“Where is my food?” I plateaued right after becoming a chef.
Who was the biggest influence on you?
A senior chef during my time at Seiyo Ginza was the master for me. Though he was young, he taught me many things and was the one who I was most indebted to. At Seiyo Ginza he was condidered Mr. Akio Kamata’s right-hand man.
He was going to open a new restaurant in Kanagawa and I wanted to work with him, but there was no vacant position at the time. So instead, I worked in a different place in Osaka for about a year. After a year I finally went to Kanagawa, being accepted to his restaurant, and I worked there for four and a half years. I learned everything from hors d’oeuvres to sauce and desserts, and I thought I was able to do anything.
But in that restaurant the management rights were changed and the team broke up.
It just so happened that a restaurant in Osaka was looking for a chef at that time.
As I said earlier, I thought I could do anything back then, so I was quite confident about being in the position of chef. But I later noticed that it was a great misunderstanding.
What did you begin to notice as you became a chef?
I was 27 years old back then. It was ten years after entering the culinary industry.
After experience in everything from inexpensive restaurants to fine dining restaurants, with various people and environments, I thought there was nothing beyond my ability.
Actually my salary back then was around the mid-100,000 yen level, but when I was hired with a title, “chef,” it suddenly rose to the upper 300,000 yen level. I thought the world worked like that.
But soon after I became a chef, I realized my lack of skills.
I must have done numerous recipes up until then, but as I became a chef, I couldn’t think of any new cuisine. As it got busier, I ended up pulling out old recipe books.
Though I was trying to create my own cuisine, I was not confident that I was creating delicious food. It just wasn’t working. After maturing a little more, even though I used to think I had risen as high as I could go, I realized there may have been a ceiling right above my head.
What did you do after that?
Repetition was not enough. I thought there were missing pieces preventing me from making my own cuisine. So I decided that I wanted to train with my master, who was working as an executive chef at a hotel in Kyoto. I always thought that his cuisine was the most delicious. It was like starting all over again. I spent four years with him.
And as I gained confidence, I asked my master about going independent.
He said it was too early. I replied, “Then please let me go abroad to train.” And so I was permitted to leave his restaurant.
Why did you choose Spain instead of France?
In essence, it was because Spanish cuisine was “free.” It’s not around anymore, but like El Bulli*1, which was said to be the world’s most unreservable restaurant, the world of Spanish cuisine had a history of deconstruction and reconstruction.
French cuisine has specific style – “It should be like this.” Recipes are perfect and you can create delicious meals if you have the skills. It has history also, and there is nothing that deconstructs that style. For example, the famous dish of wine-braised beef cheek is basically the same no matter who cooks it; there is only a small difference in recipes.
I felt that what I was looking for was an idea of breaking apart the past food and rebuilding it with my own ideas. My master of course thought I would go to France, so he was a bit surprised when I told him I chose Spain.
Then I wrote a letter to Mugaritz, located in a town full of delicious food, San Sebastián, which was also a high-class resort in the Basque district.
Mugaritz was ranked third out of the 50 best restaurants in the world. I really wanted to go there, but I didn’t have any connections at all. So I went to the bookstore and bought a Spanish dictionary and a book about how to write letters in Spanish, and wrote four letters over the course of a week. I was hoping I might receive a reply, and to my surprise I received a reply just two days later.
It said, “I couldn’t really understand what you wrote in your letter, but I felt your passion.Just come.” I was so surprised that things moved so fast, but even more surprised than me was my wife, who was pregnant with our second baby.
When I started to explain that I wanted to train in Spain, she asked for how long. My plan was one or two years. I have nothing but appreciation for her, for letting me go despite the situation.
*1 El Bulli
El Bulli previously received three stars from the Michelin Guide.
It is a legendary restaurant that had been ranked No. 1 among the world’s 50 best restaurants many times over. It was packed with two million reservations annually and was considered one of the most “unreservable” restaurants. Despite that it was suddenly closed in 2011 due to the chef’s overwork.
Coming into my own after gaining a “vector of deliciousness” and freedom.
Was communication over there okay?
I went to Spain just two months after sending the letter, so I didn’t have much time.
I found a teacher who would teach me Spanish one-on-one, but on the other hand the teacher couldn’t speak Japanese; so, I went to Spain without enough preparation.
There was actually a Japanese person at Mugaritz, who was working there before me.
And originally they did not want to hire two Japanese people at the same time, but since I had a certain career as a chef in Japan, they accepted me as an exception to the rule.
That Japanese person was Mr. Haruo Sekiguchi, head chef of Ristorante HiRo Aoyama. I only worked with him for two months, but he helped me when I could only speak simple greetings.
After he left, I could barely understand communication in the kitchen.
And I think there is an upside to not knowing the language – it makes you understand faster as you try to understand by thinking on your own.
And in that way my training in Spain continued.
What kind of things did you learn in Spain?
It was more like hazy thoughts coming out more clearly than I learned them. In the Basque district where Mugaritz was, there were many people who valued their homeland, and the same applied to the food culture.
At Mugaritz, they cooked food using herbs picked in the mountain in the morning, and tried using mushrooms that a guy from the neighborhood picked and came to sell them.
It is that kind of place. And in San Sebastián there are many starred restaurants with gourmets visiting from all over the world. For this reason, people who create the food tend to project their own surrounding environments onto the plates, further etching out their own culinary style.
I had a similar feeling, but I wasn’t sure whether it was right or wrong.
But as I touched the food at Mugaritz, with its sense of independence, and saw chefs who projected their own ideas onto their food, I felt that it was correct.
What’s the difference between French and Spanish cuisine?
I think it is “freedom,” indeed. Having grown up in the world of French cuisine, which has specific rules and expectations, I always wondered what my culinary vision was.
What I was thinking of was something that could be recognized as “Kawashima’s cuisine,” even decades later, just by seeing a photos of my work.
If I can’t accomplish that, there’s no point to it all.
An interesting thing about Spain is that chefs of starred restaurants get together and publish recipe books, but the Spanish omelettes in the books are all different. They introduce totally different ways of thinking and cooking, which made me think that it’s okay to have differences.
When I saw that people cooked like that, I felt relieved in a way.
And Spanish cuisine has as its base the idea of cooking what you want to eat.
That’s in contrast to French cuisine, which is based on old palace cuisine and is quite formal.
Nowadays there are chefs who cook French cuisine with great creativity, though.
When I was in San Sebastián, there were many local foods at the bars around the neighborhood.
These flavors of the common people became the base and modern Spanish cuisine was born. That’s the point, that it’s not only delicious but fun to eat, and that aspect is praised all around the world. And it’s also connected to my own style nowadays.
And finally you opened your own restaurant in Japan.
When I was still in Spain, I was given an offer by the chef of a famous restaurant, but I wanted to do it on my own. I just couldn’t find a good place.
What I was thinking of was a place where I could grow my own herbs and use local ingredients.
I wanted to open a restaurant around Osaka, Kobe, or Kyoto, but three years passed while I struggled to find a place. At that time I happened to come across a building which was a former electric substation from the Taisho era, owned by a railroad company. It was made of bricks and was 826 square meters.
It was ideal. It was in Tomio, Nara. There were local vegetables and other ingredients, and I finally found a place to settle.
In 2008 my wish came true and akordu was opened. In 2014, due to seismic structuring issues we were unable to renew the contract, but we did business in Tomio for six years.
And by chance we moved to a special place, the former grounds of Todaiji Temple near Nara Park, in December 2016. I am so grateful to the people who supported us, that made it possible for us to have a restaurant at such a special place.
When I was worried about the fact that we couldn’t renew at the previous place, I was told about a competition put on by Nara Prefecture, and ours was chosen out of ten companies. I am really thankful for that lucky break.