The important thing is to have many checkpoints.
Has your menu stayed the same for 17 years? Were there any items which you changed or which you were hesitant about?
In fact there was a trial and error period with the menu in which I was making chicken that had been influenced by Japanese and French chefs, such as terrine. But in the end what my customers requested was “delicious yakitori.” Therefore, I decided to focus on a truly simple menu, but actually, a “simple” menu is perhaps the most difficult. My yakitori’s appearance isn’t all that different from those of an ordinary yakitori shop’s; there are no overt displays of originality. I want my motto to be: “It may look the same, but if you taste it, you’ll know the difference.”
What have been some of the interesting or difficult aspects of managing a yakitori restaurant?
Almost nothing has changed in 17 years; we still use the same menu. However, things like the chicken and charcoal change in accordance with the seasons, meaning that our preparation methods also change. I think that making food at a uniform level of quality is extremely difficult, but also interesting in some regards. Recently, I was asked to write a textbook-like yakitori book. I helped with a book that was a detailed collection of yakitori know-how, but it’s pretty difficult to complete the same thing even if you do it exactly as it’s written. That’s why you must properly grasp the conditions of the chicken and charcoal. Experience and estimation become very important.
Another important thing is to have many “checkpoints” so that the quality of the skewers doesn’t decline. For example, if it’s the case that one has 10 checkpoints for making the same product, a single oversight will lead to a 90-point finished product. However, if one has 100 checkpoints, that means that a single oversight can still mean it’s possible to deliver a 99-point product. That’s not to say that I’ve expressed all 100 items in words, but in my day-to-day routine there are about that many tasks that I check. Presently, there are checkpoints regarding not only grilling skewers, but also the attire of our guests, their eating pace, the sake they’re drinking, all of those are possible checkpoints. There is a massive volume of items and information. From the time the first skewer is eaten, I always make a point of watching the customer’s facial expression so that I can adjust the seasoning accordingly.
Even if there are a lot of customers, being able to provide semi-made-to-order yakitori to each person individually is the great joy of working the counter, which is why that’s what I want to aim for. Of course, there are some things which can’t be done in an ideal way, and there are times when I feel down after I was unable to do something. Because I pour my enthusiasm into each skewer, one at a time, day after day, when it’s all over my head feels really tired.
Have you taken on any young people who are themselves looking to be entrepreneurs?
It’s always been that way, but, I’ve never taken applications to balance the number of staff members. It’s more about feeling out whether they are compatible when they come wanting to do the job. Now, all of the kids who came to train with me have established independent businesses; so I’m working by myself, which is a good, easygoing thing in its own right. Although my body may get frazzled, my spirit is at ease.
The past few years, there’s been a slight feeling that private restaurants are disagreeable. The seems to be an increasing number of young people who are closely managing their fringe benefits while working comfortably at a chain restaurant or hotel. The number of young people with guts has declined sharply. Speaking of which, the year before last, I even had a young man from America come to me and say that he didn’t need any money, but would I please allow him to study under me. My staff was full at the time, so I turned him down, but he wouldn’t leave and just stood there outside my shop. On the other hand, it’s not as though he could speak Japanese [laughs]. Eventually I succumbed to his perseverance and he studied under me for two months. I still correspond with him sometimes.
In the case of yakitori, there is a certain amount of things that can be learned if you have two years; it doesn’t require particularly lengthy training, and it’s not like you won’t be allowed to grill yakitori just for coming to the shop. In any case, I think it’s about “in what way do I want to do things after my training is over?” Recently, three people have started businesses around me, and everyone seems to be trying their best through trial and error.
Tell us about your goals and dreams from here on out.
I’d like to continue on just like this. If possible, I think it would be good to continue on with about half as much seating. If I do that, prices may increase a bit, but I think I’ll be able to produce a good product while having even more commitment to each individual skewer of yakitori. Even so I want to continue to improve for the customers who come to my shop. Although it is normally accepted that there are plenty of high-class sushi restaurants with counters, there have been complaints that my prices are relatively high when compared with yakitori chain restaurants. I think I could raise the worth of yakitori shops even further.
（interviewer: Takashi Ichihara, writer: Keiko Ikegawa, photographer: Wakana Nouya）