Working as a chef and chasing the dream of traveling abroad
When you returned to Japan after your two years of service abroad, did you start at Kogetsu right away?
I was 27 when I came back to Japan after my two years of volunteer work in Syria were up, which was in 1997. The previous owner of Kogetsu had just passed away and the restaurant was in need of a new head chef. The owner’s wife was the proprietress of Kogetsu at the time and she had a younger brother who knew one of my older chef colleagues from before. That’s how the restaurant got in touch with me about a possible meeting when I got back to Japan.
I had this idea of coming back to Japan and then traveling to India to wander around like a hippy or something like that, so initially I declined the offer to come and work at Kogetsu. They were really anxious to get someone in there though since they didn’t have anyone to cook, and long story short that’s where I am today even though I technically refused the job (smiles). I guess that trip to India was never meant to be.
Did it feel too sudden to move up to work as head chef at Kogetsu right away?
As a matter of fact, I knew someone with a restaurant in Seijo, Tokyo, and I worked as the head chef there beforehand. This was for that brief period of less than a year when I quit Kitcho and was waiting to leave for Syria. Originally I just wanted to take on part-time work for a while after I left Kitcho, so after I was invited to work as a head chef there I was a little apprehensive of taking something like that on for a year. I said no at first, but eventually I started to come around to it after I realized that the experience would be good for me. If I hadn’t taken the job I don’t think I would’ve been confident enough to take on my duties at Kogetsu so abruptly.
A head chef has to manage every facet of the restaurant, which is wholly different from the responsibilities you have when you’re just a chef. The restaurant in Seijo was just making a name for itself when I started there and it wasn’t particularly busy. Nonetheless, I had to take care of everything from stocking to food prep without anyone else to help. Unfortunately, I heard that the restaurant had to close its doors before I came back from Syria.
You had to take on everything that the previous owner had worked for at Kogetsu, including the flavors that the restaurant was known for, as well as their most loyal customers. What type of obstacles did you encounter when you arrived?
The previous proprietor along with the proprietress originally opened up Kogetsu in Hamburg, Germany in 1960. They named the restaurant “Kogetsu” based on the Alster river in Hamburg and the written characters for Lake Biwa, which is next to original proprietor’s hometown. In 1967 they moved the restaurant to its current location in Aoyama, and then I came on to serve as head chef in 1997 after the proprietor passed away. In September of 2012 I took the over the restaurant completely as the owner and chef.
We didn’t change the name when I came to work there, so at first I heard a lot from the customers who knew the previous owner well (laughs). They told me that the flavor of the food didn’t match what it used to taste like, but I had never had the chance to eat the previous owner’s food and there weren’t any recipes to consult. That was a major obstacle for me at the time.
The proprietress was from Kyoto, but I had never really had anything to do with Kyoto as far as training and all of that. I had learned all of my Japanese cooking techniques from working at Kitcho, which is based in Osaka. So I think my food must have been very different than Kyoto-style cuisine. To help make up for that, the proprietress would request different dishes from me and then give me feedback and suggestions about ways to get it closer to Kyoto-style food. This way I could adjust my cooking to something more faithful to the original owner’s food.
Did any of your experiences from Syria come in handy at Kogetsu?
Before I left for Syria I was really interested in having a restaurant that specialized in creative and novel dishes. When I was in Syria, however, I rediscovered how amazing Japanese culture is. So when I came back to Japan I decided to follow my heart and pursue traditional Japanese cuisine. This put me in a spot where I was very inclined to work with Kyoto-style cuisine at Kogetsu.
When I was living in Syria I also realized that it’s impossible to make something that everyone likes. I might like something that another person can’t stand, or I might think something is too acidic while someone else finds it delicious. I’m astonished by how different people’s tastes and senses can be. I hope to delight each and every person when I cook for them, but my feelings haven’t been hurt by someone saying they don’t like something (laughs).
During your 20 years as head chef at Kogetsu, was there ever a moment where you wanted to walk away from it?
In the early days of my tenure as head chef, I was still quite adamant about traveling to India. To compromise I told myself that I would quit after about three years (laughs). So a few years after I started I went to the proprietress and told her that I if I didn’t get a raise I would hand in my resignation. And then as it turns out she gave me a raise, which took away my excuse to quit (laughs). I thought that maybe I should give the restaurant another 10 years or so.
But little by little I realized that I couldn’t just walk away. I thought about how much trouble it would cause everyone else at the restaurant if I left like that, which is something that pushed me toward staying.
It sounds like you were getting more attached to your responsibilities as a chef. Did your interest in traveling overseas start to fade?
No, not at all (laughs). A turning point came up after about 10 years at Kogetsu. I actually went ahead and applied to be an Antarctic chef. An Antarctic chef spends a year on an expedition in Antarctica and cooks food for everyone using whatever supplies are on hand. I was excited by how fun and thrilling it sounded. I heard on the radio that the recruitment process for Antarctic chefs had started and I excitedly went through with an application, but I was rejected. During the interview you are surrounded by what felt like 20 different interviewers who all throw different questions at you. I was completely shocked by the outcome and I even put in a phone call to try and figure out why I wasn’t chosen. If I remember correctly that movie about Antarctic chefs became a hit about the same time I applied. *2
I applied again the following year, but I didn’t make it that time either. Then I tried yet again the year after that but this time I didn’t even make it to the interview. Not wanting to give up, I looked around to see who had been picked for the year before and it was someone who had already been an Antarctic chef. By that point I figured that it was useless and that I should just call it quits. I’m always stubbornly interested in going places that are strange and hard to get to.
A sense of a duty and purpose after stepping in to take over the restaurant
Your dreams of working as an Antarctic chef were severed, but you still had to go and serve customers every day at Kogetsu? Where did you find the inspiration to keep working?
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say a sense of duty, but I can say that I was feeling more aware that Kogetsu’s reputation was in my hands now that I had stepped in for the proprietress. I didn’t want to create a situation where people started saying that our food’s quality wasn’t what it used to be, I wanted to hear that it had improved instead. Because of that I figured that for the time being I better do all that I can for the restaurant.
The proprietress retired in Kyoto and she is still doing well to this day. So rather than follow my personal dreams, I have a responsibility to continue the restaurant. Nowadays I don’t really think about my dreams for the future. I could use a long vacation to get some rest, but not until a little further on down the road.
In 2012 you took over Kogetsu for the proprietress, which made you the owner as well as the head chef. How did that change things for you?
The economy wasn’t doing very well because of the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy aftermath in 2009, and then there was still a lot to deal with from the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. So the proprietress came up to me all of a sudden and said that we had to close our doors in early July 2012. I told her that we couldn’t just close out of nowhere like that and that we should give it another two months to give us time to tell customers. But, it was decided that July would be the month to close the place up. We started to get flooded with customers every day once word got around that we were closing.
I had already told the proprietress about my desire to work as an Antarctic chef. Nevertheless, some time after the closing had been scheduled, the proprietress approached me about buying the restaurant from her and taking over as the owner. It felt completely out of the blue. I told her that I didn’t know how much a restaurant in Aoyama’s top residential district would be valued at, but there was no way I’d have the money for it.
She came back to me with “Well how much can you afford?” I was still ready to say no, but she expressed her concern that the restaurant had a loyal following of customers and that it should continue on. So we started to have a conversation about the price and we eventually settled on an agreement that would suit us both. A short while after that I stepped in to take over as the owner, and that’s where you’ll still find me today.
The biggest change I encountered when I took ownership had to do with managing finances. The severity of financial problems became a lot more apparent to me once I was the owner. When I was just the head chef the only thing I had to worry about was tracking the cost of our ingredients and other materials. The proprietress handled our proceeds and everything else. Once I understood all of the issues related to money a little bit better, I knew that I needed to approach our spending with a wider angle. I didn’t want to change our food at all, but I still wanted to find ways to cut costs wherever it was possible.
What would you say Kogetsu’s essential flavors are?
The ideas and thought process behind what Kogetsu’s food should be like changes as time goes on. The main goal at the restaurant is to have a menu with dishes and ingredients that appear to be what you’re used to, but once you take a bite it turns out to be an entirely different experience. I like to take note of what our customers respond well to, but at the same time I try not to force it.
Having a menu of seasonal staple dishes is very important to me. When the season for kasujiru (soup made with sake lees) comes around, our regular customers get excited and start asking about it, which always makes me feel delighted. We also have a lot of customers who stop by to enjoy Kyoto-style staple dishes, including steamed turnips and hot pots with mibuna (wild mustard). A good portion of our customers are older in age and they tend to really appreciate those classic flavors that stay close to tradition. We know a lot of customers who go around recommending different things we serve at Kogetsu, which is something that I find to be truly special.
I think there is a different type of fun to be had at restaurants that change their menu each day with new and novel dishes. What makes an ideal restaurant is going to be different for each customer, and when it comes to our regulars, I think there are quite a few who prefer restaurants that refrain from getting overly adventurous.
Kogetsu went on to become a Michelin starred restaurant. Did you notice a change in customers after that?
It feels like we’ve had an uptick in foreign customers starting last year and the year before that. I would say around 10% of our customers come from overseas. I don’t think our Michelin Guide rating changed things in terms of our customer base here, but rather it attracted customers from overseas who are sightseeing in Japan. I think people are coming in based on word of mouth and the internet.
I have a chef working at the counter who can speak English and explain our menu to customers who don’t speak Japanese, so I don’t really have to get out there and talk as much. Sometimes I get to chat a bit about Syria though, which people always find amusing. That type of atmosphere seems to be fun for our customers.