Opening the dream restaurant. Several years later, looking to the future with a curry and stew specialty restaurant
Tell me about when you opened your own restaurant.
When it was finally time to open my own restaurant, I went around to all different places thinking about where it should be. I happened to find this place in Ogikubo, and the owner liked me, so it was settled. We opened on February 4th, 1982, I believe. We’ve been operating at this location from then until now. At first it was a European home cooking restaurant. We were open from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 a.m., doing everything from main dish cooking to desserts, and handling all kinds of events like reservations for buffet parties.
That’s quite a different kind of restaurant from how it is now. Why did you change it to its current form?
I was thinking one time, if I run a restaurant like this that offers anything and everything, I might not be able to keep doing it when I get older. So, when I decided to cut down the number of dishes, the restaurant’s popular curry and stew came to mind. At first I thought about reducing it to just curry, but somehow it was hard to get rid of the stew when thinking of a Western-style restaurant, so I kept it.
The reason I chose curry was because at the time, no one was specializing in that. Another reason was because the head chef at the restaurant where I first worked in Osaka would make a really delicious curry once a month for the staff meal, and I still remembered it. The head chef showed his skill by making this curry by himself for the 40 to 50 staff members. He would slice a large quantity of onions from Awaji island, put them in a pot, and saut? until they were golden brown, and make this spicy but sweet and savory curry that was perfectly balanced and surprised me by being unlike any curry I’d ever had. The chef called it Java curry. The name of the curry I make at my restaurant was also influenced by that.
After you decided to stick with just curry and stew, how did you hone your skills?
Even after I decided, I knew that the flavors I had were not going to cut it. I had to do a lot of research, I thought, and so after I made the decision, there was a lot of learning. My wife and I went around trying curry at all different places in the Kanto area, visited the library and read books on curry, spices, and Chinese herbal medicine, and so on. The book that taught us the most was called the Encyclopedia of Practical Chinese Herbal Medicine.
After gaining all that knowledge, our first thought was that this work meant depending on ourselves for our whole lives. There is no retirement age, so in order to continue, we would still have to be healthy at age 60 or 70. We would have to taste our own cooking many times each day, so the dishes could not contain anything that would be bad for our health. I want to cook things that will keep us healthy, I thought.
Based on this idea, I combined spices with fever-reducing properties, ones that were robust, nourishing, and healthy for the stomach and gut, and finally arrived at the current 36-spice blend. I’m often told that Indian curry doesn’t use that many spices, or that with so much going on there is no clear flavor, but that is not the case. My way of thinking about curry originated with health, so there is a reason for every combination.
When we were changing our business style at the restaurant, my customers supported me as well. Regular customers would do taste tests for me. Some of my customers were presidents of listed companies. Since they liked stew and came often, they supported me through the restaurant’s business change.
So I put the curry that I created through trial and error first on the menu, and one day I boldly changed the restaurant to a curry and stew specialty place, and here we are today.
I put in the time and effort without regard for profits, because I want to see customers’ smiling faces
What are you particular about at your restaurant?
One thing is ingredient quality. At Shiseido Parlour, where I spent time training, they poured money into the ingredients, sparing no expense to gather only the best. At that time, Shiseido Parlour was also a place that Shiseido employees used for corporate entertainment, so they used plenty of good ingredients. Being able to see those high-quality foods was really educational for me. Well, it might not have been good as far as managing my own restaurant, though. Since I saw all of those top-quality foods, I raised my own standards for choosing ingredients. Our cooking doesn’t take cost-price ratio into account. (laughs)
The second thing is to offer healthy foods. As the taste tester, I am the test subject. I have actually never had a problem at a health checkup. That’s why I can confidently recommend this to my customers. People tend to think that curry made with roux is particularly high in calories, but we use Japanese beef that has delicious fat and lean parts.
When deciding what kind of beef we would use, I went so far as to visit the farm in Nagano with my wife to see what kind of feed they used and the environment in which animals were raised, before choosing the one we use now. Beef fat melts at the temperature of your hand. But we remove that fat and use only the meat. The meat shrinks to a fifth of the size of the piece we put in. The fat rises to the surface when heated, so we scoop it out with a spoon, and finally remove it using a paper towel. The roux brings out the flavor of this carefully prepared dashi stock, so the salt content can be lowered as well. We also have fish sent from sellers at Tsukiji Market. We also use a large amount of vegetables to make the curry sauce, so when you eat our curry, you are getting a lot of vegetables.
We are also particular about the preparation process of the ingredients from when we obtain them until we finish cooking the curry. Our two days off are both used for preparation. There is no roux, so we begin by frying the spices. It takes time and effort, but it’s a detail we think is important.
There’s also the hygiene side. There’s a health care center next door, so often the head of the center comes to eat our curry. We are an experienced restaurant, but we pay a lot of attention to hygiene.
I’m sure some people fall in love with your flavors and ask to learn from you, so how do you handle that?
It’s true, there are some people like that. But I refuse all of those requests. Even if they learn the flavors, our cost-price ratio is too high, so I don’t think it’s viable as a business. When they fail, I would feel guilty about failing their parents. In my case, I think my happiness is more connected to seeing customers’ happy faces than making money, and right now it’s just my wife and I so we can get along somehow.
I actually have two children, but it seems that they prefer to be office workers. The condition I gave them at first of having to do outside training for 10 years might have been a little too strict. I’m not sure what I’ll do about an heir. Maybe this place will only last for one generation.
What do you think people need if they want to become a chef?
You need to get various experiences and develop a lot of useful knowledge for yourself. If you do that, you will be able to handle anything and help yourself. You’ll have done a lot of different things, all useful. That’s what I did as well. I said the same thing to a relative’s child who is in the same industry, the other day when we were sitting next to each other at a religious service.
Tell me about your dreams for the future.
I opened Tomato in 1982, so this is its 37th year. I want to continue until its 50th year if I can. That’s my dream. That’s why I have to stay healthy. I don’t have time to get sick. That’s why I work hard to make “curry for health.” Doing preparation work day after day is tough, but nothing makes me happier than continuing to produce food that gives me peace of mind and seeing the smiles of returning customers. That can’t be exchanged for money. I’m also continuing because of the customers that support me.
I want to raise the status of chefs, too, and bring more people into the industry. There are a lot of good people in this business. I myself have been told that a curry restaurant would soon go out of business or that curry was cafeteria food, but it just made me think that I had to work even harder. These days I get workplace visits from local junior high school students, and I told them as well how I want to improve the status of the food industry.
At the same time, I would like to have so many curry restaurants open in Ogikubo that people call Ogikubo “Curry Town” like Kanda. I think that if I work hard, if everyone works hard, we can bring a lot of curry restaurants into this area and support each other to be better. Actually, come to think of it, they are increasing more and more.
By the way, why did you name your restaurant Tomato?
We use a lot of tomatoes in both curry and stew. And tomatoes are full of nutrients, so they say a tomato a day keeps the doctor away. They also grow in clusters on each branch, so it represents the hope that many customers will come. By the way, even children who dislike tomatoes can eat our curry. I always thought I wanted to make that sort of curry. Most of all, tomatoes are red and cute, right? And the word to-ma-to has a nice kind of symmetry to it. (laughs)