Finding the ideal foods in Spain itself. Leaving a nine-year career for training.
After being assigned to a small restaurant, did you find the appeal of the new job?
Things that I used to put off or simply could not do were now my responsibility; I think I moved up to the next level.
At La Masa there were regular training sessions in Spain and I saw and studied the food of the country, but one time I encountered a dish that I had never experienced.
It was a dish that kept the taste of Spanish cuisine, and all the food was very fashionable and gave surprises to the people who ate it. I thought, “How cool is this?!” and wanted to study more in earnest.
Even after I came back to Japan, I bought specialized culinary books and saw many recipes, and read interviews of famous chefs in order to continue studying Spanish cuisine. And I wanted more and more to try my hand at food that is different from what I used to see at La Masa.
What I aimed for was food that focused on the quality of one plate with select ingredients.
I was sure that if I created a restaurant that serves Spanish food that never existed in Japan, it would be successful.
The ideal style you should aim for was becoming clear to you.
Then one time I took a chance and shared my thoughts with the owner,
“Why don’t you open a creative Spanish restaurant in Kyoto?”
However, my ideal did not match that of the owner. La Masa and his other restaurants were based on a la carte ordering. He said that he would not make a restaurant that served fixed courses.
As the number of restaurants increased he began managing them like a company, so we were heading in different directions. But even after he denied my suggestion I could not give up on it.
It was my ideal style that I had finally found. I was confident I could do it well. I thought, ”Why not do it myself?” That’s when I thought about independence for the first time.
When I asked the owner, he supported me by saying, “You ought to do what you want to,” and I could finally decide.
What kind of preparation did you do before heading out on your own?
I thought I needed to learn from step one, in Spain. I needed to brush up my skills in a restaurant with Michelin stars. I told my family about it and headed to Spain with only enough to cover basic living expenses.
But even when I went there, I did not have any connections. I had sent my resume to restaurants that I researched in advance, thinking I could figure it out along the way, but it was not that easy at all.
No restaurant took me seriously. At the time, Spain’s economy was bad, and Japanese with no working visa were out of the question; they were disgusted with me.
During that time where I had nothing to do, I got lucky when a Japanese person introduced me to a restaurant. I was just grasping at straws at that point.
At the restaurant, what kind of things did you learn?
I was able to see and learn about food that was in trend, and was also able to see the techniques of skilled chefs.
But my honest opinion was that Japanese food was not “less than” Spanish food at all.
Food in Spain had wonderful points technically but when it came to drawing out the excellence of ingredients, Japanese food was on the same standing.
I thought that if I could utilize my experience in Japan and my sensitivity of Japan while adding the good points of Spanish cuisine, I could make good food. I was sure that I could find a new appeal if I were more particular about the materials.
Earning one star from the Michelin Guide after just three years.
And then you returned to Japan and finally opened your own restaurant.
The ideal shape that I wanted to make it into became clear. But realistically, the problems piled up. The toughest part was the location of the restaurant. Of course, there was a limit to the budget so I could not afford the rent on a great location.
I had been looking since I came back to Japan, and was running out of time.
It was Mr. Kinoshita who helped me.
He was going to close Fuigo, which was the restaurant that became my turning point, and he asked me to run a restaurant at the same place. Actually, this restaurant was the place I was at originally. It was after spending time there that I was able to open aca 1° on my own.
What was it like during your first year after opening?
It was all about trial and error. I focused on ingredients and wanted to draw out the best points of Spanish cuisine. From that thought I tried my hand at some new food by introducing a steam convection oven, but it was not the food I imagined.
It was not bad. But I was thinking that instead of formal dishes, like at a hotel, I wanted to cook something bolder. I introduced ideas such as cooking with charcoal, and it slowly started to look as it does now.
For the ingredients, I tended to use new things that I had no experience with, on purpose.
I tried using things that the fish market recommended, and if it wasn’t good, I tried to do something with it anyhow.
Did the management go well?
As I experimented on food, I had to think about sales, too.
But the first year is always good for restaurants everywhere. Many magazines came to interview, and customers came and went. It is interesting that in the second year, the interviews stopped all of a sudden.
In particular, I had a sense of crisis when I faced a sales limit with the a la carte menu.
Magazines featured us and there were reservations every day, but the average bill from one customer did not increase at all. While rejecting further reservations, there were customers who ordered only the one plate that was in the magazine. It seemed impossible to continue like this. The first year was when I realized that there was no future unless I started a course system as soon as possible.
There must be some risk to changing direction so drastically?
It was a tough decision, of course, but at first I decided to serve a 6,500-yen course and an 8,000-yen one. Now it’s 12,000 yen, but I pay attention to the value.
When I opened the restaurant, I had thoughts of making it into one that can earn Michelin stars. Then I started analyzing what exactly I should do in order to achieve that.
First was to be extremely particular about the ingredients. To provide food that I wanted customers to eat within a course meal, and serve food that was highly satisfactory.
I tried to buy the best ingredients that the budget would allow, and provide as many foods as possible – different things that I wanted them to eat.
I paid attention not only to the food but also to the parts of the restaurant visible to the customers.
This is just my imagination, but I thought that for the restaurants that were newly opened, if the restaurants didn’t get michelin star within five years, investigators would never come; so I was feeling impatient.
It was not like I had a lot of money, but when I had a little I added tableware and changed the chairs and tables to higher quality versions. I still visualize the profit to the customers. I think I could obtain our Michelin star as a result of trying many things and hearing the opinions of other senior chefs.