Contemplating new generations of chefs and the future of Japanese cuisine
Thinking back on your career up to the present point, is there anyone out there that you look up to as a teacher?
I think Mr. Kurahashi, who used to be the head chef of Kitcho at Isetan. He has helped me out so much throughout my career that I can definitely say that I think of him as a teacher. We still exchange New Year’s cards and talk on the phone here and there. You can still find him working today at Sakuragawa in Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower.
What is your current approach to management at Kogetsu?
At the restaurant we have counter seating for eight, but we only seat up to six people since serving each end of the counter can be troublesome. We have a tatami mat room too. On busy days where we are fully booked we need at least three staff members on-site, but these days I typically handle everything myself. I have a part-time worker that comes in at night to handle customer service and things like that, but I try not to let the restaurant get over booked since we only have a small group of employees here.
Back when I was the just the chef and the proprietress was still here, we had an older woman who came in to wash dishes, as well as two other part-time workers. This meant we could fill up the restaurant with as many people as we wanted. I’m typically here from 8 in the morning till around midnight. I even come in on Sundays, which is usually our day off. Even if customers don’t come in, there are plenty of other things to do like cleaning and sharpening kitchen knives.
The New Year’s holidays brings in a lot of request for traditional celebratory dishes, so I’m pretty busy making food up until New Year’s Eve. We’re a small restaurant so I only make about 30 servings of osechi (traditional Japanese New Year’s food), but it’s certainly very time-consuming. I take the first few days of the new year off and then I come back on the 4th and 5th to clean. After that it’s back to business as usual.
Do you have any plans to take on more employees in the future? Training new employees always takes a lot of time and effort, so what are your thoughts when it comes to that?
At older prestigious restaurants like Kitcho, all of the work is divided up and teamwork is very important. So I have experience working with newer employees and helping them train in that sort of environment. We don’t have very many people at Kogetsu right now, but when we do have staff on-site I’m always thinking about training and teaching.
I don’t think I’m particularly skillful when it comes to teaching. I can help out with questions and things like that, but I don’t go too in depth. If no one asks me about something in particular, then I end up assuming that it isn’t necessary to talk about. I think I prefer that people watch their superiors and how they work, and then learn from observation.
I used to have a younger male staff member here who would never ask me about anything. I brought this up to him and he followed up by asking me if he could bring questions up to me. I said to watch me closely when I work in order to start grasping things, but I think he might have been afraid of bothering me or copying my techniques, so it didn’t really work out. My thought process was that there is always a lot of work to take on when there is only a small amount of employees, which means you have to stick your post no matter what, even if you fall a bit in the process.
So, what type of young chefs would you like to work with?
Someone with a sound body and mind! Training is different for each generation, so I tend to really watch and see if a younger person comes in and gets worn out really easily. You have to be physically prepared to handle this type of work.
If you were to take a sample of 100 students at culinary school right now, only about 10 of them would be interested in working with Japanese cuisine. 10% and that’s it. I’ll ask a school to introduce me to talented young students, but they’ll come back to me with regret and report that they don’t have anyone like that. Unfortunately, I think it’s hard to get younger people enthusiastic about Japanese cuisine.
Lastly, do you have anything you would like to tell younger chefs?
Whether it be work or studying, there are always a lot of different ways to get things done. You might hear that there is only one way to properly boil a daikon radish, but there are actually tons of methods. Everything is different depending on the book or the person you’re learning from. Even people who all work at the same restaurant will teach you things differently. You’ll end up getting frustrated if you focus on one way of doing things and then go somewhere else to find out that everything is done differently.
If you approach your work stubbornly then you’re going to spend all of your time butting heads with other people and causing conflict. That’s why it’s essential that you remain flexible and open to new ways of doing things. Techniques and methods are different between each person and place. This means that you have to keep your mind open as you go along. Learning to adapt to different people’s work style will provide you with lifelong skills.
Therefore, you should go out and get as much experience as possible. That way you can give yourself a wide repertoire of skills to choose from. It’s important to have a well-rounded set of skills, as well as the power to know which ones are the best for each situation. The world of food can be intense, but there is a lot of fun to be had, too. You can make a living and taste the best that food has to offer at the time. It’s your life, so go out and have fun with it!
( Interviewer: Osamu Saito, Writer: Mito Ikemizu, Photographer: Tomoyasu Osakabe)
*1 “The Chef”
A Japanese manga published in Shukan Manga Goraku between 1985 and 1993. It tells the story of a gifted chef named Takumi Ajisawa. It has also been adapted as a TV drama. The original work was created by Mai Tsurgina, with artwork by Tadashi Kato.
*2 “The Antarctic Chef”
A Japanese film that premiered in 2009. It features a Japanese coast guard officer who cooks food each day throughout the winter with an expedition team in Antarctica. It stars Masato Sakai. The film is based on an essay by Jun Nishimura titled “Omoshiro Nankyoku Ryorinin” (The Amusing Chef of Antarctica)