The state of your heart is reflected in your cooking
Mr. Tanaka says that to become a chef, the most important thing is the state of your heart. The background to that is a cooking research column he read in his youth, and now always keeps in his mind. The column was about “the qualities of an excellent chef”.
What exactly are the “the qualities of an excellent chef”?
I suppose there are different ways you fell, but I could really relate to these. The first is an impression of cleanliness. It goes without saying that a chef must be concerned with hygiene and safety, and so if the chef doesn’t take care of his own personal grooming, there’s no way he can make delicious food.
The second is hating to lose. A competitive streak that pushes you to create something delicious. That’s a source of motivation.
The third is never becoming complacent. For example, even if you’re the best at your restaurant, you need to remember that there’s always someone better out there. If you always feel that something is lacking, this will lead you to improve yourself.
Those three qualities are admirable in normal society. But the last two are somewhat less sought after…
What do you mean?
One is to be impatient. For example, when you have some fresh ingredients in front of you, you need to make a quick decision about how you’re going to prepare them. You can’t let that moment escape you. So when the people around you are dragging their feet, it’s only natural that you’ll get angry. To create something really amazing, you can’t dawdle. So I feel that the guy in charge needs to have a slightly short-tempered personality.
And the last one?
Selfishness. This doesn’t mean that you can’t cooperate with others, because you need to suppress your desires and do what is expected of you according to the situation. I think that this means to sticking to your own personal preferences. I do have some reservations about calling this “selfishness” though. If you’re selfish, then a sense of pride might appear in your attitude. Since this is the service industry, this is not something you should have, and I’ve told the staff as much. If you always listen to others with humility, it allows you to naturally gain knowledge and techniques, and to build confidence. So in that sense, selfishness is not needed. And I think this is also related to the state of your heart, so cultivation of the heart is the most important thing.
When you say “cultivation of the heart”, what exactly should one do? How do you recommend that one practices this?
I often tell the staff that they should at least read “Tenzo Kyokun” (Instructions for the Monastery Cook). “Tenzo” is the part of a Zen temple where they make vegetarian food for the monks, and this is the writing that Eiheiji, the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism left behind. It’s a bible for people who are involved with Japanese cooking and vegetarian food. Not only does it contain information for cooking, but it details everything from how you should handle ingredients to how you should wash the dishes. Reading that, I realized that the way people think hasn’t changed that much from 800 years ago. I really felt that a chef’s training would not be out of place in the world of monks.
A society that raises people who can devote themselves to the food industry
At the age of 36, he became the head chef of Akasaka Tantei. Starting from the following year, the restaurant has been awarded a Michelin star. The restaurant has entered a stable period, and now that Mr. Tanaka is going on 40 years old, he wants to devote himself to improving the social status of chefs and the training of new talent.
After being awarded the Michelin stars, do you feel that something changed for you?
In the sense that the restaurant was highly rated, I was simply happy. But the first time I got a star, Mr. Nozaki scolded me, saying “You weren’t working hard to collect stars, were you? If you’re doing your job properly then good reviews will come naturally.” and so I took it to heart that I mustn’t let these things go to my head. I’m really blessed to have been able to work 8 years under someone who thinks like that. Until recently, I haven’t really been able to talk about that openly.
What do you mean?
To be honest, I don’t think I was a very good apprentice, so I was hesitant to flaunt the name of Waketokuyama. If people thought “Oh, he was trained at such a famous place, but his skills aren’t up to scratch” then it would have reflected poorly on Mr. Nozaki. Now that a year has passed since I’ve got my Michelin stars, I think I can expose my roots with pride.
During my training, the senior staff would spend time with me, making me practice everything from opening the shop to cutting up eel, and even after I quit, they kept giving me more chances. I can’t say that this will work for everyone but, even though I was clumsy, I tried to approach everything with a serious frame of mind, and that has helped me get to where I am today.
Do you have a message for young people who want to be chefs?
I want them to think carefully whether this is the right career for you. When I hire someone new, I take my time and interview them for over an hour to determine if they’re really right for the food industry. If I think they aren’t, then I tell them straight “I think you should give up working in this industry”. Don’t waste your life on this if it’s not for you. This might not be the best way to put it, but if the number of unsuitable people increase, then the overall quality of the industry drops. On the other hand, if they are suitable, then the next thing I say to them is “Is our restaurant a good fit for you? Please take a time to think about it. If not, you can go somewhere else”. If someone is suitable for the food industry, and they’ll always try their best, then I don’t think they need to stay on a single restaurant. And another thing is, I want them to find a role model, whether it’s a senior staff member or the head chef or whoever. If you have someone like that, it becomes a source of motivation.
So you feel that the industry as a whole should train new people?
Recently, when a new restaurant opens, I often hear “We have the four walls, but not enough people”. But just because you do not have enough people, it doesn’t mean you should hire inexperienced, mediocre people. Not only will it be a burden on them, but it will lead to a bad restaurant.
Of course, there are cases when, put under pressure, those people push themselves, become great chefs and then the restaurant prospers, but that’s the exception and not the rule. In most cases, it won’t go well, and the restaurant will go in a strange direction. To prevent that, you have to train people who are suitable for this line of work. That’s very important for the industry.
Finally, please tell me your dreams for the future.
I want to help the industry improve as a whole. For example, in contemporary Japanese society, the social position of a chef is still low. That’s the point that brings me the most dissatisfaction in my work. Thanks to TV shows like Iron Chef, the image of chefs are improving, but compared to the average business man, the hours are long, the work is hard, social security is low and remuneration is bad. In Europe, different countries have ways to honour their craftsmen, like France has the “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” (Best Craftsman in France) award, and Germany and Switzerland have the Meister system. But Japan doesn’t have anything like that. Society needs a framework that can attract young people to a lifelong career. At the moment, I’m not sure what I can do, but I want try activities like this
( Interviewer: Osamu Saito, Writer: Tomoko Murakami, Photographer: Tomoyasu Osakabe)