At 43, Kondo opened his shop in the Ginza furtively, not telling clients from Yamanoue.
I went independent at age forty-three out of a desire to bring tempura to more of the world. As head chef, the shop was in my hands, but as an employee of the hotel, my role was ultimately limited in terms of championing tempura to the world at large. I wanted to partner with farmers to procure even better ingredients, devise affordable menu items to encourage young people to try and learn about tempura, and so on. Being independent allows me to let my ideas take free reign.
How did the Yamanoue Hotel’s president react when you told him you were going solo?
He wasn’t exactly disposed to readily assent to the idea. He tried to persuade me to come on board with the top management of the hotel. Once he confirmed that I wasn’t changing my mind, he told me, “You can leave once you find a restaurant in a building,what I think is suitable for you.” That’s the building our shop is located at today; we were originally on the first floor.
While this shop is in the Ginza, it was 30 square meters and cost 120M JPY. This was not a sum I could procure myself, but Ginza was a part of town beloved by Shotaro Ikenami. He passed away shortly before I went independent, but I was convinced that the restaurant had to be here — he would have wanted it that way. I mortgaged my home, even took on a loan from my older brother and from the bank — if the enterprise failed, we’d all be living in the streets. It was a big risk, but I felt that I could not turn away from the challenge, having come so far.
Was there any talk of investment from regulars of the shop?
I didn’t tell anyone that I was going solo. It would be in poor taste to swipe clients from the hotel. Also, when I was making plans to leave, one of the president’s relatives told me that I was the poster child of the hotel. This really inspired me. I almost felt like I was the one single-handedly leading the hotel’s success. I guess my pride also kept me from revealing the plan.
In any event, I still had to try it and see. If customers didn’t come, then it’d be a wakeup call that my skills as a chef only took me so far. I had already somewhat braced myself for failure. But when customers in fact did not come at first, it was crushing. I had to return at least 4M JPY a month in loans, yet we were producing low income. It was enough to make me want to end it all!
What was the turning point?
Three months after opening the restaurant, a writer for a magazine found us and wrote a piece saying that, “The famous Kondo of the Yamanoue Hotel is doing business here.” People who read the article started visiting, and by the time we hit our second year in business, we were making close to 7M JPY a month. In seven years, I was able to pay back the loans.
Committed to keeping tempura skills “open source” so as to share the joy of tempura
As the customer base grew, the restaurant was running out of room, so they moved up to the ninth floor of the same building after three years in business. Kondo smiles, saying, “People were worried on our behalf: ‘Will customers go all the way up to the 9th floor?’ they said. But things worked out: the space is bigger, and we have more customers.” Since 2009, they have continued to garner two Michelin stars, leading to an influx of patrons from overseas. Tempura Kondo is also working on promoting the skills behind tempura preparation, with regular installments in magazines, and “Everything you Need to Know About Tempura” (Shibata Shoten) published in 2013, with editions also released in Taiwan and South Korea.
In “Everything you Need to Know About Tempura,” you go into amazing detail about the techniques used, so much so that we wondered if you were giving away your secrets!
I have no interest in keeping my work secret. I’m not trying to protect the “Kondo” name. I show customers everything at the counter. If I kept the techniques secret and gave people the idea that tempura is something complex, the world would see fewer people who take an interest in becoming tempura chefs. If that happens, not only will tempura never hit the world stage, but it’ll shrink as an industry. Furthermore, tempura has really yet to penetrate overseas. I want to show people what true tempura is about.
There’s this image of the world of Japanese cuisine keeping the secrets to its preparation closely guarded.
Doing that will only lead to being left behind. Techniques should be shown, the more the better, making the genre known. We even air our skills on YouTube, where we get views from people globally. We’ve had over 250,000 views.
That’s quite impressive! The recipes are also easy to understand. They’re something you could do at home.
It should be obvious to chefs to convey tips on how to make food at home, yet it’s not. With the right ingredients, food is delicious. However, conveying to the home consumer how to use everyday ingredients and give them a twist to bring out their best is also part of culinary science. Furthermore, in order to truly bring tempura to the world, we have to have people discover for themselves at home what makes it so great. I want to tell people that tempura doesn’t have to be hard.