Started studying at the graduate school of Kyoto University at age 44
Mr. Saiki, you have an interesting career of attending the graduate school of agriculture at Kyoto University in 2013. What motivated you to do so?
I was the 3rd generation chef, so I was a member of the “Kyoto Cuisine Committee”, a union formed by young masters of various restaurants, and the committee gave me an opportunity to participate in the “Japanese food laboratory” project, a joint project with the agricultural department of Kyoto University. There, I met Professor Fushigi, who was the leading researchers of nutrition science. He said I should attend graduate school. So 2 other chefs from Kyoto and I decided to take the entrance exam. He gave us 20 years worth of exams from the past. Honestly, I wasn’t sure but the other 2 said yes instantly, so I had no choice (laughs).
We got tested on English, essay, and an interview. There was a cutback even for the older students and it was pretty tough. I studied early in the morning and after closing. I somehow managed to pass the exam, submit a thesis for my master’s degree, and graduated last year on March of 2015.
Doing that while working isn’t something everyone can do. What you learned in Kyoto University, how is it contributing to the dish you cook today?
I had the opportunity to participate in a research project that tried to analyze the flavor of a dish scientifically. It helped me look at things from various perspectives. The basics of Japanese food come from experience. So in terms of method on how to make things taste better, nobody knows the correct answer. I learned about what’s important to make Dashi taste better and the key for bringing out flavor. I utilized these findings to my own technique and it was very helpful.
So you were able to widen your horizons.
It’s just not enough staring at the ingredients on the cutting board. I have to focus on how the customer feels when they eat it. I believe those who can proceed to the next level is those who continue to have goals, such as trying to cook something better the next day. At graduate school, I was able to gain many perspectives on cooking delicious meals. I am very grateful for the professor who motivated me to go, as well as others who helped me throughout this experience.
Once you feel satisfied with your work, your career as a chef is over
Do you have any dreams for the future?
I have too many at this point. I want to learn more about things and see dishes of different worlds. I want to speak to other chefs… When I go around trying out various dishes, I try to avoid Japanese foods because I can imagine the taste to some point. Instead I try to focus on a specific genre or try to eat dishes from various countries to keep things fresh.
I don’t just learn about the food when I eat. For instance, when I eat a dish from another country, I look at the ingredients, presentation, and service to learn about the culture and spirituality of that country. The service is not limited to cooking.
I feel that many famous chefs work at improving their skills little by little and expanding their horizons.
You have to, otherwise, you won’t go further, and the same goes for the restaurant too. It is important to think like that. You cannot be satisfied with your work. I think this goes for any kind of businesses. You should see and hear many things, gain knowledge, and absorb them, even if it’s little by little. Set a high goal and go forward 1 step at a time. I think that’s what’s important in being a chef.
（interviewer: Takashi Ichihara, Writer: Tomoko Tanaka, photographer: Kengo Osaka）