‘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 counter-seat

Incorporating the best ideas from both shops, he went solo. The aim was to create courses with an impact.

You said you were planning to go solo since your 20’s. At what age did you go independent?

Kitagawa:
I was planning to go solo by the time I was 35. I ended up doing that at 32. Ueno’s staff changes a lot, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The people at the top leave, and Mr. Ueno regularly said that we should all be people who strive to be independent. So I thought it was the natural path for me.
However, I was told that if I was planning to go solo, I should tell him two years in advance. I was wondering when to tell him.

Oh, is that so? Are there other restaurants that were opened by people who previously worked at Ueno?

Kitagawa:
For example, Shunsaiten Tsuchiya in Esaka, run by Mr. Tsuchisaka, is one of them. Mr. Tsuchisaka was the head chef when I first entered and he took care of me the most when I was in Ueno.

Actually, Mr. Tsuchisaka also did an interview with us for this project. How did you find time to look for a property while you were busy? How did you end up choosing this place?

Kitagawa:
As I mentioned before, Mr. Ueno was very supportive of me going independent. We looked for places together in his car whenever he had some free time. It was a big help.

I am an Osaka local, so I wanted to open a shop in my hometown if I went solo. I ended up choosing Nishitenma because it has a calm vibe, similar to Kyoto, and has teahouses and geishas.

The person who introduced me to this place said, ‘Even if customers don’t come, just cleaning the front of the store would feel good because it has such a good atmosphere. It has to be a place like this.’ I agreed wholeheartedly.

It’s a place that brings happiness, just by being there. What was your ideal image when you were designing the shop?

Kitagawa:
Ueno is a place where ladies can enjoy tea and meals. Sasaki is a place where you can heartily stuff yourself with delicious food and alcohol. I thought about creating a place which was like Ueno in the afternoon and Sasaki at night.

At night, I serve food that I like, ordered in my own way. I want customers to say ‘That thing was delicious.’ Usually it goes like this: ‘It was delicious!’ ‘What was?’ ‘I’m not exactly sure..’ That’s why, just like Sasaki, I want customers to say something like, ‘Today’s abalones were fantastic!’ I endeavor to make dishes with an impact at night.

On the other hand, in the afternoon, I serve hassun; I also try to serve a variety of small dishes that the customers can enjoy. The way I serve food is a little different in the afternoon and at night.

Oimatsu Kitagawa Toru Kitagawa & staff

Challenges are what develop human resources. Vision is important for chefs. If you seek it, you’ll find encounters that let you grow.

Ah, so you devise according to the clientele. I’ll change the subject to recruiting. How many people are working in your restaurant at the moment? Also, could you tell me a little bit about how you go about selecting your staff and what your standards are?

Kitagawa:
There are three chefs including me, and my wife also comes to help. One of the staff members used to be a customer; one day he jumped in saying that ‘I quit my restaurant.’ At that time, he was already close to one of the staff members and they went out for meals often. I asked for his opinion and he thought it was a good idea. With that, I decided to higher him. I’m the happiest when people say that they want to work for this restaurant.

The other staff member was introduced to me by a teacher from Tsuji. He started as a part timer and later started working with us full time. In terms of standards, I think that any kind of motivation is alright. What’s important is what they do after entering the restaurant. Motivation and joy, and genuine greetings.

How do you go about managing and training the staff? What expectations do you have of them?

Kitagawa:
Tha’s the current issue. A few times a year, all of us who worked at Sasaki get together. We are told that ‘all of you have become independent and are running your own stores. Now, what I ask of you next is to nurture your staff’. However, I’m still young and a part of me is scared to delegate everything to my staff. It’s pretty difficult.

In terms of cooking, it’s important to observe and remember, but I also give them the recipe. However, I tell them not to rely on it too much.

For the future, I hope for each of them to have their own restaurant. They don’t have to go solo, but I think it that if they don’t have a vision, it’s difficult to grow.

In the world of cooking, it’s really up to you, what you want to be or what you want to do. People who don’t have that tend to quit.

So it’s difficult to teach young kids who don’t know what they want to do.

Kitagawa:
Right, when a newcomer fresh out of school comes here, I feel like I should make them want to open their own restaurant. It’s not an easy thing to do..

You seem to have been blessed with many good encounters. Do you think that people who don’t have that kind of luck tend to quit the world of cooking?

Kitgawa:
Hmm. I think that’s just an excuse. If you pursue encounters, you will meet people. You’ll probably notice it. Luck arises when you are grateful to the people around you.

People who say things like ‘I have no luck’ tend to blame others. It’s a daunting task to deal with people who run away from their responsibilities.

Exactly. Making efforts to go to restaurants, making positive efforts and feeling grateful is important. Do you go out for meals or have meetings with your staff members?

Kitagawa:
Going to various restaurants is definitely necessary for a chef. I do go out to eat meat or ramen with the staff, but I feel like that is a time to appreciate their efforts so I don’t talk about work then. However, when we go to similar restaurants, I ask them how they feel and I give my opinions about the aspects that I don’t like or that I want to incorporate into my restaurant.

We don’t really have meetings, but we do talk one on one at the end of the month when I handover their paychecks.

It’s great that you take time to talk to your employees when you’re handing over their paychecks. Finally, could you tell us about your dreams and what you want to do going forward?

Kitagawa:
This is something I probably want to do in 30 years or so, but I want to run a small restaurant with six seats or so, perhaps serving just one group a day. I’ll ask the customers what kind of food they want to eat and chat with them while cooking. But before making that come into reality, I want to run a relatively large restaurant, making an environment to help the employees grow.

Also, I want my customers to have a better understanding of the charm of Japanese cuisine. The type of Japanese cuisine that uses old tableware and proper arrangements. I’ll be happy if they understand that aspect. One thing I must also say is that we, as chefs, must study more.

Japanese food in Osaka is comparatively cheaper than Kyoto or Tokyo. For that reason, good products stop entering the market. We are working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen. That’s why it’s important for people to understand the value of our work, rather than the price. This may be impertinent, but it’s important to not only educate our staff, but also our customers.
(Interviewer: Osamu Saito, Writer: Yasuyo Miyazaki, Photographer: Kenichi Hisaoka)

Oimatsu Kitagawa appearance

Oimatsu Kitagawa

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4-1-11, Nishitenma, Kita-ku, Osaka-city, Osaka
Walk from Midōsuji Line "Yodoyabashi Station" 11 minutes
Subway Tanimachi Line 7-minute walk from "Minamimorimachi Station"
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