My youth: only thinking about food in efforts to be “the best in Japan.”
What was your first chance to enter the culinary field?
It was because I had always liked cooking, but it actually might be my brother’s influence. My parents both worked, and my brother, who is 12 years older than me, used to cook me noodles and fried rice on weekends. They were easy meals, but he liked pranks so he would put toys and erasers in the soup as a joke. I think it was a way to entertain his little brother, but I feel that it was my origin story. It led to the idea of adding surprises and discoveries into a plate.
And I think I got influenced by comics and anime, too.
They were comics about cooking, like Mr. Ajikko (a famous Japanese comics where a boy battles in a kitchen against famous chefs). I think many people know about it.
There were many comics with a cooking theme, and I always read them.
Also, there were many TV programs where I saw famous chefs appear.
There was a show where Mr. Mikuni walked around supermarkets in other countries, holding a small knife and tasting ingredients like green peppers; so I grew to admire French cuisine.
After graduating high school you entered Tsuji Culinary College in Osaka, correct?
The reason I left Tokyo and came to Osaka was because I wanted to start from zero in a place where I knew no one. I thought it would be better for me.
I was going to college in the afternoon and working at restaurants as a part-time job with accommodation. My classmates at college went out and had fun after school, but I was able to gain experience at actual restaurants. Thinking of it now, it was good because I could accumulate working experience in a very complete way.
As time went on, there came a time to think about a job.
Thinking that I wanted to work at the best place in Japan, I applied to the Hotel Seiyo Ginza. Back then it was an era when hotels such as the New Otani, Okura, and Imperial Hotel came up when talking about first-class cuisine.
Out of those hotels I thought the best was Hotel Seiyo Ginza.
But there was only one spot for one cook from our college.
Even when I asked my teacher about it, he would tell me not to even apply. But I was not willing to give up, so I went ahead and applied, and was able to pass, beating out 11 other candidates.
I was really lucky.
What kind of things did you learn at Hotel Seiyo Ginza?
Seiyo Ginza back then had Mr. Akio Kamata as an executive chef and Mr. Masaya Tasaki as chief sommelier. I had a chance to experience the field for about two years and there was one thing in particular that made me want to study not only cooking but also service.
I had an opportunity to work banquets, which was a separate division in the hotel, and while observing interactions with customers, I decided that I needed experience in service. Food is generally good in such environments, but the service must be first-class also. Then I started working at the Okura Hotel. I worked in main dining for nearly two years.
Just like Seiyo Ginza, it was a strict but comfortable workplace.
For example, at Seiyo Ginza, even when the mushroon garnishing the place was put in the wrong direction, I was scolded quite badly: “This is no place to get creative!” But it was wonderful that all the seniors would answer all my questions whenever I didn’t know something.
Hotel Okura was an amazing workplace but the customers were also amazing.
It was really a place where there were many things I could learn, and it was very comfortable. But I can’t rely on a comfortable atmosphere.
I realized I wouldn’t be able to go back to a career in cooking if I continued on this path, so I decided to get back in the kitchen and joined a restaurant in Osaka, where I studied for two years.
You leveled up whenever you found something that you wanted to learn, right?
This is just my way of thinking, but in this industry, you can get by as long as you have good culinary sense, even if you don’t have the skills. For example, in Europe they learn cooking from a logical standpoint.
The idea is that if you can think up good food, you can rely on skillful team members for actual cooking. There are many restaurants like that overseas.
On the other hand, in Japan, everyone starts by learning skills instead of theory.
It is common to gain experience at the same workplace for five or ten years to be on your own, but the reality is that you don’t get to do any important jobs for the first several years.
At the same time, when someone who has 20 years’ experience at the same place opens his own restaurant, sometimes that person doesn’t have anything beyond what he had experienced at his former workplace. Then, the restaurant serves high-class course meals and the food is first-class, but the tablecloths are vinyl, or the music in the dining hall doesn’t match the atmosphere, et cetera.
So I think chefs should move on to the next step when they feel that they have learned all that they can learn at the current place, and think about what they are missing.
When I was young, I had the foresight to choose my career based on gaining what I was missing, and I studied under various people to learn new things.