Discovering a whole new world of food after exploring different restaurants. Then, a decision to relearn everything from the ground up.
Did this realization also have an effect on the restaurant you worked at?
I was promoted early on at the restaurant I was working at, so I didn’t exactly learn everything there was to know about Japanese-style cooking.
For example there’s “tama-miso” (a white miso base mixed with egg yolks, sugar, sake, and mirin, that is then simmered and whisked together), which is something that I didn’t know you had to whisk for about an hour, and goma-dofu also takes about an hour of whisking. I thought it was okay to let it harden.
This was hopeless, and I realized that I didn’t understand anything about the basics.
So, I made up my mind to go back and relearn everything from the bottom up, and then I went and talked to my wife about it as well. I told her that my salary will take a hard cut but I want to go through with this. She understood where I was coming from and supported what I was trying to do.
After that I got the opportunity to train at a Japanese restaurant in Souemoncho called “Honda.”
By that point I had my credentials a sommelier, so I approached the owner there, Mr. Honda, about putting my skills to use at his restaurant. He responded kindly and was happy to oblige.
At the time his restaurant was receiving a lot of buzz, which kept him really busy at the restaurant. But he nevertheless helped me out a great deal during my training. I started from scratch and relearned everything, including the minor details that make up Japanese cuisine, as well as things like how to set fish the right way and how to prepare dashi stock the right way.
Why did you pick Honda?
During this time a lot of restaurants were doing a la carte menus. Of course nowadays there are more restaurants coming out with course meal options, but at the time this just wasn’t the case. Honda was one of the few places that did.
I read a book that I really liked called “Kyo-ryori O-agariyasu” (Enjoy Kyoto-style Cuisine) by Takeshi Kadokami, and there was something in those pages that changed me. I read it and remember thinking about how people that cook courses can express their very own world of food.
Way back in the day it was sophisticated types who knew a lot about food, and they would come in as connoisseurs and order food from chef’s. But over time things changed and more people were able to appreciate food, which meant that the way people enjoyed food changed as well.
With that in mind, I noticed that a there were quite a few patrons who had some trouble ordering at restaurants serving their food a la carte.
They would ask for karaage and tempura, then not want any tuna for sashimi.
With this type of ordering style where everything was left to the customer, it meant that what was supposed to make a restaurant’s menu good was sort of lost in the mix. I think customers themselves also felt bewildered by this and grew weary of having to order everything on their own.
After I picked up on this I wanted to move forward from that point on and make food in a way that really delighted customers. I figured that course menus would certainly be in more demand because of this.
After that you also went to train at “Tsumura” in Osaka, right?
Yeah, the boss at Tsumura would always tell me to be honest and humble. He said people will definitely notice me if I always approach both people and my ingredients with nothing less than honesty. And, he would say that first you needed good ingredients, and then to craft your own culinary style, and after that just go from there. He told me about having an insightful approach to ingredients as well, and that sentiment is still just as relevant to me now as it was back then.
The boss at Tsumura said that it was a bad idea to calculate backward on your food. For instance, if the food was 15,000 yen, then the cost price was 5,000 yen. If the cost price is 5,000 yen, then i’ll do sea bream in such and such way. He said that it was impossible to make good food with this type of thinking, and that you should by all means hold back from counting backward for costs.
Other than training with food, at the time did you also study different approaches and philosophies used in the kitchen?
I would go and check out other restaurants twice a month. So, once a month I went to “Soujiki Nakahigashi,” and the other time would be to some restaurant that was getting a lot of buzz.
So out of the two restaurants you would visit each month, “Nakahigashi” was always on the list?
When I would go and visit other restaurants it gave me the opportunity to study their food, and more than that I got a glimpse into where their hearts were at, and why they made the food the way they did. This let me think a lot about what chefs were thinking when they presented each dish.
The food at Nakahigashi was not extravagant at all, if anything it was very simplistic. Greens, fresh water fish, and that type of fare. But, Chef Nakahigashi would actually go out to the fields and harvest up vegetables. He would use these to painstakingly craft small “hassun” platters.
For some reason Chef Nakahigashi really raised my spirits. I wanted to get to the bottom of why that was, and that led me to go there every month to try and figure it out.
Did you ever find the answer?
I still don’t really know what it is, but I suspect it has something to do with a sort of “spirit of hospitality.”
Back when I first went there they were serving 2 guests a week. And, when I was feeling a bit worried Chef Nakahigashi invited me to come and eat.
When I told him about what was on my mind, he asked me about my thoughts on the food I had been eating there for three years. I told him that it was delicious of course, but even more than that the food really filled my heart as well. In response he told me, “When February comes around, I pick field horsetails, taking one in the afternoon and two in the evening. 12 and 48 makes 60 all together, so each day I end up looking through the snow for these.”
This is what hospitality means to me. He would tell me about how he didn’t find anything that day, or how the cold made it hard to go out.
He said, ”Owatari, I’m not exactly saying that you have to go out and search for field horsetails, but try and think about something that matters to you so you can approach it in that same way.”
And so I realized that I was enthusiastic about Chef Nakahigashi’s food of course, but it was stuff like that that really moved me. With that in mind, it changed my thinking in way that made me want to offer the best dining experience that I could for guests when they would come and dine at my restaurant for 2 and a half to 3 hours at a time.
An Osaka chef opens up in Gion, Kyoto. And then, taking on food without considering the cost.
And then you set out at age 34 to open up your own place. How did the restaurant work out?
I had a real can-do attitude when I set about opening up my own restaurant. I felt like I was going to make a real triumph in Kyoto when I started. But, I didn’t know anyone in Kyoto at the time, and people from Osaka only came in on the weekends. It was a terrible thing to experience.
Chef Nakahigashi also helped me out when I opened up the place and he connected me with distributors as well.
The kitchen stove and kiln were the same ones used at Nakahigashi.
Because of that an elite group of gourmands came in, and during that occasion Chef Nakahigashi said things like, “Hey, this food isn’t Kyoto-style cuisine,” and “Your grilled sweetfish isn’t coming along very well.”
Nowadays I don’t really dig into that too deep, but I guess it does make for a funny story now. At the time I was completely dumbfounded by what Chef Nakahigashi said, and I was so down that I felt like I couldn’t even accomplish the smallest tasks.
Just the same as I do now, if I feel like I can’t do something then I wake myself up and try again. I started up once again to look into the proper way to grill sweetfish, and I re-examined my food. The next day I centered once more on the food at Tsumura and I set out to make my own kind of food. I think that if I hadn’t heard those words, then I just simply wouldn’t be where I am today.
Did your restaurant change as well after all of this?
I used the ingredients that I wanted to use and I made sure to express myself the way I wanted to. I told myself that it doesn’t have to be Kyoto-style cuisine just because I’m in Kyoto.
I figured that even if it was a question of life or death, I at least needed to have a restaurant with really good food in the end. After I put myself in that type of mindset customers started to pop in more and more (laughs).
My restaurant wasn’t serving Kyoto-style cuisine, and at first the proprietress and mother from a tea shop were amused by it. Doing without Kyoto-style cuisine in a place like Gion was unprecedented, and even more so if people were liking it, and so word started to get around.
It looks like have an all or nothing attitude was the best way to find success.
I had a lot of time on my hands in the early days after we opened, but after that it was nothing but budgeting to see what day we would go under (laughs).
But at the time when I thought about the option between a restaurant that put 30% of costs into a quiet place, or put 60% of costs into a thriving place, I figured the latter was the best way to go.
I didn’t really want anything and I didn’t think about my own income. All that mattered was that my family and employees were taken care of.
Food that takes costs into account ends up boring myself and the customers as well. It’s not like you don’t want to think about it at all, but if all you do is think about numbers and costs, then you’ll find yourself at the mercy of that whenever you go shopping for ingredients.
When you find the resolve to spend without considering the cost, then customers will pick up on that as well. I just can’t tell customers that I’m serving the very best ingredients of the day if I don’t actually feel confident about what I picked up.
How did your wife react to this?
She was very supportive about the whole thing, and basically left it up to me as to whether how far I wanted to go and perhaps confront going for broke.
So with that I just went full speed ahead. To get things on track I couldn’t put in money for personnel, so I had to handle everything myself and even sleep at the restaurant for a 3-year time period.
This brought a lot of what I wanted to fruition. I started to approach people with the prospect of working alongside me, and after a while I picked up 1 person, then I had 2, and now I have 3 people working with me all together.