Meeting my master, who got me into the world of Japanese cuisine
What did you during your college years?
My father wanted me to stay in Kyoto, so I decided to attend Doshisha University. I knew if I stayed at home, it would be the same as my junior-high years, so I put a lot of time into working. I ended up working at restaurants and bars mostly, which became very useful for me. But the most important think I learned is the proper mindset when working. I learned how to interact with various people in various environments. I got in the habit of thinking what I had to do to make my customers happier. I think this basic idea applies for any kind of business, not just restaurants.
Although you were hesitant to become a chef back then, it seems you are doing very well today as a chef. When did it all turn around for you?
I think it was when I saw the world of master chefs at the first restaurant I trained at after graduation. Fortunately, I was able to train under Mr. Hajime Murakami, one of the most famous chefs in the industry. I was amazed by everything from his presentation, how he used the dishes, picked out the ingredients, and gave life to them… I said to myself, so this is Japanese cuisine. I wanted to learn more about it.
However, “Saiki-ya” was a big restaurant. The land was about 600m2 in size and the restaurant had party halls as big as 127m2. It mainly served ceremonial occasions and special events. So there was much more focus on speed and efficiency instead of taste and hospitality. Of course the food had to be good, but I felt it was slightly different from my idea of satisfying customers.
So in total I trained for about 6 and-a-half years. With help from Murakami-san, I got to train in Niigata and Kobe as well. As I saw different restaurants, I started to establish my own style of customer satisfaction, regardless of the gaps among different restaurants.
Succeeded the family business at age 28 and moved/renovated the restaurant at 42
So how did you end up back home?
To be honest, my father was very distinct. I knew there would be conflict, so I did not want to go back home (laughs). But when I was 29, I got a call from them saying they needed me back because an employee quit. The fact that they called me back because they did not have enough manpower, instead of thinking about my future, irritated me. It made me feel like I was just a small part of a big machine. So I went back thinking, once they hire more people, I would leave again to train.
But I ended up working as the young master of “Saiki-ya” until my father retired. After his retirement, I worked as the 3rd generation master. Then the building started to get old, so my friends at design offices and building firms recommended I fix up the entire building. But the building was made from heavy metal instead of wood, so the estimate was about \400,000,000. I just couldn’t pay that running a restaurant.
As I was wondering what to do, a friend told me about the current location. I was standing at the crossroads of deciding the future of the restaurant at the time, so I decided to move the restaurant. My father encouraged me by saying, “if you think it’s the right thing, do it”.
What kind of hardships did you experience in your new challenge?
I decided to renew the menu and the style of the restaurant altogether, so customers who came to “Saiki-ya” for many years said to me, “What are we to do?” We also had businesses from the Imperial Household Agency, Eboshigi (festival), and local residents, so I went around apologizing.
Furthermore, the current building was about 60 years old too, so I needed to renovate it from the ground up. I handpicked materials and spent a lot of time on the designs, so it was pretty hard. I used old materials from my grandfather’s era for the counter and stepping-stones at the entrance. I cannot let go of the history of this restaurant passed down through generations. These materials remind me of that.
Some might say protecting something that has been passed down to you and fulfilling duties is an obligation, but I consider it pressure. Not only that, it is a reliable “brain” that people who started on their own do not have. I consider this a privilege.
How did the customers react to the renovation?
Originally, customers who visited us were different from those of “Saiki-ya”, so there weren’t that many customers from that era. There are maybe 2 groups of customers who still come to eat. So when I opened up the store, it took about 2 years to get on track. I put out signs outside the store and thought about how to get customers. Slowly, I started to get calls for reservations saying, “OO-san introduced me”. Then I started to get repeat customers and things started to take off as I wanted it to from around the 3rd year.