An honest and humble approach, together with taking a chef’s decisive role in being the last step in a line of providers

Gion Owatari
Masahito Owatari

Gion Owatari Masahito Owatari

Finding the best in Japanese cuisine by shaving off what isn’t needed in favor of simplicity.

So how do you approach your work as a chef?

Mr. Owatari:
For human beings it’s pretty much understood that you need food, clothing and shelter. However, food is the one thing you really can’t do without. You can live without clothes or dwellings, but you’ll die if you don’t eat.

As chefs we have the type of job that puts us in direct contact with people on the interior level. That may seem a little nerve wracking of course, but it can also bring you a lot of joy, too. This is especially true when you work at a restaurant with a counter and you can see your customers’ reaction in an up close and personal way.
By having a restaurant that let me directly interface with customers, I got to go back to what my boss at Tsumura always used to say about prizing honesty and humility, which goes toward to ingredients, dishware, and people, too.

That’s why I like to have a simple style and shaved head because I was inspired by a cool boss who had the same look (laughs).

I thought so! It seems like you were able to pick up a lot of insight while you were being mentored.

Mr. Owatari:
That’s true. Mr. Honda taught me a lot about the technical side of things, and from the leadership at Nakahigashi and Tsumura, I learned about the right mood to have when you approached people.

Other than that I learned about Zen from my tea ceremony master. The master I had for tea ceremony taught me not just about the ceremony itself, but about the utensils and the overall framework you use to approach it. I was able to take in a lot of the utensils, which taught me quite a bit about the ceremony itself. This was while I was at Mr. Honda’s restaurant, so I was able to come to Kyoto and learn for about 10 years.

When you work with Japanese cuisine, it’s safe to assume that you should study tea as well?

Mr. Owatari:
I studied tea very thoroughly, but not just as a chef, but as a human being.
My tea master would educate me about how to chat and entertain at night while I made food. When I would plate things and present, for example how I cut daikon radishes, put out perilla leaves, plated sea bream, and placed wasabi, I made sure to really consider how stylish it looked.
But, my master would come around and say, ”Hey, you know you don’t need that,” and I would take away everything but the sea bream and wasabi. He gave me insight into what was just useless ornamentation.

Everything I was learning from these various teachers can be boiled down to the same thing. Basically that food that moved people was what made it good, and that simplicity is what gave food its deliciousness. Simplicity doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything at all, but that you use trial and error to figure out what you actually need and what doesn’t matter. I think what I really learned was how to approach food in a way that made people feel happy.

It’s been less than 10 years since you set out on your own, so do you have any goals set for the future?

Mr. Owatari:
I’ve been collaborating a lot more with chefs who cook in different fields. This gives me an opportunity to discover new kinds of food and find inspiration that broadens my own menu as well.

I think it’s really beneficial to my own development to broaden my own horizons like this, so I hope to continue to meet new people and connect through the different kinds of food we make.
I want the staff to go through this same development process as well, and help build up the restaurant in the same way. I think I can hopefully come through and help make everybody happy here.

Gion Owatari Masahito Owatari

How do you set about making these kinds of connections?

Mr. Owatari:
It just happened on its own after I opened up my restaurant in Kyoto.
In a city like Kyoto you have a lot of locals and people that have trained in the profession, which brings more people in to check your restaurant out after they hear you’re a young and up-and-coming chef that started their own place.
I came into everything on my own so I didn’t have connections at first. But that changed and chefs with different backgrounds started to open up places and raise interest along the way.

Somehow or another I didn’t have any connections before, but I think it was easy for other chefs to come in that had the same situation as me. Probably cause they were young like me as well.
A lot of these younger chefs would come over to hang out before they headed off to their own restaurants and offer to wash dishes and help with prep (laughs).

Other than chefs, did you make any other connections?

Mr. Owatari:
I’ve met more and more people that are in my same age bracket that work in fish markets and vegetable stores.
I learn a lot from them too. I get to see what all you can do with mackerel, like if it’s just scraps or cut out for sashimi or sushi, or if you should grill it.

Most times when you ask for the best mackerel at a fish market, the seller will just grab whatever is most expensive. But at the places I go to, they ask me about what I actually want to do with it.
I’ll say for instance that I need it for sushi, and then they’ll go over and find me something they like.

If we’re talking about sea urchin then we’ll get into what all I’m trying to accomplish with it. And if I need it for say just like a little dish or something, they dig up some fresh smelling sea urchin for me to use.

It looks like you have a lot different people supporting you from behind the counter?

Mr. Owatari:
Yeah, I think so! As chefs we are kind of the final line in the process, and it’s on us to deliver the best we can in what we provide. I think that’s a serious responsibility. When you have an ingredient, a lot of people along the way have put their time into making sure its good, so you have to respect that and let the ingredients speak for themselves. I think that goes without saying for everyone, but I think it’s especially true when you’re talking about food.

(Interviewer: Takashi Ichihara, Text: Ayako Shiraishi, Photography: Takashi Oka)

Gion Owatari appearance

Gion Owatari appearance

Gion Owatari

+81 75-551-5252
570-265, Gionmachiminamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
10 minutes on foot from Keihan-hon main line "Gion Shijo station" station
10 minutes on foot from Kawaramachi Station on Hankyu Kyoto Line
18:00~21:30 (L.O.21:30)
Irregular holiday