There is no revolution until you bring about innovation yourself.

Kobe Kitano Hotel
Hiroshi Yamaguchi

Kobe Kitano Hotel cuisine

Recreating Mr. Loiseau’s breakfast, publicized as the world’s best.

■Sensational debut in Japan, the Great Hanshin Earthquake Disaster, and…

How was the opening of La Côte d’Or in Japan?

Mr. Yamaguchi:
At its opening in 1992, it attracted attention and there was lots of press to cover the new Kobe branch of a three-star French restaurant. We received compliments from many people and it was gorgeous and wonderful every day.
But just three years later in 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck and damaged our restaurant; we had no place to work.
We had a sensation debut, with gold-lettered signage and everything, then all of a sudden I lost everything. I lost everything, all at once.

It was a very tough experience but there were many people who supported me. Those people were the ones who really loved my food and came to eat.

What happened after that?

Mr. Yamaguchi:
After that I worked at a hotel in Kobe, but someone asked me to do “renewal” of the restaurant at Kobe Kitano Hotel, which had also been damaged by the earthquake and had been closed.

As I saw the building I had a strong feeling that I could build my ideal auberge here, and so I drew up formal plans. As the executive chef and general manager, I decided to involve myself with the whole planning and management process, and rebuild the restaurant.

I had always wanted to introduce Japan to the continental-style breakfast of my mentor Mr. Loiseau, which was aknoledged as world’s best. It is still a popular item at our hotel that occasionally gets media coverage for.

It has been 17 years since we opened the hotel, and the breakfast menu has changed drastically. If we don’t innovate, people say it gets old, that it’s always the same. We have to change along with the era. So people who have been eating at the hotel for 17 years might not notice the difference.

Kobe Kitano Hotel Hiroshi Yamaguchi

■Future chefs, and what is needed in the culinary field

And finally, do you have any advice for young people who want to be chefs?

Mr. Yamaguchi:
I think there is a need for a change in the awareness of the whole field; that includes me.
In our day we were told to learn by watching, and there was value in cooking delicious food using skills we had worked to hone.
I’m also someone who took a long time to learn the techniques and I don’t object to the whole process, but if everyone takes a long time, like us, the whole field cannot survive.

This field is very low-profit, so if it stays as is, we will not have more people wanting to be chefs and servers. Starting now we have to change it to a job with high productive efficiency by having open learning environments based on logic and science. And people who teach gain the ability to share their knowledge and maximize the learning of young people. Without that, I think there’s no future for this industry.

And we cannot cause a revolution if we do not make small innovations around us.
I think the sum of small innovations is a revolution. Slicing vegetables, for example, was someting that I did at the Western restaurant and further honed during my time at the hotel. They were all small innovations at first, which lead to a big change. That’s something that’s needed for people on all rungs of the hierarchical ladder.

Chefs are just like stars in the sky. There are stars shining big, shining red or green. There are stars shining high and low, but all are very beautiful.

Japan is a competitive society and everyone seems to go for the top of the pyramid, but I wonder, for example, who decides the ranking and evaluations for the “TOp 50” and similar lists.
I want young chefs to try various worlds and values and find the best way to shine, uniquely.

(Interview: Takasahi Ichihara, Writer: Keiko Ikegawa, Photgrapher: Wakana Kumagai)

Kobe Kitano Hotel interior

Kobe Kitano Hotel appearance

Kobe Kitano Hotel

3-3-20 Yamamoto -dori, Chuo-ku Kobe, Hyogo
15-minute walk from Sannomiya Station or Shin-Kobe Station
Parking lot: 16 spaces
11:30-14:00 (last order at 14:00)
18:00-20:30 (last order at 20:30)
Open year-round