Ishikawa had been recognized for his complement of skill and creativity in the field of Japanese cuisine since before obtaining three Michelin stars. He has a signature style and appearance, with a considerate charm and memorable smile. He is also the president of Ichiryu Sankodo, which operates three restaurants in the Kagurazaka area — today, he himself is looked up to by a team of thirty members. Ishikawa has developed a firm position in the Japanese culinary world, but he says he was completely different in his youth: a young man too shy to talk to others and drifting from job to job. Seeing him today, this seems almost unthinkable. Ishikawa’s kindness and affection toward his young team may just come from his own experience of being a neophyte.
What kind of work did you do after graduating from high school?
I’m from Tsubame in Niigata Prefecture, and I decided to for the time being work at a local wholesaler of Western cooking implements. I was dumped by my girlfriend at age twenty, and I was sick and tired of everything, so I took a single bag and headed to Tokyo to shack up at a friend’s place. The next day, I went to Harajuku and walked into the first cafe I saw and asked for a job, which I got on the spot. I then spent about two years drifting between jobs. I lived a destitute life in a three tatami mat room with no bathtub and a shared toilet. At night, I did janitorial duty for a tiny hotel.
You drifted between jobs? Surprising. Were you interested in cuisine at this point?
Ishikawa: Not in the least! (laughs) I had never even eaten quality food before. Those weren’t the days where you could just “pop into a casual Italian restaurant.” There was fine dining, and then there was everything else. I was so poor that I’d never even been to a restaurant. However, at age twenty-three, I began to realize that I couldn’t drift around forever, so I decided to settle on a career. I came up with the idea of being a chef. I didn’t like talking to people too much, so I knew that something like a job in sales at a company was out of the question. As a chef, provided I learned how to make food, I would be left to my own devices — it seemed low-intensity.
our first job was at a Japanese restaurant called “Sakura” in Harajuku, right?
Sakura was unusual at the time for being a Japanese restaurant featuring a bar. It often appeared in magazines as a place celebrities went to hang out. Out of my own interest in the latest and greatest, I went and knocked on their door. The boss said, “What’s your business here?” I was doing my best to fit in in Tokyo, and I had gone in for the latest trendy clothes and a permed hairdo. I think I looked less like someone with a backbone for work and more for goofing off.I decided to shave my hair and go back again in earnest. I got an interview with the head chef and they gave me a job. Today, he is like a father to me.
What was he like as an instructor?
He looked really intimidating. He had a close-cut tight perm (this is a typical style of yakuza) and was strict and serious. (laughs) While he was serious in the kitchen, he was actually really broad-minded. He would invite me to meals with his family, and I started to realize how deep and considerate he was. I had come from the country and had no friends in Tokyo, so I really looked up to him and the glimpses he gave me of the Tokyo life. I wanted to be by his side and be his long-standing apprentice. That’s what set me off on the path to seriously thinking about being a chef. That being said, I didn’t have in mind the idea of mastering my own cuisine. My training as a chef involved working at over ten restaurants. I didn’t really have my own say in the matter. (laughs) The training system for Japanese chefs largely revolved around apprenticeship, and you can still see traces of this here and there today. Your master would tell you what shop you should go to train at next. Without protesting, you would take up your tools and go to the next place. Nowadays, chefs talk about having a good talk with their wives before making the leap. That sort of thing was out of the question in those days. In some cases, I would go on to the next shop in my training within a few months. The movement was constant.
Training under Masataka Kamiya of the famed restaurant Kamiya, Ishikawa awakened to the culinary arts. He eschewed personal entertainment and focused on food night and day
Ishikawa’s passion for cuisine was stoked after, through the good offices of his teacher at Sakura, he was introduced to a position at Kamiya in Nogizaka. Owner Kamiya had, at age twenty-four, become head chef of Akasaka Kikumi and developed a position for himself at that veteran establishment before going solo at age forty-one. When Ishikawa joined the shop, it was already gaining global attention for being on the frontlines of Japanese cuisine.
What was different about Mr. Kamiya’s restaurant?
The class and level of the shop was on another level. That means not only the food, but even the dishes they used — everything was the real deal, the kind of thing I had never seen before. The shop itself was extremely refined, and the class of customers they served was also different from what I was used to.
Being in that context, I started to naturally develop an interest in Japanese ceramics and culture. I went to learn about tea ceremony on my days off and would go to look at ceramics at antiques shops and in galleries.
Was Kamiya a strict teacher?
He tended to be quite warm and kind-hearted — and he had a knack for telling a good story. However, when it came to work, he wasn’t strict — he was the strictest. I was in charge of stewing the pots; Japanese broth is made in phases. He came to check the first-phase broth I’d prepared and stared at me, goggle-eyed: “What in tarnation is this stuff?” So it was back to the drawing board. It wasn’t unusual for me to have to rush to remake the broth right before the shop was set to open for the day. He was uncompromising when it came to food and allowed no slip-ups. On top of that, his kitchen is speedy and neatly organized. His kitchen is truly spic-and-span.
I realized that unless I focused exclusively on cuisine during my waking hours, I would never be able to pass muster at Kamiya’s shop. I went home and bundled my television, comic books, and all other entertainments and sent them back to my parents’ house. From then on, my working and private life would be devoted exclusively to food. It was at this point that the roaming drifter in me made his resolve.
Did you think of quitting?
At the time, quitting wasn’t even an option before me. When I had first started out as a chef, I often thought of quitting. But after being trained by my master and his pupils, I felt I couldn’t up and quit — it would be an affront to all of the help they had offered me. Furthermore, what I saw when I entered Kamiya’s shop was eye-opening — it was an altogether different world that I was not about to abandon before giving it a try.
I was working side-by-side with the man considered the pinnacle of the Japanese culinary world. There was a sense of realism and immediacy about it. I thought to myself, “If I can surpass this man, that would put me at the top.” It might have been a delusion, but that drove me forward. There was nowhere to go but up.
So you developed a clear goal, which in turn stoked the fires of your interest in cuisine.
I treated it as an all-or-nothing challenge. I was frantic. Looking back, though, I realize that only when young do we have the stamina to do something as intensive as devote all waking hours to food. I look back fondly on that time, when I had no other obligations but to cuisine.