Opening a French restaurant in Tochigi that shares the appeal of Nara. I was bewildered at the beginning.
He came back to Japan in 2010. As Mr. Kazunori Otowa opened Otowa Kitchen, serving casual French cuisine, he was called back to Japan as a chef.
Since 2013 he also managed the restaurant Cité Auberge, which was newly opened. He was motivated by his brother Hajime, who worked as head chef at Otowa Restaurant and his sister Kana,who worked for a wedding business, in order to succeed the work of their father Kazunori Otowa, who placed great value on the local region.
It was around the time when Kazunori said that he wanted his son to be chef:“I want you to be a chef at French restaurant in Shiroganedai, Tokyo; a restaurant that Nara Prefecture will open.”.
Why you were chosen to be the chef of a restaurant in Nara?
My father was an advisor for the opening of the Nara Agriculture and Food International College (April, 2016) so he had a connection with Nara prefecture. Shogo Arai, governor of Nara prefecture, said, “I would like you to draw out the beautiful points of Nara ingredients, but with an objective point of view.”
I also felt their approach was great, but on the inside I had mixed feelings.
It was about the time that Otowa Kitchen, which I was assigned to in Utsunomiya, and Cité Auberge were starting to settle their systems. I was worried about whether it would be okay to be absent, and I myself did not have any connection with Nara.
I was bewildered, thinking it would be difficult to share the appeal of Nara through someone from Tochigi.
But my father told me, “Because it is difficult, there is meaning. And in Tokyo there must be many encounters that you won’t find in Tochigi. I think it would be great to challenge yourself at this young age.” I knew that he was right. And if I could express the appeal of Nara through my cuisine, I might be able to do so for other regions, by utilizing what I gained.
I decided to take this position, chef at Ciel et Sol, thinking it would be a great opportunity to grow.
But I bet it was tough to find the appeal of Nara with no background.
Well, I had no idea what to do. I felt trapped from the beginning, searching for ingredients. Since I did food with a Nara theme in Tokyo, I couldn’t make customers satisfied by using things that could be purchased anywhere. Of course the staff of the Nara Prefectural Office supported us, but many farmers who they introduced me to only produced basic ingredients.
I was connected with chefs who played active roles in Nara, and was introduced to farmers and found other suppliers little by little.
The first floor of Tokinomori is Livrer, a cafe and shop that sells foods and crafts from Nara
I want the customers to feel the history, culture, and views of the region.
Ciel et Sol was opened in January of 2016. At the beginning there were few customers, and there was even one day with no guests at all at dinner. When I was feeling responsible, Mr, Arai told me, “The meaning of this shop cannot be measured only through sales. The prefecture should support people with the passion to create things, and I want this place to be such a place, so please do not feel rushed.” He looked after us.
Was there any way to increase the number of customers?
I cannot think of any one thing in particular. But when the direction of the menu was set, I think the reaction of the customers became better. Instead of providing French cuisine using foods from Nara, I wanted the customers to feel the history, culture, and views of the region.
But how do I express it specifically? That took me several months to figure it out.
Thinking about it now, I guess I was caught up with the label of “French cuisine.”
It is often said that it has to “finish” as French cuisine, even if you add elements of traditional Japanese.
I also thought that way. So even as I researched about Yamato vegetables (vegetables grown in Nara), I determined that materials that are traditional to Japanese cuisine, such as miso and soy sauce, were hard to use.
But Yukiko Ishimura, owner of a popular cafe in Nara called Kuruminoki, produced a cafe and shop called Livrer, located downstairs from Ciel et Sol, and she taught me many things about the food of Nara.
While listening to her explain how a certain kind of miso was only produced during a certain time of year, I thought, “Wait a minute!”
I was the chef of Ciel et Sol, and it was important to explore my own French cuisine.
But when I came back to the concept of telling the appeal of Nara, I asked myself, “What can I really express with this single plate?” If there is delicious miso that only exists in Nara, customers would be happy to know more by seeing it in their meal.
I cannot share the appeal of Nara – or be satisfied with my work – if I avoid materials that are hard to fit into French cuisine and use only Yamato vegetables.
From the time I realized that, there was no doubt. Of course I didn’t serve full-blown Japanese cuisine, but now I use soy sauce or miso without hesitation if I think they are good.