His father’s restaurant was a part of his life. He grew up watching his father working there
Please tell us about the history of Hirasansou and how it started.
Mr. Ito :
My grandfather started this restaurant in 1959. My father took over and now I am the third generation of the restaurant. When my grandfather opened it, it originally was an accommodation for mountain climbers on Mt. Hira. So it was not started primarily as a restaurant business. That’s why the restaurant’s name includes “Sansou,” which means “mountain cottage” – and we still are in the accommodation business. I can say that I grew up in this restaurant. We used the kitchen for the restaurant and for family. I used the same baths that the customers used. It was like I lived in the restaurant. The restaurant was a large part of my life and I grew up with my father working hard in the restaurant as a familiar sight; so I naturally thought about taking over the restaurant. The foundation of the current dishes were created in my father’s generation. He did his apprenticeships in Kyoto and started serving ayu (sweetfish) dishes and they became popular, and we became famous for ayu. Then in summer, the number of customers coming from the neighboring cities to eat sweetfish dishes increased and Hirasansou started becoming more popular not just as a cottage but as a restaurant. However, my father passed away right as things were going well and we were making breakthroughs as a restaurant. At that time, there were only a few staff members working with my father and mother. My mother hired a chef to allow Hirasansou to continue running and we were able to succeed what my father created. I was still in the sixth grade at that time. Therefore, I was not able to learn or take over from my father directly.
How did you enter the food industry?
Mr. Ito :
I grew up as a son of an heir so I thought it was a natural thing for me to enter this industry, and I decided to move onto the culinary college. After graduating from college, I helped my mother with the restaurant work and did some apprenticeships at other restaurants, but I don’t really have much outstanding work experience. After working at several restaurants, I went back to Hirasansou, since I was worried about my mother and the business. When I came back, there was a head chef who was taking care of the restaurant. So I worked with him for a while. I was 27 when I took over all responsibility not only related to the kitchen, but also the management of Hirasansou.
Supported and taught by customers; looking for a new form of sweetfish dishes
How did your work go after you got all that responsibility?
Mr. Ito :
When I took over, my father’s generation of sweetfish dishes were popular among the many gourmet customers that came to eat them in summer. So, the restaurant was very busy during summer.
When I think about it, I realize we’ve been taken care of by our customers for 30 years.
I think of it this way because the restaurant is in a place without great accessibility. Moreover, I was not mature enough as a chef.
Despite these facts, there were many customers came to the restaurant so I guess they wanted something they couldn’t find in the city. They cheered me up and sometimes gave me advice. These experiences led me toward successful management.
One of the customers said one time that “There are excellent things here which can’t be imitated in any restaurant in Tokyo.” For example, some people asked me why we serve only two pieces of salt-grilled sweetfish. They said they come here to enjoy the sweetfish dishes so they would like to eat more. Then I served a variety of sweetfish dishes next time then people said, “I want to eat simple dishes which maximise the authentic taste from fresh sweetfish.”
At that time, I thought, “Ah, I get it!” I used to misunderstand; tinking I would be able to create better dishes by adding more and more. I took the fashionable techniques or methods and it was the right way to cook sweetfish. When cooking, I tend to want to show off my skills. So I was serving dishes that I cooked just using my own techniques.
However, customers come to such a remote area all the way from the city and they would never want to eat this food after I’ve made all sorts of alterations!
I don’t want people to misunderstand, though; I don’t mean that such dishes are bad.
There are many dishes cooked using special techniques and there are such excellent restaurants that serve creative dishes. However, I realized that customers didn’t expect Hirasansou to serve such things. At that time, Westernized dishes became very popular. Of course, it wasn’t a bad thing, but if we served such too much creative cuisine at Hirasansou, it would be too complicated for our customers. There has to be something that is only served here at Hirasansou. I was able to realize this when the customers spoke to me.
For sweetfish, we can maybe create a dish through which customers can enjoy the freshness of sweetfish raised in nature. When I pursued the original flavor of sweetfish, I realized that there is no need to add too much.
When it comes to our grilled salted sweetfish, the process is to sprinkle salt over the sweetfish and grill. It sounds easy and the process is very simple. However, I decided to refine this as much as possible. Not only the main ingredient, but also the level of heat, amount of salt and the way of serving it… I thought it was a very easy thing to do but there were many things I needed to refine throughout the simple procedure. Then, I could make a standard grilled salted sweetfish into a supremely tasty grilled salted sweetfish with salt. My father knew this so he was able to serve sweetfish dishes in a way so that customers who wanted to eat only sweetfish came all the way from their home to such a remote area. Throughout this experience, I started thinking about how I could advance the dishes that I took over from my father. The sweetfish course we serve in summer uses about ten sweetfish per person. As I mentioned earlier, they are simple dishes that maximize the taste. It became the first step in creating our current Hisasansou.
You weren’t serving a bear hot pot then, were you?
Mr. Ito :
When creating something new, there is a saying that says an attempt to discover new things comes by studying the past and through scrutiny of the old. In other words, you need to have a standard first. New things are created from something which has history and culture. You can’t make a new dish by buying new ingredients and putting them on a plate.
When “cooking” is written in Chinese characters, there is a meaning to one character that means “planning” – so there needs to be a reason in cooking. As I keep the mindset I explained earlier, I searched for the “reasons” behind each dish and how they are suitable for Hirasansou. I expanded it to include autumn sweetfish and winter sweetfish dishes, in order to serve dishes which are suitable for each season throughout the year. Before, only the sweetfish season of these two summer months was busy at Hirasansou, but thanks to our customers, we are now busy throughout the year.
Though actually, I succeeded in serving these extra seasonal dishes only very recently.
You accepted your customers’ advice earnestly. Is there any secret for maintaining a good relationship with customers?
Mr. Ito :
Each one of our customers has their own opinions, and on top of that are my own wills. If I accept everything, things will go beyond my control. It is not easy to strike a good balance but there was a person whose opinions I decided to listen to and accept. There were so many professional chefs and intellectural workers coming to the restaurant. I needed to listen to them honestly. Mr. Yoshihiro Murai from Kikunoi, who takes care of me still, is one of them. I am working so hard to meet their expectations by listening to their wishes. Then as I accomplished each one of them, I was able to see real results, too. Therefore, I really felt the importance of seeing things from the customer’s perspective. I really appreciate those customers who have been supporting me since I started managing the restaurant. After I lost my father there were times I struggled a lot, but because of my experience I was able to try many things compared to others my age. I guess I was lucky to have experienced many failures at a young age. It felt tough when customers gave me negative feedback… but I really appreciate them now.
I think many chefs from Kyoto say that they are “raised” by their customers. Is this a kind of character of the region?
Mr. Ito :
In Kyoto, there have inter-generational family pursuits since long ago; think of flower arrangement or tea ceremony, for example. There is a story that Sen no Rikyu, one of the most influential and historical tea masters, had chefs cook food to welcome his customers. Tea masters thought about the concepts of the food and had chefs to cook it. So, the position of a chef was not necessarily very high.
I guess chefs from Kyoto have mindsets influenced by this kind of history; myself included. There are many chefs who have experienced more things and are more cultured in terms of gourmet experience. Therefore, the advice and requests I received from them were great learnings. This is probably also connected to the modest behavior of Kyoto chefs.
Our restaurant is located in the Kosai area in Shiga Prefecture. It is a community along the Sabakaidou Highway, which were the roads used to deliver fish from Wakasa. So, many businessmen and young geiko from Kyoto have taken care of me for a long time. What I am really thankful for, when it comes to doing business here, is that there is quite a distance between the city of Kyoto and my restaurant. I can say that those customers who come all the way from the city to this remote area must be conscious consumers of the gourmet. If I did a restaurant business in the city area, I wouldn’t have created such particular dishes that I serve now. So, I am not being modest or anything, but it is true that customers have made me grow.