It is essential to have a clear image of where you are going. If you cannot see your goal, you will never be able to get there.
You continued with your studies, while making a variety of discoveries along the way. Do you have any advice for young chefs in terms of polishing their skills?
My advice would be not to try things out blindly without having a clear objective. It is impossible to achieve anything that way. For example, if I was to say to a youngster to prepare a simple oyako-donburi (chicken and egg over rice), they would follow the instructions, peeling and cutting the onions, preparing the dashi stock, beating the egg, and so on. But the egg would then come out dry and crumbly, and the chicken would also be tough. That is to be expected. This is because he would be doing things haphazardly, without having a clear view of his goal.
To prepare this dish, you need to have a clear image of the finished item in your head. Imagine a warm and steaming dish, served with succulent chicken and soft-cooked eggs… Only then you can plan in great detail how to cut the chicken, when to add the eggs, and so on, in order to achieve your final result. This applies not only to cooking, but to other areas in life as well.
How well can you visualize your ultimate end point? This defines the highest point that you are able to achieve.
This applies also to customer hospitality. Kashiwaya fundamentally serves set course meals. However, we always have a clear image of what type of conversation would take place as the customers enjoy their meal—all the way from the very first dish to the last. We also ask ourselves, what will they take home with them? We are always planning ahead, making decisions on what preparations to make and how to execute the meals, all in order to achieve that final goal.
It is important to nurture staff that are able to share the same view of the restaurant’s future.
The Hong Kong branch of Kashiwaya was launched in 2015. The person in charge of the branch has been working there for 20 years, and their current head chef has also been there for 17 years. They have both been there for a very long time. Do you have a secret for this?
In hindsight, thinking about the people that have stayed with us for many years, I would say that we were always in frequent communication with them. At the time, after the collapse of the bubble economy, we had many days with no reservations. So we would go around art galleries and industrial art exhibitions so that I could share many of my objectives with them.
Around ten years after opening, I wanted to make substantial improvements to the salary and working conditions of our employees. In order to achieve this, I wondered whether to expand in terms of size, or find other ways to achieve the same thing. It was a period of transition for us. My staff must have had their own future goals as well, so I told them that they would have my full support if they wanted to become independent. However, if they were able to share the same vision and goals that I had for Kashiwaya as a group, then I would take them with me and head in that direction. Their response was, “Let’s do it together!” This allowed us to decide on the launch of our restaurant in Hong Kong, and also the refurbishment that we did in February 2016 for increasing our capacity from five rooms to seven rooms. Rather than expanding blindly while meeting customer requirements, it was important for us all to work together while keeping in mind our vision for the restaurant in three to five years’ time.
The amount of communication that takes place between us is one of the key points. For example, one of the initiatives that we are following at the moment consists of me writing a menu down, which is then prepared by the kitchen staff for testing purposes. We all then sit down and eat it together, discussing the thoughts and feelings behind each dish, how they relate to Japanese customs, and the reason behind our choices of tableware. In this way, we deepen our own understanding of the menu. By doing this continuously for one or two years, I sense a strong core starting to form, binding us together to our food and our services.
So it is important for you all to move in the same direction as a group. In terms of employment and training, this is another eternal challenge experienced by many restaurants.
Although this is hard to achieve in the kitchen, it is much more so when dealing with services. In particular, our restaurant places great importance on expressing and incorporating Japan’s traditional culture, sense of beauty, and spirit into our course meal dishes. Therefore, it is extremely important —I would say, almost essential— for us to have service staff capable of conveying this to our customers. When we were young, well-renowned traditional Japanese restaurants used to have specialist waitresses, who were highly knowledgeable in hospitality techniques and etiquette, with an in-depth understanding of Japanese culture. In those days, it was highly recognized as a professional occupation. However, nowadays, this occupation has become extremely ambiguous.
Certainly, French cuisine has seen the introduction of sommeliers, who I believe are highly recognized as service professionals. Surely there should also be an equivalent person in the world of Japanese cuisine.
We also often hear about sommeliers opening up their own restaurants. This has caused the creation of a new type of brand, offering food and services that showcase an in-depth knowledge of wine.
Similarly, we have had people who have been refining their skills at Kashiwaya for 10 to 15 years. They have then left us to open up their own restaurant with a chef that is able to work with them to express their own concepts of hospitality. It would be fun to start an era where customers are able to think, “That service person from Kashiwaya seems to have opened up a new restaurant. Let’s try it out!” It would be great to be able to prepare the ground for a new type of career that increases the status of service staff.
As a person who is constantly monitoring the land of human resources within the restaurant industry, this really resonates with me. It is an amazing way of thinking. Do you have any dreams for the future?
With over 1,000 years of history, Japanese people have developed great feelings of deep respect toward nature. My dream is to create food that is able to incorporate Japanese events and customs, in the hope that it would allow people to experience Japan and its culture. This would be aimed at young Japanese people, who are nowadays less likely to experience traditional culture; as well as foreign visitors, to help them experience the greatness of Japan. I would like our restaurant to be a gateway leading to this dream.
Through our restaurant’s food, I would like our customers to experience Japanese culture, thereby generating a widespread interest in Japan around the world. I would like our customers to take home with them a seed that will help others discover all that is great and fascinating about Japan. I want to aim to reach the point where, if an overseas friend were to ask, “Where would you recommend going to have fun in Japan?” the immediate response would be, “You should definitely go to Kashiwaya.”
（Interviewer: Osamu Saito, Writer: Tomoko Tanaka, Photographer: Kengo Osaka）