An edge on his contemporaries, upon returning to Osaka
However, you got where you are now as top sommelier.
When I came back to Osaka after a year and a half, I was at a different level from others who had started at the same time. Despite being in this amazing institution in Osaka where there was so much to learn, nobody was studying. Service was slow, and none of the waiters seemed to have any knowledge about alcoholic beverages.
What I learned later was that my Osaka contemporaries would be invited to nightlives by the more experienced servers night after night. The industry is more rigid now, so things like that don’t happen, but in my case, my superiors guarded me against being tempted by sweets so that I could become a fighting asset as soon as possible. I felt strongly that I was blessed with people.
After your two year contract was up, the new building opened. And you must have seen your path to being a cook coming closer and closer.
But by the end of those two years, I was really fascinated by the service side of things. I was able to interact with guests face to face. You could do a lot of different things. On the other hand, in the very strict apprenticeship system for cooks. Even if I tolerate it, the service aspect of it is very limited. In Tokyo, I came to realize that I actually liked service work, so I asked the company to let me be a waiter for another year.
The conclusion that I came to was to try to become head waiter instead of a cook. My motivation was rather superficial. I just thought the head waiter at the coffee house where I was waiting tables, surveying the whole floor in his black suit, managing all of the waiters, was really cool (laughs).
I scraped together some of my wages to pay for language school, and to learn more about food and beverage little by little. Eventually I scored in the top 10 on a food and beverage exam taken by 600 cooks, waiters, and waitresses every year.
But what really stood out to me was how scarce my knowledge of wine and other beverages was. That was fatal to my goal of being head waiter. At any rate, the first wine I ever drank was a domestic wine that a dorm-mate in Tokyo bought. It was terrible wine. Its three key descriptors were “astringent,” “sour,” and “bitter.” I was thinking, “Can I even drink this stuff?”
So your introduction to wine was not good.
I encountered real wine later, when I was assigned to work as a waiter at Restaurant Chambord. At that time, there was no such position as sommelier at this hotel, nor was it a position well-acknowledged by the public, but my predecessor who we would now call a sommelier let me taste a huge array of wines I hadn’t even seen in my books. One thing I’m thankful for is that I had a strong stomach for it (laughs). So I could appreciate the depths of the wines while going from sweet to dry, white to red.
That opportunity, along with some other changes and hearing that the number of sommeliers would become only one, led to me wanting to become a sommelier myself. If I would have tried to be head waiter with my abilities at the time, I would’ve been a third-rate one. I didn’t know enough about cuisine. I couldn’t learn enough about wine in a year or two, either. I thought that I could gain a deep knowledge about wine if I studied for about three years, and that was my goal.
Drawn to study wine encountered in pursuit of being head waiter.
Your ultimate goal was to be head waiter, and at first, sommelier was one path toward achieving that.
The result of all this was that I worked as a waiter for six years, and then plunged myself into the sommelier world when I was 24. Also, just before my conversion, my predecessor left to train in France for three months, so all of a sudden, I was the only sommelier left.
That was when I truly encountered my destiny. The hotel hosted a French Culture Fare, and invited the president of the Paris Sommeliers Association, Gilbert Letort. Seeing the presence of a genuine sommelier had a huge impact on me.
Even though I didn’t understand what he was saying, throughout the event, I followed him around desperately trying to absorb everything. It turned out, everything I was doing was wrong. When we brought out a red wine, we brought it out already uncorked, but he brought it out stylishly presented in a basket, cut the seal with a sommelier knife, popped the cork, and tasted the wine all in one gulp. That was how it was really done.
You witnessed a professional skill, from appearance to performance.
After that, my superior came back from France and the first thing he said to me was, “You need to study French.” So I frantically studied French for the next two years. Then about 10 months later, I had the opportunity to go to France myself. That was a major turning point for me, when I got completely immersed in the process of becoming a sommelier.
I started by going from place to place visiting wine makers. Our company president told me, “You can see wine in bottles here in Japan. Go to France and see what happens up until it is bottled. Go study the daily life and culture of France where wine was born.”
I went to the Rhone region in the South of France, to Beaune in Burgundy, then to Alsace and Champagne. And for a grand finale, I spent my last three months working at the Plaza Hotel in Paris because the chef-sommelier there was Gilbert Letort.
By the second half of my time there, I had picked up kitchen French, and I learned in my own special way what wines pair well with what foods, and it gave form to what I had studied about alcohol and cuisine. One day Gilbert said to me, “Hey you, you’re leaving here,” and he sent me to work at the esteemed Paris restaurant Maxim’s for three days (laughs). I really learned a lot looking over Gilbert’s shoulder.