Chef’s lives can be determined by infusing as many great things as possible when everything is in a state of purity.
I guess you have been seen as a prominent heir since the time you were a child; but what made you choose the path to becoming a fourth-generation heir?
Actually, my father has never forced me to take over his business. Ever since I was a child, I was always interested in art and loved oil paintings. I belonged to a music club when I was in high school and university. I wanted to work in an industry where I could create things based on my preferences. When I started job hunting seriously, I realized the fastest way to work to be creative may have been to take over my father’s business.
My father told me to study the profession if I decided to take over. I started taking night courses at a cooking college when I was in my fourth year of university. I learned the basics at that time. After graduating from university, I still went to the college for about six months and worked part-time at a fresh fish market in the morning – it was one of our business partners. The owner of the shop was very good at teaching people so I became interested in cooking more as I learned how to clean and fillet a fish.
So you started getting into the cooking industry officially after graduating from university. Where did you do your first apprenticeship?
At Kakiden, which was a chakaiseki restaurant – it’s a formal style of Japanese cuisine, the ceremonial tea style known as omotesenke. “Your life as a chef is dictated by your interacting with great things when everything is still a blank page.” This is my father’s saying. It made me think of working at a clean, time-honored Japanese restaurant for my first apprenticeship. Now, there are many different styles, such as a combination of western tastes or an appreciation for creativity. Chakaiseki is an ideal place to work as an apprentice because it is an extremely clean and authentic world. Kakiden is a specialized catering restaurant of Chakaiseki. We do prep work in the shop and then go to the place of work. It’s the highest rank of catering. It is different from fancy Japanese-style restaurants which serve cooked food on the spot. Having learned this catering know-how, such as food preservation and presentation, surely became an asset for me.
So the methods of cooking can be different?
Even the way of preparing soup stock is different. For catering, soup stock is made stronger so as to keep the flavor even when it becomes cold. In particular, we make thick broth from kelp. Bonito has a strong flavor but it loses it as time goes by. If you make enough broth from kelp, the taste doesn`t go bland and you can sense its flavor as well.
My apprenticeship experience where I was able to learn how to behave and appreciate others.
You were able to learn just the right sense of cooking by learning a particular way of preparation in catering.
My experience in learning Japanese cuisine standards makes me feel confident, and it became my encouragement. When going on a business trip, I had a chance to examine tea ware. The beauty of choosing serving dishes and the space itself was interesting and it got me devoted in the tea ceremony world. At tea ceremonies, you need to take extra-care about aesthetics and noises more than working in the kitchen of a fancy Japanese restaurant. Therefore, I was able to learn a lot about how to be careful around others. For example, I cracked charcoal for a fire in the room when I was quite new there. My teacher told me, “You need to bring the cracked charcoal.” I think I was able to learn the basics of caring for others and acting in service industries. More than anything, the luckiest thing was that I was able to work almost entirely with experienced seniors over 50 years old. When there are tea ceremonies being held at the same time, we needed a leader in each group; we had four experts, including one who was skilled enough to be the head chef. It was one of the things I think I was very lucky with. They were very strict but on the other hand, they willingly taught me in detail, right down to how to mix seasonings. I often hear that mentors do not let you even taste in the kitchen in this industry. However, my seniors sometimes secretly prepared food for tasting and said “After all, you came here to train…”
You were able to spend your training period in a great place.
Of course, I faced some difficulties because each individual had a clear tradition. For example, each senior uses a different technique to make even a simple dish like tofu and vegetables in sesame sauce. The first procedure to mash tofu and mix it with ground sesame is the same, but some puree sesame shells to make it creamy and some puree only a little bit to keep the coarse texture on purpose. Depending on which senior I worked with, I needed to change my way of cooking, so I needed a lot more attention. If I made a mistake, they would scold me saying, “That is how so-and-so cooks!” When I recall that time, I can say now that I appreciate that I was able to learn many different ways of cooking in such circumstances.
So the know-how your seniors willingly taught you became a huge asset.
You worked very hard to remember each senior’s flavor preferences and what way of cooking you can adapt to make their unique taste and texture. You were able to go farther because of that.
Yes, right. Nowadays, there are so many different interesting and innovative ways of cooking. Compared to these, traditional cooking looks a bit boring at first sight. However, there is a deep, strict world in there, I think. Today’s kind of fancy cooking is unusual and widely talked about, but any restaurant which has been loved for a long time competes based on taste. The know-how that Kakiden`s seniors taught me is my greatest asset.
You trained there for about three years and came back to Tankuma. Did you promise your dad you would be back then?
I came back to help my tea ceremony mentor, who connected with me and Kakiden because he was going to hold a tea ceremony for a Sanju ceremony (80th birthday celebration). My father was sick and that was one reason, too. However, I decided to come back and started working in the kitchen when I was 26 or 27. I thought I would probably be affected too much by their ways, having worked in the kitchen at Kakiden.
Do you think there are many people who struggle in the process of taking over a family business?
What I was happy about was that my family’s tradition and the tradition of the restaurant where I trained coincided. In chakaiseki cuisine, you don’t use any complicated methods, and instead use the ingredients as they are. Tankuma started from a Japanese style of cooking, with counter space, and had discerning and knowledgeable customers. When we purchased a good red sea bream and put the names of the fish on the menu, we usually cook them to the customer’s preference; simmering the head of the fish, for example. We don’t make them fancy in any special way. In the Kyoto dialect, “monmo” means “as they are.” Tankuma cherishes “monmo” cooking by using ingredients as they are. To this point, I did not struggle with the difference of the traditions. I thought I trained at a great place. However, I honestly thought it was difficult to keep good relationships with existing workers at Tankuma. I already had enough skills, so young chefs probably didn’t feel comfortable working with me. Also, I was close in age with the head chef of the time so we competed against each other, in a way. When I think back, I was young and we were both not very mature. About a year after I came back when I was in my 20s, the head chef as well as many of the staff members had quit, so I struggled a lot to rebuild the shop. I got a lot of dressing-down from customers. However, the basics of Japanese cuisine, which I worked so hard to learn when I was doing my apprenticeship, gave me courage. The courage I gained at that time encouraged me.