Baking was the spark that piqued his interest in becoming a chef, and he says that early on he “wasn’t too keen on the idea of only working with Chinese food”
So it’s been 3 years since your restaurant first opened. Your particular specialty is Chinese cuisine, especially classical cooking from Beijing. And, apparently your food has attracted fans from China as well. When around did you first decide that you wanted to pursue a career in Chinese cuisine?
The first time I realized that I wanted to become a chef was when I was in high school working part-time at a bakery. I had a good time there making bread and pastries, so I ended up staying on to work there after I finished school. Later on though I decided to enroll at a vocational college to really start learning how to cook on a professional level. I studied Japanese, Chinese, and Western cuisine, and I figured that if I was going to move forward I would settle on Western food. I wasn’t particularly captivated by Chinese cuisine back in those days, and as a matter of fact, I remember that I wasn’t too keen on the idea of only working with Chinese food.
Wow really!? You hear that there aren’t a lot of people who want to get into Chinese cuisine, even at vocational colleges. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?
It’s mostly to do with image I think. Especially in those days. Back then when it came to Western and Japanese dining everything was elegantly presented with stylish plating. That really was the fashion at the time. With Chinese food on the other hand it seemed like food was being plopped down on these white plates that looked completely indestructible.
I see what you’re saying. So, what was it that finally changed your mind?
When I was at my first job working with Western food the owner came to me and said that they really needed help in the Chinese end of the kitchen due to staff shortages. I took up the position with the condition that it would only be for half a year and that’s it, but once I actually got started I was completely absorbed by how fun it was.
I started as an apprentice, but I was able to take over the pots and pans relatively early on and cook up stuff like fried rice and rice vermicelli.
For sauces I used whatever I had finished training with, but everything came out my own way since I was cooking in an environment where differences in flavor can slide through from the way you handle the pan and work the flame. I had a lot fun with that aspect.
The year in a half that I had agreed to had come and gone, so the owner said it would be alright if I wanted to get back to my original post. I said, “no I’d like to stay on right where I am,” and so I ended up staying in that part of the kitchen for about 3 years total.
So it turned out that Chinese food was the right choice for you, even though initially you were only committed to doing half a year. Where did you decide to go from there?
I wanted to learn everything from the ground up, so I went to work in Kobe at a restaurant that had about 10 seats or so. I discovered the place while I was walking around trying out food and scouting out information. I came in for a visit after I called them up to ask if they were hiring.
The chef there was from Fujian and the menu they had was like a fusion between Cantonese and Fujian cuisine. The entire staff had only just recently come to Japan directly from mainland China, and so everyone there spoke Cantonese.
You’re saying that Japanese wasn’t used at all to communicate in the kitchen?
Everything was mainly done in Cantonese. I only spoke Japanese with the chef and his wife, and even then all they could manage were short little fragments. They would put subtitles on for TV shows and all that. Speaking anything other than Cantonese was too much of a hassle for communication, so there were days when I didn’t speak a single word of Japanese.
I immediately went out and picked up an entry level Cantonese language learning book to start studying with. I started out with basic greetings and focused on learning words for “need” and “don’t need,” “enough” and “not enough,” “want” and “don’t want,” “one more,” and any verb that was crucial for communicating in the kitchen. Then as long as I knew food terms the work was pretty much the same. Even if I didn’t understand all of the words I could figure out the general idea.
After that his course was set to become a chef, leading to a chance encounter with classical cooking
Is there anything that you learned at that restaurant that you still carry with you today?
Someone working there had a book on classical cooking and I was really struck by the food. It must of have been from that point on that I became completely engrossed with traditional cooking methods.
For instance, on their menu board they had a dish that’s name roughly translates as “Hundred Flower Chicken,” and it’s one of the so-called 4 major specialties of Cantonese cuisine. The dish consists of an entire chicken skin that’s stuffed with shrimp surimi and steamed all together. The scale of it is huge. It’s the sort of idea that’s completely out of the norm.
So to that extent what I had previously invested into cooking came to fruition around that time. Classical cooking rooted in Chinese imperial cuisine was what really caught my eye for the most part.
Offering food with touches of classical cooking was the impetus for the current style at your restaurant, “Hinotori.” About how many years did it take to get to that point?
I think it must have taken about 2 years. So at the time I didn’t have social insurance or anything, and I wasn’t making much money. My future at that point was looking pretty grim. I thought about how my salary would never change unless I had a restaurant of my own. My work hours were long too, and so I only had off about twice a month. There were some stints where about 3 times a week I wouldn’t even come home for the night.
That sounds dreadful… even for the restaurant industry. What kind of restaurant did you set your sights on next?
The next restaurant was a corporate-owned establishment. They had multiple branches across Japan, and I settled in to work at their location in Gion that primarily served Beijing cuisine.
In Cantonese cooking everything is extremely specialized, so if you’re working with hors d’oeuvres then you have to stick with that, or if you work with pans then you don’t touch anything outside of pans. But, this restaurant was also short-staffed when I got there, which gave me the opportunity to work all over the kitchen. Even if it’s just the hors d’oeuvres, Beijing cuisine differs from Cantonese in both seasoning and presentation, so I had fun getting to know new dishes and culinary techniques.
It was around that period that I was wholly devoted to pushing ahead with Chinese food, and I knew that I wanted to absorb even more to get better at it. This is what led me to Tokyo.
What all did you learn in Tokyo?
I was given the chance to train at places like “Chugoku Meisai Son.” Chef Son, who’s originally from Beijing, is the owner and chef there. He has the special distinguishment of having been awarded the most prestigious culinary title for Chinese cooking. I also spent time training at “Genborin,” which was opened by an apprentice of his.
I would say that the way that I cook now is a direct result of my time there. Chef Son, and the manager at Genborin, Mr. Deguchi, were both like teachers to me during those days. I was able to get a firsthand look at how they approached everything. This gave me an opportunity to learn about Beijing cuisine, as well as pick up different work habits to use in the kitchen.