Change plans after training at Kitcho and turn into a journey abroad
Why did you decide to leave Kitcho and travel abroad?
When I was working at Kitcho I would take long trips whenever I had time off. I toured all up and down Japan from Kyushu up to Hokkaido. I had a friend that I met from riding motorcycles together, who was traveling to the Philippines and Thailand with the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (Note: Conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this group sends members overseas for volunteer work). My friend invited me to come abroad and hang out, so I decided to go ahead and venture outside of Japan. It ended up being a fun experience, which encouraged me to start traveling abroad even more.
Because of that, I started to think about how I could travel abroad more if I left Kitcho. Coincidentally, my mother heard that the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers were taking applications, and she said that I should apply if I was interested. I decided to go check out an information session and when I got there I found out they were taking applications for cooking related work. A fellow chef told me that the work would suit me perfectly and that I didn’t even need to know English. He said I should just take the exam to volunteer abroad and figure it out from them there (laughs). So I took the exam on a whim and passed.
Eventually I had to make a decision and in the end I decided to leave the restaurant. I still had another year until I was set to the leave the country, and I was encouraged by the restaurant to stay and work until then. The head chef at Isetan didn’t want me to quit and told me that I should stay until it was time for me to go abroad. But, there was also the possibility that it would set a bad example for the other chefs, so I ended up quitting right away.
Looking back in retrospect, how do you feel about your time training at Kitcho?
I learned everything I know from working at Kitcho. I only handled the plating and dishware for my first year there, but that gave me a chance to see some amazing pieces. This was a really flashy time at a very high end restaurant, so the plates and bowls we used were the type of things you would see lined up in an art museum. You would hear employees joke about how just one dish made by the famous artist Rosanjin would be enough to buy an entire apartment, or if you broke something it would take a whole lifetime of work to pay for it. Even now I’m pretty sure they still use expensive dishes like that at Kitcho.
One of the veteran chefs at Kitcho told me that if I wanted to work abroad he could help me get a job at a Japanese embassy. I had to refuse his offer though, since I knew that if I relied on my connections at Kitcho to get a job overseas, then inevitably I would have to eventually return the favor by coming back to work there again, which would prevent me from going out and getting something started on my own. I wanted to travel abroad on my own terms.
Two years of teaching Japanese cooking in Syria with the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers
The Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) sent you to Syria for volunteer work. At the moment Syria is mostly known for its civil war and refugees. Did you hesitate at all about going there?
I was pretty young at the time so I wasn’t worried about anything in particular when it came to Syria. In fact, I felt like it was a nice vacation from life. The work was a lot easier than at Kitcho and I had plenty of time off, too (laughs). I had already decided on two years of service ahead of time, but I heard it was possible to extend your stay.
I was 25 years old when I left for Syria, which was in 1995. Syria has a lot of Roman ruins, and at the time there seemed to be a lot of Japanese tourists there. The tourists from Japan were middle aged or older for the most part. The food available there was quite fatty, so the demand for Japanese food in Syria seemed to be growing. My mission with the JOCV was to teach Syrians how to make Japanese food so that in the future they could open up Japanese restaurants to cater to Japanese tourists.
What types of things were you tasked with during your time with the JOCV in Syria?
When I was there they had a training school for hotel workers. The culinary department there had two courses consisting of Arabic food and French food, as well as a curriculum for things like bed-making and waiting tables. A new class was added for me to teach Japanese-style cooking to students that ranged from 18 to 20 years old.
I spent two months studying English in Japan before I left for Syria, since the class I would be teaching was supposed to be in English for the most part. Once I arrived in Syria I studied Arabic too, since there were students there who couldn’t really speak English. I couldn’t write but I could speak it conversationally after a while. You pick it up pretty naturally if you live there. It has already been some 20 years since then and I’m sure I’ve forgotten most of the words I learned.
Did you encounter any hardships while living in Syria?
I brought a kitchen knife from Japan that ended up getting stolen from me (laughs). And that was on the day I arrived! I was at the airport in Damascus, the capital city there, and it went missing from my suitcase. I had to start teaching with a knife that I picked up there rather than my most trusted kitchen knife. It took some time, but eventually the JICA helped out and ordered new kitchen utensils from Japan for me.
You don’t earn any income with the JOCV, so you are free to have your own private time outside of work. I didn’t ride a motorcycle like usual since getting into an accident would have been disastrous, but I did travel the country by bus a lot. Hardly anyone out in the countryside spoke English, which really added to the experience.
The food in Syria was absolutely delicious, so I definitely put on a bit of weight when I was there. Couscous is a Moroccan dish that’s also very popular in Syria. People in Japan are also quite fond of it. In Syria they also eat a lot of round flatbread, mutton, bean paste, and other foods like that.
I still keep in touch with one my students from Syria. Unfortunately, none of my students seemed to have gone on to pursue Japanese cooking. In Japan people tend to choose their work based on what they like to do without any care about what it pays. In Syria, however, there isn’t much in terms of wealth and financial resources, which means people usually have to choose their work based on what it pays.
Do you have a memorable experience from your time in Syria you would like to share?
There was one time where I had the pleasure of cooking for Tomiichi Murayama, the prime minister of Japan at the time, as well as Yukihiko Ikeda, who was the minister of foreign affairs. I was called on by the Japanese embassy there to come and cook. They had Syrian chefs working at the embassy, but for this occasion they wanted someone from Japan to make authentic Japanese food. I remember the embassy arranging for all of the ingredients, which must have come from England or France. It was an incredible experience.