I want to make my customers notice the original taste of ingredients and surprise them
At “Kikuchi”, you can choose from 2 courses. The menu changes depending on the ingredients, so menu is constantly changing. Furthermore, he tries to avoid serving the same food for repeat customers, so even if the group orders the same course, he might change the menu depending on the customer. For instance, even if the ingredients are the same, he cooks it differently accordingly. Both his body and mind are working restlessly during business hours.
Thinking of menus depending on the ingredients. It sounds like jazz musicians improvising.
It’s not that sophisticated (laughs). Financially speaking, it might be better to decide the menu first and purchase ingredients accordingly, but that limits my imagination. Instead, I stock up on ingredients that caught my attention at the fish markets and think about how to cook them. It’s much more fun that way and sometimes it leads to new ideas.
So you are committed to “putting ingredients first”.
If I put the “menu first”, I may need to substitute turnip for radish if I cannot obtain the ingredients on time. But turnip is turnip, it is not radish. You cannot substitute ingredients. I want to make the ingredient I’m using the main character. If I’m using turnip, I would boil the whole thing to bring out the mild taste you won’t get with radish. This also goes for ingredients like Shiitake or Manganji pepper, which are usually on the side for grilled dishes. I think about how I can make them the main character.
“Make all ingredients the main character”, that’s interesting.
There are some ingredients you just can’t make into the main character, but I still want to make it stand out. To do that, I think about what tastes good during that season. For instance, if I’m serving Harihari-nabe in the winter, I might use large mizuna (potherb mustard) instead of mizuna that is available throughout the year, because the large mizuna tastes much better. At the end of the course I serve rice in an earthenware pot to each customer. I change the type of rice every month. My mission is to let the customers notice the true taste of ingredients, so when customers say, “I usually can’t eat this, but somehow I enjoyed it” or “I was full, but I couldn’t stop eating”, I get very excited and happy! I try to act calm, but inside, I am jumping up and down with joy (laughs).
When starting out with a clean canvas, you should train at a restaurant that gives you the opportunity to get in touch with real quality
His parents run a cleaning store, which is located in the same building as “Kikuchi”. They were both working, so they often ate out. Since he was a child, Mr. Kikuchi saw glimpses of professional chefs. In his late elementary school years, he began helping his mother in the kitchen. He was always interested in cooking and he decided to make it his career 1 month before graduating high school.
You decided 1 month before graduating? That came as a surprise.
After high school I was planning to go to college. But I never liked studying (laughs). Graduation was right around the corner and I had to choose a path and cooking came naturally to me. Both my parents were working and we ate late, so I would often cook up leftover ingredients in the fridge and eat them with my friends when we got hungry. When my friends told me “this is good”, it made me happy. But honestly, I had nowhere else to go other than cooking.
The first restaurant you trained at was “Hozumi”, a restaurant in Yamanashi. How did you end up there?
When my father was starting out, one of his business partners was a restaurant in Nagata-cho. There was a chef who was in the same grade as my father and they were friends. He was the master chef at “Kikumi” in Akasaka for some time. Today he is the owner of “Nokizaka Kamiya”. His name is Masataka Kamiya. When I told my father “I want to be a chef”, he looked up Kamiya-san and talked to him. Then he introduced me to “Hozumi”. Kamiya-san told me that in this industry, it is better to get training on the job rather than going to cooking school.
The Japanese economy was right in middle of the bubble at the time. Seeing others living in luxury, did you have any hesitations towards going into such a hard industry?
I had an idea of what it would be like, so not really. Perhaps this is because my parents ran a service business, although it wasn’t the same type. Also, since I was a child I saw chefs working when we ate out. I had an idea it was pretty tough. I thought chefs worked without resting, so when my master at “Hozumi” told me, “Go rest for 10 minutes”, I was like, “Wow, I get to rest for 10 minutes?” (laughs).
After training at “Hozumi” for 2 years, you also trained at “Satoh” in Akasaka and “Kochunoten” in Akasakamitsuke before opening “Kikuchi” in 2007. How did you choose those restaurants?
Except for the last restaurant I trained at, it wasn’t my choice. One day, Kamiya-san told me, “There’s an opening at this restaurant, what do you think?” So I got permission from the current restaurant and took the next step. Although some may disagree, I thought the most important thing at the time was to do the job I was given and try to learn as much as possible.
Which restaurant had the biggest impact on you?
I learned countless things at each restaurant, but I think “Hozumi” had a big impact. “Hozumi” was a traditional restaurant, it had anterooms. Aside from cooking techniques, they taught me the basics of traditional Japanese meals such as spraying fogs onto bowls. They used top quality ingredients and they had many plates that were not available in the market. They let me go to tea ceremony classes once a week. When there was time, they taught me Kintsugi (pottery repair) techniques. I was able to get in touch with real quality things outside the kitchen as well. It was tough too, but my training at “Hozumi” got me where I am today. I had no knowledge or experience at the time. I think it’s important to training at a restaurant that gives you the opportunity to get in touch with real quality goods.