His restaurant, which is only 16.5 square meters, is open seven days a week!
You started your own restaurant, Sushi Dokoro Shimizu, in a space of only 16.5 square meters. How did the business go at the beginning?
I was told that I would need to work harder than anyone else if I wanted to be successful in the food industry. I decided before starting my business that I would open the restaurant seven days a week. Therefore, aside from the New Year’s holidays, it was open daily for almost an entire year.
In Shinbashi, there are many restaurants that are closed on weekends because there are not many people who come to the area then. However, I opened the restaurant even on Saturdays and Sundays. I didn’t really expect that there would be many customers coming so I figured I would be lucky if a customer came. So I opened the restaurant and waited for customers while cleaning. People around me said, “Why do you open on weekends in such an area?! There won’t be anyone on weekends.” However, I had a strong will that I would make the restaurant popular and busy with many customers on weekends. Once I started, I was grateful that there was no single day without any customers. There were always at least two customers. Shinbashi is an important point of traffic so it seems people from the local areas can stop by easier. Now weekends are busier than weekdays. As I had that will when opening the restaurant, I am now very confident that I made my restaurant popular enough to have many customers even on weekends!
I see! I am sure that it must be impossible to open the restaurant seven days a week if you hadn’t kept your motivation as high as it was when you started.
People keep their motivations in different ways. You can just keep moving at the beginning but it is also very important that you play, eat, and gain a variety of experiences, when you think about the long run.
Also, you changed the location of the restaurant once and moved to the current location as the restaurant Shinbashi Shimizu.
I had my previous shop for ten years and my current one has been open just eight years. Both of them have eight seats but my previous restaurant in the 16.5 square meter space was much smaller and it had a very tight atmosphere.
I thought anywhere was fine for the beginning, as long as I was able to open a restaurant. I just re-innovated a little without spending much money.
It was so old and small. It was hard to even walk through the restaurant. I needed to be patient, too. My customers were kind enough to tell me it was also a good atmosphere even tough it was so small. My current place was originally a small restaurant owned by an old lady. Its actual size is 24.74 square meters so it is only about 8.25 square meters bigger than my previous restaurant. However, it really feels spacious.I worked hard with the carpenters to create this restaurant. For example, we used visual tricks to make it look more spacious. We tried to come up with more creative ideas. It was hard work so I would never want to move to a different place! My current restaurant is two stories. There is counter seating on the first floor and a small room on the second. There are still many people who want to relax while smoking so I use the second floor for those people. However, a head clerk quit last year so there is only one young employee. Therefore, we only use the first floor at the moment.
How do you imagine your ideal restaurant?
I think of “adequate service” first. I don’t think it is a good idea to overdo things, such as makeup or decorations… However, I don’t want it to be too flimsy either. Recently, because of the Michelin effect, the standard of how high-class restaurants should be has been spreading in the whole food industry. For example, there should be a bar, private tables, a main dining area, and the ladies’ rooms should be well-furnished and so on.. However, I don’t think it is necessary to have these facilities in a casual French restaurant, a wine bar, or a yakitori restaurant. It is like you don’t need chopsticks made by Suginorikyu or tableware made by Rosanjin to eat takoyaki. Some people say it is necessary to have amenitoes in bathrooms but I don’t think it is necessary as long as they are clean and always kept clean even if they are old.
Please tell me about your ideal service.
My ideal service is a “casualness” that people don’t really realize. Maybe this is because I grew up in Tokyo. It is not easy to provide good casual service that people don’t realize, but is very appropriate. I consider this quality service. I don’t really like showing “excellent” to customers. On the other hand, Kyoto has a tradition of doing this. For example, cooking pots don’t have to be shiny as long as they are clean, but they polish them until they become shiny. They splash water in front of the restaurants and create the atmosphere of Kyoto where you could even notice the apprenticeships in the restaurants. However, I feel this kind of creation of atmosphere and service is too heavy-handed for me. I prefer more casual service.
It is inevitable that apprentices’ growth will boost their motivation and provide the environment to do so.
What is the most difficult part of the business as a restaurant owner? Is it about employees?
Well, I think the hardest part of running my own business is all about employees. There are many coming and going. Nowadays, companies are short-handed so workers think it is not difficult to get a job and they don’t really need to hold on when they face difficulties. However, I think it is the wrong idea. Hours are too long… Salary is low… No private time… I need to think of work from morning until I go to bed. It is a normal thing for people who open their own restaurants. I think it is the same in any kind of work. Even professional athletes or businessmen are the same. Those who work on the front lines of their fields and earn a lot of money never stop giving 100% of their energy because they know they may be left behind if they take breaks.
When you hire apprentices, what do you value the most? Do you prefer to hire those who wish to have their own restaurants in the future?
In this industry, I think people who dream about having their own restaurants are the only ones who can continue working. However, the reality is that we don’t really have time to think deeply about who we hire and wait for those ideal candidates to appear, so it has been difficult.
In these kinds of situations, I would like to hire people who show their desires a lot. I think having desire is very important.
Shinbashi Shimizu fostered excellent chefs. What do you think is the most important requirement in creating an environment where your apprentices could develop themselves?
I realized after I became a business owner that people grow on their own.
Therefore, the ideal environment is one where there are some employees working and they compete with each other to become better. If they are satisfied with where they are, they won’t grow further. When they consider their co-workers their best “rivals,” they can grow the most.
I don’t want people to take it the wrong way, but I think you create your own position, by yourself. Giving as much effort as possible is something everybody does. I myself worked so hard and was lucky enough to be surrounded by good people. There is no doubt about that. However, I don’t feel that I “cultivated” the apprentices who left my restaurant to have their own restaurants. People may think I “fostered” them, but they couldn’t grow without their own sense of competence. I only gave them an environment. Other than that, they developed themselves.
So both their motivations and an environment where they can compete in a positive way are important.
I don’t agree with the idea of education that brings everybody to the same level and avoids creating ones who are left behind. It may be a bit extreme but it isn’t a bad thing that there are people who are left behind. If they can’t catch up to others, they can quit. It is reality, I think.
In the sports world, the strongest one wins. A world where there are always winners and losers is very severe, but this environment makes people strong. I used to be denied in many situations but I was able to find my path on my own thanks to these experiences. “I couldn’t be the winner here, so I will win the next.” This kind of idea is important, I think.
Compared to when you were doing your apprenticeship, some people say that it has become harder for young employees nowadays to put up with the difficulties they face and put effort in what they are doing.
When I was doing my apprenticeship, I didn’t think about anything. I never thought about the benefit program or the employees’ pension system. I thought everything was fine as long as I had a place to gain experience. However, at the same time, I had a positive image of my future where I would be able to reach the place I wanted to be. There is a bright path in my way that I would make true while sleeping in a tiny room. At the moment, we have a full-time worker who has been working here for just three years and two part-time staff. Those young part-time staff are both graduates of a culinary college called Sushi Academy. Students there go to school four days a week from 9 am to 5 pm. However, an actual workplace isn’t like that.
There are many restaurants where there aren’t facilities as good as the schools’, so if people gain their experience under that well-equipped environment, they may get confused after they actually start working. I am quite afraid of this issue. I would like culinary schools to teach them about actual job sites. If you want to succeed as a chef, you need to work longer hours than any other person. Of course, there is a legal issue so it is not so easy.
Also, young people nowadays think that private life and work are separate. Probably their ways of thinking are very different from how people in my generation think. But I actually think you should be able to be professional enough before thinking of dividing work and private life.
While people have changed with the times, what do you think, as a chef who succeeds traditions, about whether you should keep the old traditional ways or change them in line with the times?
I think it is also important to keep it in line with times. However, the things that we always need to do will never be changed. On the other hand, I think we need to change the ways of teaching young chefs, such as giving them more opportunities. I would like to create an atmosphere where they can realize that they can do this and that so that they should have a good feeling of competition with others. The former soccer player Rui Ramos said, “The reason why Japanese soccer is weak is that they always pass the ball to others. They need to fight by themselves and see themselves as their enemies too. Having a large appetite is the first thing to do and passing the ball to the others is the second option.” I totally agree with what he said.
So it is important to improve yourself while having severity and a sense of tension, not just becoming friendly with each other in a soft and tepid atmosphere.
I think Japanese people nowadays don’t have enough grit to overcome difficulties by themselves. Japanese customers usually call us to find out the location of our restaurant when they get lost. However, foreign customers usually find the location by themselves. It may be possible that they are afraid of calling and asking in Japanese but I often feel foreigners are much stronger with coping with various situations. And then, this strength is very important in making sushi. I am invited by a customer to cook at a fireworks festival every year. I always write things down on a piece of paper to prevent myself from forgetting the important things to bring. However, it often happens that I realize that I forget something at the time when I start making sushi! I brought sushi rice and an ohitsu, a wooden container for rice, but I forgot the inside part of the ohitsu. I couldn’t go back to the restaurant so I used a regular bowl to cook rice.
To cope with many different situations, the skill to handle them is inevitable. My skills were developed by all those experiences I gained from scratch. So I think giving too good of an environment isn’t a good idea. Young chefs won’t grow up as professionals if they work in an environment where everything is equipped perfectly, like cooling and heating equipment and a huge kitchen. Remembering cooking skills isn’t the only thing they do during their apprenticeships, so it is important that they gain experience in a limited environment, having their own ideas and thoughts.
You went directly to the restaurant to do your apprenticeship and gained experience. However, there are more sushi chefs nowadays who have only studied in culinary schools or through some short-term courses.
You can’t become a professional chef only after doing a short-term study, but I am positive about schools making the entrance wider to the food industry. In the past, I had a negative idea towards culinary colleges. However, I know there are good sushi chefs who graduated from culinary colleges so I can’t deny that. I should probably banish the idea that professional chefs should gain experience only through their apprenticeships.