I cannot be satisfied by the current situation. I always look toward the next stage.
Do you have a further goal?
I want to make this restaurant better and want to serve even better food.
When I go to such restaurants as “NOMA” in north Europe and “Osteria Francescana” in Italy, food is very delicious after all, service is good, and entertainment, where there is some impressions. I have a goal to make this restaurant that moves people more like that.
In order to do so, we have to strive hard on what we can do every day. It is the same thing for non-culinary pursuits, too. For example, say we have a chair that costs 150,000 yen.
To make a more wonderful space let’s say we change that chair to one that costs 300,000 yen. We need 20 of them, so for just the chairs it will cost 6,000,000 yen.
It is not that easy to create that much money. But making a good restaurant takes a lot of money. For these kind of things we have to move on step by step. Then if we put in hard effort, it comes back in the form of a visible result. So for that I can strive hard.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I think nothing will have changed. Of course, there might be some changes, like the restaurant getting bigger and having more sales, but wherever I am at I would not be satisfied with the current situation and would continue to look to the “next” all the time. So we might grow compared to now, but when we get to that point, there will be things that we cannot be satisfied with. I think I will be able to see bigger things. So I think it will be the same.
I feel that you live stoically, but have you ever been satisfied with yourself?
Of course I have, in stages. Being acknowledged by Michelin is one way, and so is seeing our sales increase.
My hobby is interior decorating, and I can now buy tables and chairs from famous designers that I really like, if I work hard. Of course, I have to save money for six months or a year while doing so.
But when I was 20 years old, I could not do that no matter how badly I wanted. So it makes me glad that the effort that I have piled on appears as a tangible result.
And as a chef it makes me most happy when I receive kind words from customers – “It was delicious!” – during the daily service.
Quite recently I did an event at a hotel in Japan for 650 people. It being a size that I was not used to, there were areas where I could not maintain quality, and there were some customers who did not respond and went home when I greeted after the meal. But this time a customer came up to me directly and said, “Please do this again!” I was really happy.
If you come to France, you should have a certain determination. If you lack skills, you should come with savings.
What kind of team are you running in the kitchen now?
There are three Japanese cooks, three French, and one Italian, in addition to myself. Everyone except me is under 30 years old.
What do you seek when you hire people?
I seek motivation. But it seems that I do not have interview skills.
When the applicant says, “I am motivated!” I might hire him right away, only to have him quit soon.
So I basically accept those whom come, but I suggest observation for two or three days or a week trial. By doing so, we see if we are a good fit or not.
But I basically reject applicants who negotiate the salary during the interview.
There are ones who cannot speak French who still say, “How much is the salary?” or, “Rent is 700 Euros, so I need at least 1,500 Euros.” But I feel that is not right.
Of course, it is not because I want to save money. It is typical for chefs who come from Japan and cannot speak French, but those with average ability cannot receive a general salary. It would be a different story if the person has experience working at places with two or three stars, or other specific skills.
I have been running the restaurant for eight years now and have had more than a hundred chefs, including trainees, short-term, and long-term. But from that experience, the ones with high awareness who can do a great job were the ones that did not negotiate on salary.
Of course, I evaluate and raise salary for those who work hard and bring good results.
If they don’t have money, they should come after saving some money. If the rent is high, they should come up with ideas like sharing a room. I don’t mean to look for sympathy, but I have lived in a 15 ㎡ room housing three people.
The era might be different, but it was a luxury to have one whole room for yourself.
They come not to spend a comfortable time and enjoyable life in France, but to learn French culture and food.
Instead of wanting good conditions from the beginning, I think coming up with ideas to overcome difficulties is needed to succeed.
Your employees who work now are probably the ones who overcame tough situations.
What do you want for them in the future?
Of course, they go through tough experiences from morning until night so I want them all to succeed. Earning stars from the Michelin Guide and becoming famous are not everything, but I do want them to have visible accomplishments.
And I want them to find their own characteristics. There was one chef, Higaki, who worked as a sous chef for five years at our restaurant, then opened an Italian restaurant called, L’Inconnu in Paris. At the beginning the food there was similar to Passage 53, but gradually it changed and he shared more of himself. Of course, that happens because he thought the way that we did things was the correct way, but I am happy if they find their own characteristics, like I did.
Thank you very much for your time.
Not at all. It is good to keep asking questions. But I hope young people don’t feel discouraged by this article talking about how this is such a tough job!
(Interview and writer: Juro Maeda Photographer: Yurina Niihara)