after thinking it over I decided to quit. When I was wondering what to do next, I thought of going to Ryugin.
I had an offer from another famous French restaurant in Tokyo, but when I went to eat there, the food was not good at all. The fact that a slice of daikon that I had eaten at Ryugin was far more delicious gave me the push I needed.
The best decision of my life: leaving French cuisine to learn Japanese cookery at Ryugin
That was a big turning point in my life, and even now I think it was the best decision I ever made. I thought that making this choice might end up in a huge failure, but I had a vague hope that if it happened to go well it could be the start of something new.
When I told Chef Yamamoto that I wanted to work there, I was accepted very easily. I got familiar with the kitchen right away, but at first I studied the things that I had not easily picked up in training, and the biggest, most important thing I learned was about Chef Yamamoto’s strict standards.
I hear in various places about how well chefs trained at Ryugin have done afterward, but I think that is certainly due to making Chef Yamamoto’s standards my own during training.
The thing Chef Yamamoto talked about most in the kitchen was temperature, and the thing I was asked about most was the reason.
I was asked why I chose to cut carrots in one way. Even the way of cutting meat or cooking it had a reason. I think that is another reason why I fit in at Ryugin.
Ever since I had been entrusted with the role of head chef at a young age, I had touched and thought about ingredients on my own. So, I don’t think I was convinced by explanations of “we do this because this is what we always do,” and Chef Yamamoto was also a person who thought for himself, so I understood that approach, shared his way of thinking, and could have dialogue with him.
At the beginning, I was responsible for appetizers and desserts. No one was doing it at the time, and it was right at the change of the seasons for ingredients, so soon the ingredients would be unavailable, and I thought up and suggested the next new menu items.
The season for ingredients is short, so ingredients suddenly become unavailable. Rather than rush it when that happened, I thought it was better to have the menu made in advance. Ryugin’s signature dessert became ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen and made into a powder, then placed into a candy shell shaped like a strawberry. The idea came from an older apple dessert made in the same style, and at the festival going on at that time at Tsuruoka Hachiman Shrine, I saw strawberry candies, so I thought maybe it could be done with a strawberry instead of an apple.
When I discussed this idea with Chef Yamamoto, he said that it might be strange if there were no seeds on the surface, suggesting the addition of poppy seeds, and now the strawberry version of the dessert is more famous than the apple one. After that, we discussed how we could do it in every season, and we started making them with various fruits according to the season.
I had previous experience, but had come in from a different style of cooking, so even though Chef Yamamoto called the other staff members casually by just their names, he would call me Sato-san, in a more formal style, so I felt that he kept a little bit of polite distance between us.
But through this kind of exchange, I felt that the distance between us gradually closed. After doing appetizers and desserts for a while, I moved to the grill section.
Image courtesy of Ta Vie (Tabi)
Working with in-flight meals improved my ability to create recipes that conveyed a message from the chef
Then the following year, 2010, I started working on in-flight meals for Japan Airlines for two years.
At the time, Kyoto was in charge of Japanese cuisine, so even though we were a Japanese restaurant, Ryugin was responsible for Western-style food.
Of course, Chef Yamamoto had eaten various Western foods before, but making them was another story. However, I had a background in French cooking, so I was able to support him.
The menu changed by season, so the Japan Airlines people would come four times a year and we would present our dishes. After that, we would go to Narita and taste the food made by the Japan Airlines cooking team following the recipes, give feedback, go back and taste the adjusted dishes, and so on.
Through this I learned the skill of sharing. Could we somehow turn Chef Yamamoto’s message into an understandable recipe? In addition, they were in-flight meals, so they were prepared by cabin attendants, not chefs. We also had to consider how they would be recreated in the air.
Chef Yamamoto is like a prodigy, and instead of presenting the process, he first presents the goal. In that situation, an ordinary person would come up with an idea that completely ignored the common sense of not doing this or that with in-flight meals because it was impossible.
That’s why creating unusual food is one thing, but actually making it a reality is not an ordinary skill.
For example, putting salad on top of pie, plating sauce in a pretty way, or heating meat properly are simple compared to what we do in the kitchen, but we were racking our brains to figure out how to recreate them on an airplane and how to convey Chef Yamamoto’s message in the recipes.
Furthermore, there was only a short time between getting an idea from Chef Yamamoto and the presentation. There was only about 3 weeks, and we had our usual work preparation to do as well, so if we didn’t get data from experimenting and quantify it, we wouldn’t be on time.
However, that habit is very useful now. That’s because I have to explain recipes accurately to staff members who come from all over the world.
How do we increase the degree of perfection with limited time? Desperation led to improving my English communication ability
The experience was useful for learning English.
I didn’t have any time, so I had the idea of getting the foreign trainees who came to Ryugin to help me. At that time and still now, trainees come to Ryugin from all over the world, but they don’t have a particularly set position, and sometimes had nothing to do.
Also, Japanese people tend to be shy overall and don’t speak up assertively. So, I spoke up assertively myself, got friendly with them, and had them help me with preparation and recipe development. From that experience, I learned English, and I think I lost my resistance to communicating in English.
I worked like that for three years, and eventually started thinking about opening my own independent restaurant. Since I was raised in the mountains, I was drawn to the sea. So I was sort of thinking about opening a restaurant around Kamakura, where I could have work-life balance.
At that time, Ryugin was opening a restaurant in Hong Kong, and I was asked if I would be the executive chef there.
Hong Kong is near the sea, and has an exotic urban atmosphere too. I had thought that I would like to try working overseas, so I gratefully accepted the offer.
At the time, those of us working in the kitchen felt that a branch restaurant would be impossible. Every day, Chef Yamamoto gave us very detailed instructions, so we could not imagine a kitchen without him.
Since I had long specialized in French cooking, and learned Japanese cuisine for only three years at Ryugin, it felt like I was using chopsticks with my left (non-dominant) hand, but then Hidemichi Seki (current executive chef of Tenku Ryugin), who had been working at Ryugin ever since graduating from culinary school, also came along as my sous chef, and I thought I could entrust things to him to a degree.
Challenging myself overseas to become the head chef of Ryugin’s first foreign branch, Hong Kong’s Tenku Ryugin
Did you actually end up having any trouble?
I ran into various obstacles and troubles, but first was creating the menu. The menus for the first two months came from Chef Yamamoto, but after that, he didn’t send any more. Mr. Seki, my sous chef, didn’t offer any menu suggestions, perhaps out of hesitation.
All I could do was trust my own palate, and three months after opening I started fumbling to begin making dishes. I switched to Japanese cuisine in my head, and decided to make things that I thought were delicious.
The first theme I started with was to use only Japanese products and offer dishes that were no different from those at Ryugin in Tokyo.
There was no problem as far as Japanese ingredients in Hong Kong. I decided that if I always looked up to another person I would not grow, and although we were a branch of Ryugin, I would boldly treat it like my own restaurant.
Chef Yamamoto himself did not strictly adhere only to Japanese ingredients or cooking techniques; the one thing he asked was whether something was the correct approach to an ingredient. I took off the training wheels and started to seriously think about how to express myself.
First, what was the meaning of offering Japanese food in a foreign country?
It is said that Japanese cooking values a seasonal feeling, but in foreign countries they do not have the same sense of seasons as Japan, even towards their own climate, so what would it mean to convey a sense of seasonality?
How could we get people to understand Japanese cooking when they were not raised eating it? What is the meaning of eating Japanese food in Hong Kong?
I think about these kinds of questions a lot even now. I also think they are important to confirm my own role.
The “meaning of making Japanese food overseas” that continued to trouble me
One time, a regular customer who had tried food at restaurants around the world said something to me about these unanswered questions.
“The taste of ingredients is the easiest thing for everyone around the world to share. Delicious foods are delicious!” Hearing these words, I decided to offer more simple dishes with the flavor of ingredients I believed in.
Unlike Japanese people, residents of Hong Kong don’t do hours of overtime, so there’s also the consideration that you have to do things simply. But it isn’t just about making things simple; offering originality is important, as well as maintaining firm quality.
For example, take sukiyaki. Ordinary Japanese restaurants put meat in sukiyaki broth and serve it just like that. When you do that, the broth reduces, and the color gets cloudy.
In that case, I realized that it would be better to cook the meat alone first, take it out, and then pour in the broth afterward.
Furthermore, when I thought about the temperature of the beef and egg, I realized that cooking meat gently at a low temperature is good, and slow-boiled eggs are as well. Doing it that way means cooking both at a temperature around 60 degrees.
And then, the only sense of temperature comes from the broth. Thinking logically in that way, I tried to increase the level of perfection through methods that you wouldn’t think of by only doing Japanese cooking.
I worked on thinking of quantifying logically-applied ways of doing things and considered how to preserve a repetitiveness that leads to the same result each time.
Two years after opening, I was still hoping to start my own independent restaurant, remove the framework of Ryugin, and express my own originality, so I told Chef Yamamoto that I would quit at the end of the following year. I had been in charge of the restaurant, so I thought it would be best to let Chef Yamamoto know a year in advance.
Chef Yamamoto knew that I had always wanted to open my own place, so he gladly supported me.
Opening my own restaurant, Ta Vie (Tabi)
I had experience working abroad in Hong Kong, and felt that I wanted to do this internationally, so I considered opening my restaurant in Hong Kong, Singapore, or Thailand.
I had been working there for three years as a head chef, had customers, knew the situation in the area well, had found partners, and above all, it was easy to get ingredients from around the world, including Japan (this was probably the most important). For these reasons, I decided to open a restaurant in Hong Kong.
I named the restaurant Ta Vie, meaning “your life” in French, which also sounds like Tabi, meaning “journey” in Japanese. It symbolizes my background in French and Japanese cuisine.
I looked at a lot of properties, but a partner was running a steakhouse, which I ended up remodeling and using. At the end of March 2015, I quit Ryugin, and opened on May 13th of the same year, so I think things went pretty smoothly.
But the hard part was attracting customers. More than we realize in Japan, Hong Kong is not the kind of place where high-class restaurants thrive. Also, it may have been too early in Hong Kong for the ideal cuisine that I had in mind.
In Hong Kong, I didn’t want to do the so-called Japanese French food found in Tokyo, but rather a restaurant that only I could open, using more local ingredients, but the Hong Kong market was not welcoming to that.
Still, in order to get greater success than I had so far, I felt that there was no future in using 100% Japanese ingredients, so I boldly challenged myself to use only ingredients found here. Attracting customers was a struggle, but thankfully that year I got a Michelin star, two the next year, and then I was ranked in “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants,” and the situation has gradually changed for the better.
But Hong Kong is a tough market for high-class restaurants. Combined with shrewd money sense, people in Hong Kong do not like long courses of cooking. I’ve been told five items at most by my Hong Kong partners. I’ve taken their advice and slightly reduced the number of plates, but have not made a significant change.
I was told by my partners that it’s best to raise the price, anyway. Restaurants in Hong Kong have been raising their prices in general, but for customers who come from overseas, the price must still feel relatively high. So I’m not sure about raising my prices in that case. In that way, I am constantly reconsidering my role from all viewpoints.
Is there an open position? Continuing to consider what position my restaurant should take
Using the example of soccer, where should I be in order for the ball to come to me? In other words, I have always thought about open spaces and my own position.
This includes my positioning as a chef. Learning Japanese cuisine at Ryugin also meant that I had to reconsider myself from a different standpoint.
I am thinking now about what the stance of Ta Vie is, and how it fits in the world.
I live near the market so that I can go there every day, and I have encountered Hong Kong food culture for three years, so it has influenced my specialty dishes and the style of my restaurant. After three years, I finally feel recently that I can begin the research into Asian ingredients and food culture that I wanted to do from the beginning.
What is difficult in doing that?
Forming a team. Right now I’m lacking a team.
Previously, my team was mainly from Hong Kong, and some staff stayed for a year and a half, but now they are changing out, and they stay six months at the longest. They come from many countries, including France, South Korea, etc.
In this situation, I’m really glad that I had the experience of recipe sharing and managing operations while I was working with in-flight meals. Even though the people change, I think I have been able to keep the framework of the cooking from shifting.
What do you value in choosing team members?
Above all, it is important that they are not liars or dishonest people. I think people who cut corners when no one else is there, or hide mistakes, would not be good.
A good person will admit their mistakes even if someone will certainly be angry at them, and they are diligent about doing things as they were taught even if no one is there to see.
Do you have any advice for others to succeed in foreign countries in the future?
It’s ordinary advice, but you need good verbal communication, a spirit that does not give up, and patience.
In this industry, there are many people with passion, but surprisingly few with patience. But patience is more important than passion.
Particularly overseas, there are many things you have to persevere through. A person with patience who can flexibly handle various situations will surely be able to make it overseas.
(Interview/text/photography: Kyoko Nakayama)