Through my experience at various part-time jobs, I found where I fit in, and proceeded along the path of cooking
Did you get interested in cooking at a young age?
My parents were farmers so there were often gatherings of many people in our home. There was so much food prepared that it could not all be eaten, so after the party, I liked to snack on the leftovers. Especially noodles—I liked them so much that people would say I was going to grow up to run a soba restaurant in the future. When I was a child, everyone was always busy working, so when I came home from school I would stand in the kitchen with my older brother and cook foods I liked.
How did you go down the path of cooking after that?
At some point, my father quit farming and started to run a public bath house. My older brother inherited that, so I was thinking about opening a second location, and after I graduated from high school I lived with relatives and worked doing that for a little under two years. But I thought that the time was coming when just running a public bath wouldn’t pay the bills, and I had to try something different, so when I was about 20, I spent a year doing various part-time jobs.
A tonkatsu restaurant, a ramen shop, an eel restaurant, a Western-style food place, etc. From those experiences I thought that cooking might suit me. Then in 1970, the year of the Osaka World Expo, I took a one-year course in Western-style cooking at the Shinjuku Culinary School. While attending school, I also had a part-time job at a Russian restaurant called Samovar in Shibuya (now located in Ikejiri-Ohashi).
There was one other thing that helped determine that this was my path. I was struck by the description on the first page of a book called Chef’s Manual that said, “Chefs must work to protect the health of the people.” I thought being a chef was an amazing job.
What did you do after graduating from culinary school?
After graduating, I considered working at various restaurants, but I ended up at a high-class Western restaurant in Osaka called BOON. I chose Osaka because I had heard somewhere that beef was going to rise in popularity soon, and when I talked with my culinary school teacher about it, I was told that in that case, the Kansai region would be better than the Kanto area. At that time, meat shops in Tokyo had mostly pork lined up in their windows, with some chicken, and just a little beef in the corner.
The Osaka World Expo was ending that year, and there were too many cooks around, so it was hard to find a place to work in Osaka, but I was able to get an introduction at one place.
Weren’t you nervous about moving from Tokyo to Osaka?
Actually, I was feeling very indecisive and wavering on whether I should go. At that time, I was influenced by something a Russian woman named Nina told me. She used to sell piroshki on the lower floor of a former grocery store named Niko in Shinjuku where my school was. I ran into Nina unexpectedly on the train.
Although I had only seen her at the store and we had just a one-way acquaintance, I started talking to her without thinking. I told her that I was worried about whether I should go to Osaka or not. She told me, “I’ve heard that in China they send their children to study with someone else, and when they return they help their family prosper. If they do that, you should also do this.” That gave me the push I needed, and I resolved to go to Osaka. When I look back now, I can see that it was a crossroads in my life.
Try to experience anything you can, absorbing many things during your training period
What did you experience at your first restaurant job in Osaka?
I learned about the dishes the restaurant offered, of course, and this restaurant often did reception parties for businesses. I only worked there for a short time, but I really learned a lot through the experience.
First of all, my role was to get to work earlier than everyone else and make omelets, garlic bread, and tea with milk for my seniors. That helped me learn how to control the cooking flame on the stove and how to use a frying pan.
At that time, I was slow compared to the other new workers, and I wasn’t catching on to the work easily, so the head chef arranged for me to make the staff meals every day. There were meat days and fish days for the staff meal at the restaurant. It was an extremely nice restaurant, and we were always using high-grade fish like beltfish from the Seto Inland Sea, pike conger, and sole for the staff meals. So I got to work directly with all kind of ingredients. That’s where I learned how to fillet fish.
Another thing I learned about was catering for parties. For example, I learned different ways to plate food based on the shape of the dish, or how to arrange it to look delicious, and I still use what I learned now with my curry and stew.
My total salary was ¥40,000, so I was living in a single three-mat tatami room with ¥1,000 tatami mats and only a single-burner gas stove, and one thing I enjoyed at that time was how once a month or once every few months we would go out to eat for our studies. We often went to Gion Manyoken’s Shijo-Kawaramachi location, in Kyoto (currently only the Gion location). We truly enjoyed eating while listening to Western music on the grand piano and receiving the menu.
In Kansai there is a lot of fish-based cooking, and the head chef advised me to learn how to handle fish starting with the whole body, so I caught fish by myself and learned how to clean them. I caught smelt-whiting and righteye flounder at Awaji Island and brought them home to grill or simmer, and fished for river fish like pale chub in Kyoto’s Hozugawa River and simmered them with syrup.
When I ran out of money, an older lady at work would treat me to lunch there. Everyone in Osaka was so nice. Going from Tokyo to Osaka, we tend to think people in Osaka are scary, but for some reason they didn’t think I was from Tokyo, and I was always asked, “Are you from Hokkaido?” (laughs) So the people in Osaka were very kind to me, and I often even stayed over at coworkers’ homes. That introduced me to Osaka home cooking as well. It’s a really wonderful memory.
Why did you start working at a different restaurant after that?
The work and environment at BOON were good, and it was a really comfortable place to be. But my goal was to start my own restaurant, so after a year and a half, I thought I wanted to experience a busier restaurant, so that’s why I left. My seniors would have liked me to stay, and I felt the same way. I thought that it was necessary for me to try working at an extremely busy place to have a more difficult experience too. I had a bit of a late start with that, because my training started after age 20. Since everyone else had come straight into cooking jobs after graduating from high school, I sometimes thought that my body wasn’t built for cooking, compared to some of the senior workers who were actually younger than me.
What kinds of things did you do at the second restaurant?
I was introduced to a restaurant in Sannomiya, a Western-style restaurant called Burg that was part of a business group and served hamburgers, fries, piccata, etc., and was so busy that they served 300 meals at lunchtime. Right after I started there, the meat cook, who was called the butcher at that time, left for another job and I, who only had experience working at BOON, was suddenly assigned to the position.
I had seen what the chef did, so I knew what to do and could go through the motions, but I was not fast at all, and there was a lot of work to do. Sometimes I could not catch up on my work and was not done in time for opening hours. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was sometimes yelled at to hurry up in strong Kansai dialect with a knife flying in my direction.
I had a strong desire to work hard and do my best, but after six months, I succumbed to overwork. One night I could not get up from a sofa at the restaurant. In the morning, everyone came in to work, and, worried, took me to the hospital. After that they told me to go back to Tokyo for a break, so I took some time off and returned to Tokyo.
What did you do after recharging for a while?
After a little time off, a friend from culinary school invited me to work at the renovated Shiseido Building if I was in Tokyo. I thought I might as well try going if I had a friend there, so I quit the restaurant in Osaka and moved to the Shiseido Hall (later Shiseido Parlour Building) Parlour division (later Shiseido Parlour). Before it opened, I went around to the hotels and restaurants where the chefs that had been working at Shiseido were temporarily going to learn. The friend that had invited me to Shiseido took me around to each place, so before opening I had a chance to talk with a lot of Shiseido chefs and get to know a lot of people.
After going through opening training and opening, I learned eagerly. At that time, the Shiseido Hall contained both the L’Osier (currently moved to the Shiseido Head Office building) and Parlour divisions, and I did not just stay in my own Parlour kitchen, but visited various floors to learn.
My daily work was to assist L’Osier’s third-generation head chef (※1), Chef Einosuke Takaishi, do prep work for vegetables, make dashi stock, manage the refrigerator, and help with the dessert division. Since I wanted to open my own restaurant, my attitude was that I was willing to do any kind of work!
Shiseido’s management system involved a division chief, section head, first section manager, second section manager, and third section manager, and I tried to absorb everything, always hanging around to observe the people I could not usually work with.
After several years passed in this way, Shiseido Parlour began development of retort pouch foods, and I was assigned to that work. I also participated in a development team of eight men and women total, including people from the Shiseido laboratory as well. At the same time, that research and development location also made the sauces that were shipped to Shiseido’s restaurants nationwide. I learned about food hygiene there.
※1: A chef who contributed to the development of French cuisine in Japan. Inventor of Shiseido Parlour’s famous meat croquettes (using only b?chamel sauce, without potato, to hold them together; part of Shiseido’s traditional menu). Worked as the first head chef of French restaurant L’Osier, managed by Shiseido.
You were really focused on your daily work at Shiseido Parlour, weren’t you?
Even while I was working at Shiseido Parlour, I kept thinking the whole time about how I wanted to open my own restaurant! So, after I finished work at six in the evening, I would work at a Western-style restaurant or pub at night to gain more experience.
I remember at one of those restaurants, when I first came to work the day after being hired, three chefs that had worked there until the day before all disappeared, taking the recipes with them. I had to think up and create the restaurant’s new menu for that day onward by myself, and I made all kinds of things like pizza, spaghetti, curry, hamburgers, rice gruel, and so on. It was tough at the time but looking back I was completely absorbed in my work and it was fun.