Restaurant service is more fun than any other job in the world, and I want to pass that on to younger generations

Restaurant Aromes
Kazumi Okabe

Restaurant Aromes Kazumi Okabe & staff

A novel relationship between a server and chef that changes the industry

By the way, when did you start thinking about starting up a restaurant on your own?

Mr. Okabe:
When I was a manager at Dompierre the regulars would ask me about when I was going to open up my own place. After that at some point Chef Yoshinaru Kikuchi was getting ready to start up “Le Bourguignon,” and he invited me to come and work there to get things going. I was thrilled at the thought of getting to participate in the opening of a new restaurant, so I got back to him right away and said yes without any hesitation.

Were you brought on at Le Bourguignon to work as a manager?

Mr. Okabe:
Yeah, that’s right. Chef Kikuchi had previously worked as a chef at a popular French restaurant in Omotesando called “L’amphore,” and it started to make its way around that he was going independent. A sommelier with a plethora of awards also came on board, so right from the very beginning there was a lot of buzz around the restaurant.

We seemed to be getting media coverage every day, so I constantly thought about the best way to use the chef and sommelier as major attractions for the restaurant. When things actually got started it felt like I hadn’t even been able meet the servers, cooks, and staff face-to-face, so at first it was hard for us to work together fluidly. But, we started filling up the restaurant pretty soon after we opened and the management side of things was going well too.

And, you were simultaneously working on plans for your own restaurant too?

Mr. Okabe:
That’s right. For that very reason I handled the salary budgeting, and I met with accountants and prepared paperwork for the bank. I made sure to do everything that I could that was related restaurant management. I would say, “Hey, the chef just needs to focus on the food, so leave all of the bothersome stuff to me” (laughs). This gave me the opportunity to learn about how all of the money and things like that were handled. I was really thankful for that.

Chef Kikuchi told me that what I wanted was completely in tandem with what customers wanted, and that I should go for it. This gave me a lot comfort. Up until that point most of the people who worked as owner and chef had a craftsman-like mentality that made the assumption that all you had to do was make good food and customers would follow. But after Chef Kikuchi, you started to see more owners who worked together with their waitstaff and sommeliers to accomplish the same goals. I think that little by little this changed the restaurant industry.

Restaurant Aromes Kazumi Okabe

Finding resounding success after opening up independently, and then suffering 200 million yen in debt after withdrawing. The tumultuous ups and downs of running a restaurant

From there after about 3 years you went out on your own to open up a restaurant. Did everything go as smoothly as you had hoped?

Mr. Okabe:
Oh no, it wasn’t smooth at all! (chuckles). It was hard to acquire the necessary capital, which then made it hard to hire enough staff. But in the end I was able to gather up just the kind of people that I needed to help establish a French restaurant. We opened “Au gout du jour” in October of 2002 in Tokyo’s Kojimachi neighborhood.

At first we weren’t getting any customers at all, so figuring out our finances became a major concern. All of my time was spent thinking about matters like that, and it was very difficult to handle. This was a completely different situation from Bourguignon, which was packed right from the start. But now there were days when just a single group of customers came in. I quickly realized that from a business perspective the situation was extremely dire.

Times like that certainly happen. How did you end up overcoming these problems?

Mr. Okabe:
After about a month we were suddenly ranked number one in “Tokyo Restaurant Guide.” This was sort of like the kind of online restaurant review site that you see nowadays with “Tabelog.” On the night of the announcement we were flooded with calls for reservations. We started to really push forward after that, and we were fully booked before the end of the year.

However, as we pressed ahead with that pace I started to worry about whether we were serving our customers as best we could. At the beginning of the year our seats dropped from 30 to about 26. It was only a slight loss, but nevertheless I wanted to get everyone on board to work as best they could to deliver excellent food and service.

After this you had some real momentum and opened one new restaurant after another. Several locations within your restaurant group were being awarded stars as well, right?

Mr. Okabe:
Well, at first I didn’t have any intention to open up a branch location. But the talent of our chefs and servers came together much more than I expected it would. I really wanted to set them up with places where they could all flourish. And so I started opening up more and more locations. For each restaurant I would let the chef offer their own plans for the kitchen layout, and I would leave the menu and prices up to them. When I opened a restaurant it was more about the chef than the restaurant itself.

Essentially I didn’t want to let go, and I didn’t like the thought of having staff quit and go somewhere else. And because of that, I opened up a location in Nihombashi in 2004, another in Daikanyama in 2007, and then a location at the Shin-Maru building in front of Tokyo Station. But, now that I look back on it, opening up at the Shin-Maru building was a major turning point.

From that point there were a ton of major commercial sites offering new locations for restaurant openings. People would tell me not to get too cocky and that I needed to remain grounded. I thought the same thing, but once things started moving fast I got swept up in my own arrogance.

This type of desire is something that comes up as a business owner?

Mr. Okabe:
Yeah, I would say so. We stuck it out at the Maru building until the very end, but things really started to spin out of control in the fall of 2010 when we opened up a branch at Haneda Airport’s domestic terminal building. At this time we had grown to 8 locations all together, but then there was the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster. On top of that I was making one bad business decision after another when it came to finances and knowing when to pull out of a restaurant.

When a restaurant opening goes sideways you have to think about how you’re going to cover it. The problem is that this puts a heavy burden on the other restaurants that are doing well. This means that paving the road to a successful restaurant can be a rather awkward affair.

When this became apparent the chefs that I trusted went out independently to start their own establishments without being able to leave much of an impression on the next generation. As a result of that, I had to relinquish everything. At the end in December of 2016 I had a total debt of 200 million yen and declared personal bankruptcy.

It was a painful choice to make and it caused a lot of trouble for everyone around me. When I talk to those that are less experienced, I tell them that my biggest point of regret as a business owner was that I couldn’t prioritize and figure out that I needed to withdraw from a restaurant rather than opening a new one. Getting a restaurant up and running takes at least half a year, or a year at most. But, I should have known to pull out after one or two months when things didn’t look good.

Restaurant Aromes cuisine

The professional technique of taking food from 100% to 200%

That does sound like an awful time. How has your work been over these last several years?

Mr. Okabe:
Previously I got into consulting work for restaurant service, so I worked on training servers and waitstaff at French restaurants like “Marche de Paris” in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, as well as “La Cour de Comma” in Osaki. I got back to my roots by working on the service side of things. As of right now I currently work as the general manager at “Restaurant Aromes” in Kagurazaka.

Vinorum corporation, the same wine importer from La Cour de Comma, serves as the owner at this restaurant, and the company president is an old connection from Dompierre. It’s still new and we just opened up, but we’ve put together a talented team with a chef and sommelier, so I’m excited about the future.

Can you tell me about your time training servers?

Mr. Okabe:
You have to convey the techniques and knowledge of service work using words of course, but in the beginning I tried to use feelings like “joy” and “happiness” as a way of conveying the essentials of the profession. You can repeat things over and over, but even if you offer 100 words of guidance, it still pales in comparison to the weight that just a single word from a customer carries. I start from that standpoint and teach ways to make things more pleasant as a way for people to gradually excel and reach the next level.

Younger staff members should get involved as much as possible in customer interactions and take each and every opportunity to learn more. For example, a long-standing customer may go out of their way to introduce themselves to the younger staff, which means that I hang back and let them talk without any interference.

Restaurant Aromes Kazumi Okabe

Interacting with customers directly seems to be the most important point to learn.

Mr. Okabe:
Yeah, that’s basically it. But, unfortunately there are a lot of cases when younger people think that you’re going to get angry if they talk to customers. They think that the manager will yell at them and pesture them for talking to too long.

That’s why I try and get young employees out there with customers who like to talk a lot. By entrusting them with that the veteran staff members can freely get around the restaurant and lighten the workload. I’m shy for example, so it’s better for someone like me to help out and efficiently make the rounds throughout the restaurant rather than standing back to talk with customers.

The most essential thing to good restaurant service is providing an appropriate amount of distance. Figuring out how to seat customers at each table with a comfortable degree of distance is where this job really takes hold. The more experience you have the more you can figure this stuff out on an intuitive level. In order to get that right, training employees through lots of customer interactions is crucial.

You often hear that servers and kitchen staff have a somewhat strained relationship at the workplace. What are your thoughts on that?

Mr. Okabe:
I take a step back when it comes to the kitchen. If the chef isn’t there then a server can’t overstep any boundaries.

Members of the waitstaff just need to concern themselves with things that pertain to good service, meaning food and wine. In order to make these things happen, you have to be considerate so the chef can continue to make food without feeling any cause for concern. Even if things get heated and nasty words are said, you have to just try and let it go (chuckles).

Really what you have to do is take food that is 100% when it’s made and turn it up to 200% when you present it to customers. That’s what true professionalism is in this line of work. If you can do that then you’ll build nothing but trust between you and the chef.

Restaurant Aromes Kazumi Okabe

Lastly, do you have any future plans or dreams you want to embark on?

Mr. Okabe:
First I just want to focus on making Restaurant Aromes an amazing restaurant. Having a kind of late-night restaurant like this is a bit of a rarity in a place like Kagurazaka. I’m looking to make this place into something of a theme park for adults. I want the more mature crowd to able to come in and feel catered to. I like the thought of that.

These days customers have become so well-mannered, and it’s a bit of a shame cause that means you don’t very many of those lavish requests. We have a wine shop connected to the restaurant, so I’m hoping to use that to our advantage and add some personality. Our restaurant is open late until 2am, and we’re looking into offering a late-night menu that starts at midnight. This restaurant aims for not just food but a place to have fun as well. I want this to be the kind of place where both customers and employees can all have fun together.

And, I already failed once as a proprietor. So, if I get the chance I really want to throw down and take up the challenge once more. I’m already turning 48, and I don’t have the kind of time that I had when I was in my thirties and working independently. Therefore, I need to make the best of the time that I have.

Finally, I want to say that I think being a garçon is the best job in the whole world, and I want to pass that fun on to younger generations. Just like a chef, there is no other job that can make people as happy as when you work in the food and drink industry. As someone who comes from that world, I want to do whatever I can to get younger people to  join this amazing line of work.

(Interviewer: Osamu Saito, Text: Tomoko Murayama, Photography: Tomonari Shimizu, Restaurant/Food Images: Provided by restaurant)

Restaurant Aromes interior

Restaurant Aromes appearance

Restaurant Aromes

3 Shukuku-ku, Tokyo, Kagurazaka Center Building 1F
Toei Oedo Line Ushigome Kagurazaka Station 3 minutes on foot
Lunch from 11: 30 to 15: 00 (13: 00 L.O.)
Dinner from 17: 30 to 22: 00
Wine bar from 22: 00-26: 00