The apprentice of the “Iron Chef”
I wonder, when was the first time that you cooked for yourself? Also, please tell us about why you decide to work as a cook afterwards.
It was around junior high school. My parents were tomato farmers so I was very busy early in the morning every day and my mother could not make my lunch, so making my own lunch was my first time to cook for myself.
Because I was a junior high school student, we didn’t even know the proper temperature of oil at first and so I couldn’t even make fried foods but I tried making it every day through trial and error.
Because I started cooking for myself, I began waking up 30 minutes early and little by little began to improve on making a variety of foods while making it look appealing.
One day, I was complimented by a girl in my class on my lunch. I was really happy because it was not often that I was complimented on anything. This is when I really began to realize the enjoyment of cooking. That being said, I didn’t think I would grow up to be a cook.
My grades in high school were not bad, and I was able to receive recommendations to a few Universities. Parents and school teachers strongly recommended kids to go to college but I was unsure about going down a road that I didn’t want to. My mind began to wonder and it was then I remembered how I was so passionate about making food in the past and I informed my parents and teachers about my desire to cook.
What was your parents’ reaction?
They were strongly opposed.
From my parents’ point of view, “I should first know how hard and difficult it is to work in a hotel kitchen” and so I decided to work at a hotel.
That is when I experienced the fascination of the world of cooking (laugh)
Looking out on the kitchen from the sink, where I washed dishes and seeing how the chefs churned out dishes one by one. I was impressed and thought how cool it would be to be able to do that.
This was the situation and my parents also agreed to my plan to go to cooking school.
However, what I learned starting out was not French cuisine. I was working as a chef at a delicious Chinese restaurant part-time during my studies and even thought maybe I should specialize in Chinese food. .
In the end, I wound up working under my first teacher in French cuisine, Chef Hiroyuki Sakai at a restaurant called “La Rochelle”. He is a chef with whom I have the utmost respect and he is a great teacher.
Chef Hiroyuki Sakai of “La Rochelle” was a famous French chef who at the time had a lot of media attention. How did you meet?
Chef Sakai came to the cooking school and gave a special lecture. He showed us a masterpiece of a French dish. While listening to his lecture I was impressed and began to think to myself “I would like to work under Chef Sakai.”
When the chef finally asked all of us “do you have any questions?” almost no one among about 100 students raised their hands. So I dared to raise my hand and said, “I want to train under you.” It was a situation where we were supposed to ask questions about the class or about Chef Sakai. His response was “Please come”. That was my chance and how I met him.
Once the door opens, you have only to go forward. The first step is to have the courage, you just have to strive. Regret is the road to failure. In order not to fail on the road you choose, you have to work hard. Even if you fail, there is no choice but to continue. If you think that you should have chosen a different path, that is probably because you haven’t put enough effort into the work you are doing now.
Image courtesy of: Au 14 Février Saint-Amour-Bellevue
Cook off between Mr. Alan Passard and Mr. Hiroyuki Sakai
What kind of things did you study at La Rochelle?
At La Rochelle in the first year I worked for 6 months in the hall and kitchen. There were 15 to 16 people in the kitchen, among them 5 to 6 patissiers.
When I started training, the television program “Iron Chef” was just beginning, so lots of customers came to visit us. At the time, we had 14 new employees.
Working in such a large restaurant was a very good experience because it makes you competitive. I always thought about how quickly I could improve so I could get chosen for a bigger and better position as soon as possible.
Even on my days off, I bought ingredients and continued training every day at home. In the restaurant, I had trouble peeling the skin of asparagus, so I practiced at home.
When the opportunity came up, I took the initiative and said “I can do it” and got the job. I really hate to lose (laugh).
Because I did not have any good skills at that time, I always thought about ways to be a better cook that the people around me. After having worked in the hall for 6 months and as an assistant in the kitchen for 6 months, I was finally promoted to manage the appetizers.
While I worked so hard, I noticed something.
To say things are to think. Remarks and ambitions decide the future.
The chefs and colleagues working in the kitchen were divided into two groups, a group of people that only use optimistic and positive remarks and a group that use only pessimistic and negative remarks.
Those in the positive group always talked about their dreams and future prospects, and after that they actually became head chefs and owners’ chefs, and everyone fulfilled their dreams.
It was then, at the age of 20 that I decided to not make any negative or pessimistic remarks. Since then, I also avoid saying that “I’m tired” or “I’m busy”. Also, I am always mindful of my goals and make sure to complete before my own deadline.
Image courtesy of: Au 14 Février Saint-Amour-Bellevue
We understand that you served as an assistant in the “Iron Chef” show during your school days under the Chef Sakai.
Yes, I was appointed as an assistant in the TV program ‘Iron Chef’. At that time I was appointed as the head of appetizers.
Some of my colleagues were dumbfounded and jealous that I was chosen, saying things like, “Why this guy?”
I think the reason I was chosen was because of my ability to “to communicate without speaking”. In my kitchen, I always try to keep in mind what it is that the Chef wants or needs, even though he doesn’t say anything. For example, if I think “the Chef is going to use this plate”, I will prepare that plate and always anticipate the Chef’s next action, thinking to myself, “the Chef’s next move will be …. “ and prepare for that action in advance to make his work flow more smooth. Also, if you make a delicious dishes, you will be noticed naturally.
Being able to communicate through my actions, without speaking and being able to make delicious dishes. These are the two points I paid attention to in creating the opportunities I wanted. . As you can see, a big opportunity will come along sometimes while we are taking care of others. There is no other way to capture opportunity other than accumulating them while staying on a steady path. It is something that cannot be obtained by only chasing a big opportunity.
However, in reality when I appeared in the “Iron Chef”, (* 1) because we were in an environment where we were in the studio recording, for some reason I couldn’t do some of the things I could regularly do in the kitchen and before I knew it, one hour had gone by. The reason was that I always had to ask the chef about what the next steps would be. In the taxi on the way back after recording, I apologized to the Chef though I was quiet and really couldn’t say anything.. The Chef then asked me “Do you want to try again?” and I immediately responded “Yes, please let me try again.”
In the two matches at the second appearance, I was able to “communicate without speaking” in the kitchen as I regularly do. Chef Sakai was successful in winning this contest. The chef praised me for doing well. Our colleagues also praised us after it was all over. I was really happy at that time.
I gained the confidence to speak in front of people since then have rid myself of nervousness. I also serve as a lecturer at a cooking school or on talk radio. I even recently talked to students about food education at an elementary school.
* 1: Appeared in “Ion Chef” tournament. The first opponent was Mr. Shoji Morimoto, the Japanese defending Iron Chef champion at the time. He appeared in two contests, first with Kenichi Chen (final) and Alan Passarle (world final) the following week.
What kind of stories do you talk to children about?
The one lesson I teach them or talk about is “when you think only about yourself, you lose the ability to protect yourself. When you talk only about your friends and family, you lose the ability to protect them. That being said, when you think about and take care of the people around you, there is always someone who will reach out to help you when you need it and you can protect the people important to you. ”
Always keep in mind the people around you and do it with your heart. This is something I always remind my employees and kitchen staff.
When you act while thinking about the people around you, things flow in a positive direction. Where you put things, how to act, everything.. You should not have a self-centered disposition. I teach the people around me to recognize and fix situations, even if it wasn’t that person that caused the error. Coordination and doing things for people are very important values.
Who is the Chef you respect the most? Also, what was the most impressive thing you learned from that person?
Absolutely, Chef Hiroyuki Sakai of La Rochelle. He is a role model for me. The most impressive or memorable thing I remember he said was, “before you are a Chef, you are a human being”. Having a sense of humanity is important. You can teach skills to anyone but you can’t teach human nature.