An adventurous spirit and a passing down of skills to the next generation: this is what traditional Kyoto cuisine needs today.

Gion Sasaki
Hiroshi Sasaki

Gion Sasaki staff meal

Creating a structure and backbone for young chefs

Incidentally, it’s been about twenty years since you went solo. What are your dreams for the future?

In addition to this shop, I have also launched Rakumi, an izakaya pub for those with sophisticated tastes. I would next like to open a chicken shop and then a fried skewer shop. Being in the food business, I can distinguish between the good and the bad, so I want to create more of the kinds of shops serving food I enjoy.

Furthermore, chefs are almost exclusively people with no financial or management knowledge, in some cases not even knowing how to go about getting a loan. So I want those people to get experience as head chefs and shop owners.

I am currently fifty-five. After fifty, you’ve got a lot of experience under your belt with preparing potatoes, squash, and the like. I am better at cooking those than the youngsters, but you get fixed in your ways and lose your creativity. Therefore, over the next five years to age sixty, I want to help them define their own style while I’m still creative enough.

Then, once those guys reach age sixty, they can in turn train the young generation, and that way their shop will continue. We can create a large organization, and then I could put down my kitchen knives and act as its director and draw a salary. That’s the kind of system I’d like to create.

If we could get a pension and executive pay scheme going, everyone benefits. They could go on trips, buy things for their grandkids, et cetera. My dream is to create that kind of ecosystem.

In today’s day and age, you can’t make a killing by going out on your own. I think it would be best to adopt a commission system for wages based on revenue. The company would withhold taxes and back the shop in terms of gross margins. I think it could create a comfortable salary for cooks.

So the idea would be to a partial owner in the shop. I’m sure there are people who fail when going out on their own.

That’s right. Thus far, the old guard has managed to succeed with a bit of luck. This has led the young generation into thinking it’s easy. My shop has maintained a steady clientele, so the youngsters may think they can easily achieve the same, but they have no idea the amount of effort that went into it.

Gion Sasaki cuisine

Encouraging new ideas by mingling with other chefs

Is Kyoto fairly strict about manners among chefs?

Yes, I would say so. For example, Mr. Takahashi of Hyotei and the other Mr. Takahashi of Kinobu, among others, are all younger than me, but I referred to them as “mister” until I reached age fifty. Those particular manners in the context of Kyoto are not written down per se, but it’s something I’ve refined for myself over the years.

When I spend time with these heirs to long-running restaurants, they say things like, “Mr. Sasaki, it’s great how much freedom you have. I’m bound to uphold the traditions of our shop, so I can’t experiment.” But I think to myself that we’ve started the race from totally different vantage points. They have a head start. They didn’t have to set up shop from scratch, down to buying toothpicks. Therefore, when we chat, they get a sense of vitality from entrepreneurs like us, and I, for my part, enjoy speaking with them, too.

Since you are all elites in the culinary world, there are things you can share, evidently. On your web site, you engage in discussions with a range of chefs of different genres. What inspired this project?

Using this format allows us to, even if we are close friends, use a more formal context to address each other politely and compare our ideas against each other. It’s really informative to learn about how someone else thinks. Our patrons then read these talks and send us e-mails or messages on the LINE chat app. They seem to enjoy them. The project actually started at the suggestion of Mr. Kadokami. I decide whom to talk with and arrange to meet with them, with Mr. Kadokami’s editorial office preparing the transcripts.

Gion Sasaki appearance

Gion Sasaki

Komatsu-tyo, Yasaka-dori Yamato-oji Higashi-hairu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-city, Kyoto
10 minutes walk from Gionshijo station, Keihan railway
12 minutes walk from ShijoKawaramachi station, Kyoto line, Hankyu railway
Sundays, Second Mondays, Irregular holidays