‘I have no luck’ is just an excuse. Overcoming the adversity of being a chef who can’t grip a knife, the kyo-kaiseki chef who sought and grabbed his opportunities.

Oimatsu Kitagawa
Toru Kitagawa

Oimatsu Kitagawa Toru Kitagawa

The flames of perseverance and wanting to make his parents happy were ignited.

You entered the path of cooking under a friend’s influence, but was there a point where you became serious about it? When did you come to realize the charm of cooking?

I think that flame was ignited because there were 16 classmates working in Kiccho, and I felt like I didn’t want to lose to them. Also, when I was entering the vocational school, my parents said things like ‘we can’t pay that sort of money for someone who has never even cooked’, and I retorted back with ‘then I’ll pay for myself’. So it was also a matter of pride.

Once, while eating leftover seaweed porridge, I was moved by how delicious it was. I secretly watched how the head chef made it, and later recreated it for my parents. They said it was delicious and I was happy to see them so delighted. That’s what made cooking interesting for me.

It’s a great feeling to make loved ones happy. What did you do after three years of working in Kiccho?

I transferred to a restaurant called ‘Ichijuunisai Ueno’. After I started working in Kiccho, I used to go around various restaurants with my wife. Once, we found a counter in Soemon-cho run by a man called Mr. Honda. He was kind enough to explain the food to us and was very hospitable, even though we were just 19 or 20 years of age. I thought that was wonderful and started going there regularly. When I quit Kiccho, I consulted with him and he called a restaurant right then and there, saying that ‘this place is looking for someone.’ That’s how I was introduced to ‘Ueno’.

Did you go to Japanese restaurants often?

Yes, I did. At that time, I didn’t have a clue about Japanese cuisine and I was doing my training in a haphazard way. I wondered what I could do to get a better understanding of Japanese cuisine and the answer was to visit a lot of restaurants. That’s why, at the time, I didn’t think about anything else except Japanese food. I didn’t even consider any other genres.

Now, in contrast, I get plenty of ideas from other genres of food.

Oimatsu Kitagawa Toru Kitagawa

Sasaki, a restaurant he came across by chance that left an impact.

What kind of work did you do in Ichijirunisai Ueno? Did you find Kiccho and Ueno to be very different?

Mr. Ueno of Ichijirunisai Ueno was previously a teacher at Tsuji. Actually, the founder of Kiccho, Mr. Teichi Yuki, was close with the previous headmaster of Tsuji. That being the case, Tsuji’s cooking was largely used as a base for Kiccho. That’s why there was plenty of work I felt familiar with.

However, Ueno was always full, day and night. It was a popular restaurant with about 100 customers everyday, so no matter how much I washed, there was always a mountain of dishes. In Kiccho, I was both washing dishes and cooking, and was proud of how fast I was. In that sense, Ueno was completely different from Kiccho.

Even so, I had chances to interact with customers little by little in Ueno. I really enjoyed it. Noticing that, Mr. Ueno asked me to work by the counter six months after entering the company. Ever since then, I was in charge of making hassun (an appetizer plate) by the counter.

At that time, I made a habit of going to restaurants twice a month with Ueno’s staff. Gion Sasaki was one restaurant we went to.

Until then, I mostly went to restaurants run by people who previously worked in Kiccho. The arrangement of hassun or food that was based on cha-kaiseki were things that most restaurants had in common. However, with ‘Sasaki’, the way the ingredients were combined and how the dishes were served was different from any restaurant I had ever been to. With every dish, I had a great reaction. It was that delicious and amazing.

Until then, even though restaurants used seasonal produce in their cooking, for example sea bream or sillago in the Springtime, I hadn’t come across many places that were particular about the producing area. However in Sasaki, they served food with an emphasis on the place the ingredients were produced. It left a huge impact on me. After that, i started going to Sasaki every month for about a year and a half.

Then, one day, I was contacted by the man from Gion Owatara, who had previously worked with Mr Honda; he said that Sasaki was looking for someone to work there. That night, I called the master of Sasaki and we went to an Italian restaurant in Kyoto to discuss things. At that time I was 25 years old and I was already married with kids. In Ueno, I was at a position where I had a say in the menu; Sasaki was looking for an errand boy in his first or second year. I was told that there was no point in me working there with my salary going down.

However, just at that point, I was already considering going solo or transferring to another restaurant, so I felt that I definitely must work there. Even my wife said, ‘If you want to work there, you should do it.’ That’s why I told the master ‘Please hire me, even if it means that I have to move to Kyoto alone and even if my salary goes down.’ He accepted saying that I should come with my family and that he would take care of my salary.

Oimatsu Kitagawa Toru Kitagawa

Apprenticeship at Sasaki and support from his two mentors in the battle against disease.

Mr. Sasaki seems to be a very broad minded person. But didn’t it pose problems for Mr. Ueno?

I had raved about how delicious ‘Sasaki’ was to Mr. Ueno. He knew I went there every month, so he understood how much I wanted to go there. However, he asked me to wait one year, and the master of Sasaki also agreed to the condition. After passing my responsibilities to my successor, I entered Sasaki at the age of 26.

So you entered Sasaki after a year. How did it feel to turn from customer to chef?

I wanted to learn Sasaki’s methods from scratch. I was the first one at work in the morning and I bowed to the newcomers, as well as learning how to do daily tasks or washing the dishes. Then, the chef in charge of grilling and second-in-charge, said to me ‘that’s not what you came here for!’ and handed over his position to me.

It was really motivating. There are very few shops where the employees feel like ‘ I want to eat this too’ when serving food to customers. It makes a big difference.

Where there any challenges set up for the staff?

The master came up with the entire menu, so there were no challenges in that aspect, but he made us staff members compete against each other by making staff meals. The genre was up to us, the budget was decided and we took turns every week.

The staff members making the meals were around the same age, so when I saw someone’s cooking get criticized by the master, I felt that I had to work hard to avoid that from happening to me. I put a lot of effort into it. Looking back now, this kind of friendly competition was the master’s way of training us.

How long were you in Sasaki?

I got a serious disease of the wrist, so I quit after two years.

Since my time at Ueno, I felt that my right wrist was sore, but no matter what hospital I went to, I was told that it was an inflamed tendon. One day, in Sasaki, a knife slipped from my hand while I was slicing fish.

Finding it strange, I consulted with the master. He has many connections so he introduced me to a doctor who specialized in the wrist. It was a disease that crumbles the bone; it was advancing, so in time, I wouldn’t be able to grip knives. ‘You should quit cooking’, the doctor told me.

I wouldn’t be able to grip knives because my right hand would stop working. Normally, I would have been asked to quit, but the master told me to get surgery and that he would take care of my salary in the meantime. I listened to his words and instead of cooking, I took care of phone calls and such things. The doctor told me that he couldn’t say how it would turn out, and it was so hard for me to see the other staff members working so hard while I was sitting around doing nothing. After thinking over it, I decided to quit. I was in tears.

It was probably painful, having to quit a restaurant that you earnestly desired to work for.

It really was. My second child was already born and my right hand was in a plaster cast for one year. I thought about what I could without having to use my right hand.

After quitting, I went to pay a visit to Mr. Ueno. ‘There’s no need for you to cook, but do you want to come back as the head chef?’, he said. If I ever recovered, I did want to start cooking again. In any case, I decided to let him take me under his wing.

Even being unable to use your wrist, people knocked on your door. It must mean you were regarded very highly.

I am very grateful. In the meantime, I was lucky that the rehabilitation went well and I was able to start cooking again. From then on, I was also cooking while acting as head chef.

After your training in Sasaki, were there any changes to the food you served in Ueno?

It changed a lot. I was most influenced by Mr. Sasaki. I also think that Mr. Ueno had high expectations for me.
I was given the freedom to do what I wanted with the menu, so I made things like a ‘chef’s selection course’ without hassun. I kept Ueno’s style in mind while incorporating things I learned in Sasaki. Even customers said things like ‘The dishes have changed a lot! They’re delicious!’

Oimatsu Kitagawa appearance

Oimatsu Kitagawa

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