“Customers” are my masters.
First, please tell us how you became a chef.
My first memory is probably from when I was in preschool. My father was running a Geta clogs store in a public market, and I often went there to play. As I became friendly with the omelette store in the market, the owner asked me, “do you want to try making one?” and let me try. The omelette that I made myself was just so good (LOL). By the time I was in elementary school, I began dreaming about operating a “restaurant building,” housing a variety of restaurants. When I was in junior high, I got my first job at an Udon restaurant in Shin-Osaka station. Just like that, I was somehow involved in the food industry ever since I was young. Then, when I was in high school, I started seriously thinking about becoming a chef. I ended up working at over 30 restaurants in the Osaka area.
Is there a reason why you worked in a variety of restaurants, rather than just 1?
I just get bored easily (LOL). There were many reasons (LOL)…like, I was not interested in the restaurant, I was not given meaningful tasks because of the seniority system, or I did not get along with the owners. For example, when I would work on the floor, because I liked chatting with the customers, I would get a lot of orders, and because I worked hard, the sale went up. That is why most of the time when I would quit, I was missed (LOL). I became independent when I was 27, and opened my first “Izakaya Nagahori” in Shimanouchi, Chuo-ku, Osaka.
Then you learned how to cook on your own, rather than from a master?
I would say that my master is the “customers.” They clearly tell me whether my food was “good” or “not so good,” and often told me “that restaurant is really good.” I guess in that sense, I did learn on my own. I fully utilized my off days to eat a lot of the good foods that my customers told me about and studied them. I would eat them and think about how they are made, and analyze them, but it is not good enough to simply recreate the same flavors. I have always aimed to “surpass those flavors,” and sourced better ingredients and developed my own food. There is no point, unless you aim higher. I always want to be at the top, so I have to always be on top! That is why I can never be satisfied with my current state (LOL).
Encounters with the producers through curiosity.
What was “Izakaya Nagahori” like, when it first opened?
The Izakaya style offering Yakitori and Sashimi has not changed much. There were 10 counter seats and a single 6-seat table. Maybe 1/3 of the capacity of the current store. The first 2 months were a struggle. The restaurant was unknown, I had no money… We did not even have change, when we opened! (LOL) When the customers paid with ￥10,000 bills, we had to run to the nearby convenience store to make change (LOL). It started like that.
The customers taught me many things, and in order to make the restaurant better, I repeated trial and error on daily basis. Therefore, while the name of the restaurant is the same since the opening, we are very different now. The biggest difference is in the ingredients we use. I can now be very particular about the ingredients, and offer only the best of the best.
You go to the producers yourself, to directly source the ingredients, right?
Yes. I started doing that about 10 years after I opened the restaurant. As I was sourcing vegetables at the market, I started wondering, “are there ones that taste even better somewhere else?” Then, I started going directly to Sake distilleries and growers. I get instructors from the Tsuji Culinary Institute and celebrities in my restaurant, who teach me a variety of things. When I hear, “I know someone, who makes delicious vegetables,” I immediately get the contact information and go to visit. As I establish relationship with great producers, they in turn tell me about other great producers… I managed to make connections in a relay-like fashion. Now, my connections are spread throughout Japan, and as a result, I am very busy on my off days (LOL).
When I encounter a great ingredient, I am compelled to “tell more people about this producer’s product!” It is not about putting my food in the limelight. It is about putting that ingredient in the best way possible on a dish. If a customer says, “this is delicious! Where are these vegetables from?” I can reply, “they are made by 〇〇 in 〇〇 prefecture, and the producers are like this and that…”and the conversation keeps going.
Is it difficult to balance the pursuit of great ingredients and cost?
It is indeed difficult. I do not want to give up pursuing great ingredients, and insofar as I keep offering those ingredients, it would be difficult if the customers are not on board in terms of the price. Of course, there are those who stop coming, when the prices are raised. There are, however, always those who stay with me, and of course, new ones that come. It is not that I have absolute confidence in my food. If I put everything into my food, and failed, I would be convinced that this job is not for me. If that happened, I would make a clean break from it. I just do my job everyday, with this kind of determination.
Surviving wife’s sudden accidental death
Was there a reason you moved the restaurant from Shimanouchi to its current location?
I moved the restaurant to its current location in Tamatsukuri 8 years ago. I lost my wife 10 years ago in the JR Fukuchiyama Line accident. I was to raise our young child on my own. I seriously thought about closing my restaurant. When I was contemplating these thoughts, the owner of a Konbu store in Karahori said, “Nagahori cannot stay in this small space. Why don’t you move to a bigger place? I know you can do it!” He then referred me to a lender at a bank. At the time, I was feeling that the restaurant was a bit small. So, when I was about 50 years old, I decided to borrow some money and move the restaurant.
My hard-working, studious wife was suddenly taken away from us in the accident. I wanted to honor her “desire to live,” and also to leave a proof of her existence. I felt that I needed to live, and work hard for her sake. I then started thinking about using the restaurant as a place to convey what I have learned and experienced.
You have overcome a difficult experience to evolve further.What is the most difficult thing about managing a restaurant?
Ultimately, managing people is most difficult. I have had veteran staff with several decades of experience quit because of an incident with other staff. Interpersonal relationship is the most difficult part. There are people who trained at my restaurant and have opened their own restaurants. I have been to one of those restaurants and found it to be exactly like Nagahori (LOL). It is because I tell my people that they can use my vendors for vegetables, Sake, and even the menu as is (LOL)! In any case, it makes me happy to see them working hard.
Vendors and menu are often considered important assets for a restaurant. It is incredible that you just pass them right on to your apprentices!
I believe strongly in passing knowledge down to the subsequent generations. As such, I think they should be freely allowed to use whatever they want. I am always evolving, so I won’t be at a loss no matter how much they take from me. There are so many more delicious things in this world! I have yet to lose the curiosity to keep learning about them.
Always be curious, and continue to hone one’s sensibility.
How do you train your staff?
What I have always been stressing is, “customer satisfaction.” There is nothing more important, and I believe that we have to always be thinking about this. In terms of the food, there is no other way, but to have them master the flavors by repeatedly criticizing them. I really want them to watch and sense customers’ reactions. Just yesterday, I asked a staff to come over to the customer who was saying, “this is really good!”(LOL). When someone praises the food you created, you can hone your flavor sense through an actual experience, and it also leads to building confidence. Ultimately, everyone likes being praised.
At my restaurant, we have to simultaneously “create” and “service.” As such, the staff is very close to the customers, and it is fun because of it. There are customers who actually say, “delicious,” and others who don’t, but it is evident in their expressions. In order to hone one’s sensibility, you cannot just improve your cooking skills. I tell people to go see theater, movies, and live music to hone their sensibilities, but not many actually listen. In a way, we are also in the entertainment business, so I tell my staff to go see something in the same price range as what each customer pays at our restaurant. For example, theater or live music performance with tickets priced around ￥8,000-10,000, is about what each customer spends at our restaurant. So, are we offering something competitive? At times, I feel like, “wow, this is more than what we offer,” but other times, I would feel, “I am definitely winning” (LOL). If you do not continue to expose yourself to a variety of experiences, your sensibility will begin to dull.
We always have a meeting at the restaurant prior to opening, and we make time for staff to take turns presenting. Some talk about how they felt after a conversation with a customer, or share their opinions on a movie they just watched. Either way, this presentation is meant to be a training to hone their sensibility and express it. Furthermore, we, the whole restaurant staff, are scheduled to go to Tokyo to eat at a particular restaurant soon. Of course, the entire cost of the trip will be paid for by the restaurant. I do try to create opportunities for the staff to learn.
Facing next generation with the concept of “Jiri Rita (benefiting others with the knowledge you have gained).”
What would you like to tell young staff, or those who are looking to pursue a career in the food industry?
I think it is most important to always be passionate about what you do. Next, it is important to have a mission in what you do. Lastly, it is important to take action. Only when these 3 elements are fulfilled, things will start happening.
I often ask young people, “what do you live for?” When I ask about their dreams, most of them would say, “I want to have my own restaurant,” “I want a house,” or “I want a family.” These are the kind of things that if you live decently, they will most likely come true. But why do they come true? It is because of the hard work of our predecessors. I think these are things we have received from our predecessors. Favors we have received from our predecessors must not be repaid back to them, but instead, they must be paid forward to the next generation. I think “paying it forward” is one of the most important things to do in our lives. Therefore, I want to tell people that we need to keep working hard to leave nice things for the next generation.
Recently, I had an opportunity to go see a theater production featuring an actor with mental disability. At the end of the show, the manager of the theatrical group said, “one of the actors in the show today has a disability. She came to the audition because she wanted to be an actor.” I was deeply touched. After this, I have been considering hiring those with disability as our restaurant staff. I believe they are capable of making a contribution as a member of the society, and we need to start accepting this fact. Parents with disabled children will eventually die before them.
If you just want to make money, you will not last long in this business. If you are only in it for the money, I will strongly advise you to quit. In this business, you have the potential to make customers happy, or emotionally move them. There is a concept of “Jiri Rita,” which roughly means that others’ happiness is your happiness, and if this concept does not resonate with you, you will not succeed in this business. Recently, I feel that everyone is thinking too much about themselves, and that is somehow leading to wars and disputes. I consider the job of cooking delicious food to make customers happy as a “holy vocation,” and no other job is like it. Money and recognition will eventually follow.
(interviewer:Sachi Hakobe writer:Keiko Ikegawa photographer:Wakana Nohya)