I read cookbooks instead of picture books, and enjoyed cooking on vacations
Just one year after opening in 2012, you were awarded a Michelin star. Please tell us about your childhood, where the foundation as a talented chef was cultivated
My parents operated an old bookstore in the city center of Kawaramachi Sanjo, which is near this shop. There were many specialized magazines such as academic books and cookbooks, and I lived in the upstairs of the shop. I grew up in a living space where books covered the walls. Therefore, since kindergarten, I read cookbooks instead of picture books or comics.
I became crazy about the cooking of Chef Nobuo Murakami of the Teikoku Hotel, who led the wave of French cuisine in Japan, and Chef Masayoshi Ono of Hotel Okura. By looking at their cooking, I was able to cook simple dishes by the time I was in the second grade. I remember that I was pleased that my teacher praised the fried eggs I made for my field trip lunch one day.
You were very much into cooking at a young age. Do you think you are affected by your family’s dietary education also?
My mother always liked cooking and I grew up eating Kyoto cuisine. We rarely went to diners or sushi restaurants. We cut back on dining out by saying, “Let’s just go to a really good restaurant once every three months.” That was our family policy. At a counter-style sushi restaurant, I said “I would like abalone.” We were never a rich family but I guess I was in an environment where we tried to fully enjoy food.
When did you realize cooking was your future work?
When I was in sixth grade, we went to the Hotel Okura in Kyoto and I had French cuisine for the first time, to celebrate my older brother’s starting high school. I had seen such food often in cookbooks, but the impressive taste I experienced when first eating it made me think, “I want to pursue this! I want to make French cuisine!” That was when I thought about becoming a cook as a profession. The chef ‘s white coat was also cool, and it has left an impression along with the shock of the great flavors.
After that, it seems you experienced a variety of interests in junior high and high school. Did the idea of becoming a French chef never change?
Well, no. I think that my persistence towards food remained considerably strong ever since I was in elementary school. It is most evident in the fact that I rarely ate school lunches. I basically do not have likes and dislikes, but I do not like food that is made without any intention of making it delicious. School meals focus more on nutritional value, and sodium is decided with precision. Therefore, it is not delicious at all. It is impossible to serve bread with a simmered food. Milk is packaged in paper packs at room temperature… It’s impossible to drink it, isn’t it? I refused to eat those meals.
You were quite a strong-willed elementary school student!
In junior high school I started bringing lunch boxes from home, so I made French cuisine on the last day of school. I took out a plate and lined up the knife and fork on my desk. I put ingredients in a soup jar, and served appetizers, a soup, and a main dish… Teachers came from the teacher’s room to see. I guess I was the type of person who wanted to do something strange.
Starting work at a hotel with the intention of doing French cuisine but being assigned instead to Chinese cuisine.
After graduating from high school, did you go to a culinary college?
Actually I wanted to work in the kitchen just as soon as I left junior high school. However, my parents asked me to go to a local public high school. That was a good decision in the end. I joined the handball club where the manager was very strict. There, my fundamental spirit was shaken. I was a captain when I was in my final year but when the manager was not able to come to the club, we needed to work on our own according to the practice schedule we made. When I went to report that we finished everything, he asked me, “Did you do your best?” so I said “I did.” Then, he scolded me so hard. “If you say you tried your best, there’s no more. Things stop there.” Since then, I’ve never said “I am doing my best.” Even after I started working, the idea of this has been rooted in my mind and I won’t say it in the future. I am keeping in mind that I will not give that “OK” to myself.
A chef’s competition with himself never ends.
I agree. Another thing is that it was great that I was trained physically. I was not allowed to drink water so it was so hard that I vomited sometimes. My morning practice started very fast so I had to sleep during class. The amount of the practice was so much so I am physically fine now compared to then. If I hadn’t gone to that high school and didn’t belong to that club, I may have quit pursuing my career in the food industry.
After graduating from high school, you first went to the Rihga Royal Hotel in Kyoto. How was your first work experience there?
At first I started as one of the service staff. I was able to experience a position in which I work between chefs and customers, so I think it was a good experience, but I had an impatience at that time. Vocational college graduates soon started working in the kitchen but I couldn’t get a chance… After about a year or so, I got an offer: “There is space in Chinese cuisine section; would you like to move?” Although I wanted to work in French cuisine, more than anything I just wanted to hold a knife, so I decided to accept it and learned Chinese cuisine for about 10 years.
Ten years! That’s a long time.
My desire to do French cuisine was unchanged for a long time, but when I tried the Chinese cuisine industry, I found it also interesting. After mastering the foundations of Chinese cuisine for about three years at Rihga Royal Hotel in Kyoto, I went to Hotel Nikko in Tokyo on the recommendation of the sous chef. I worked there for about seven years and while there were thirty cooking staff who were in fierce competition, I got a chance to experience various positions. It took me just about ten years until I thought that I had done as much as I could. I also went thinking that there would be elements involved that were also used in French cuisine. Actually, I use consommé in the same way as the fancy Chinese soup known as dǐngtāng, and also use hot chili oil, a common Chinese condiment, in fish dishes.