The homestyle cooking he started making for his mother and family
Could you please tell me about your first experience with cooking?
Mr. Ukai :
I need to start with a dark story – my mother was sick when I was a child. I was the one who cooked for my family, ever since I was in elementary school. My mother was sleeping all day at home so I brought a pot to show her and asked her if the amount of water was adequate.
She was very good at cooking. When we ran out of mayonnaise for example, she didn’t tell me to go buy one but told me to bring a bowl and eggs. She taught me how to make mayonnaise. I was able to cook basic home-cooking dishes when I was in elementary school.
That’s amazing, isn’t is? But at that time, did you think about working in a food industry?
Mr. Ukai :
Well, I did. My mother was in very bad condition and I was terrified that she might pass away soon. At that time, I saw a note on the wall of the chinese restaurant near my house that said “live-in chefs wanted.” I thought if my mom passed away, I would become a chef and live in the restaurant to work. If I earned money, I would be able to give it to my sister. When I was a junior high school student, my mother had surgery and became much better. Therefore, I didn’t worry about such things anymore but I had already decided at that time to become a chef as I loved cooking. My mother told me to graduate at least from high school, so I went to high school. However, I really wanted to go to a culinary college.
After graduating from high school, you went to the Tsuji Culinary Institute. How did you decide the style of cooking you would specialize in?
Mr. Ukai :
I originally wanted to cook Japanese cuisine. However, my older brother went to the Tsuji Culinary Institute before I did. He learned Japanese cuisine so I somehow thought I wouldn’t want to specialize in the same thing. Therefore, I decided to cook French cuisine because it was as high a level as Japanese cuisine.
I thought that if I specialize in French cuisine, I would want to learn it in France. I started feeling strongly about that. However, it was then very hard to get a work visa because François Mitterrand had just become president.
I was young so I felt desperately sad about that. Therefore, I started thinking about whether there would be other choices around me and found Italian cuisine, which was becoming popular at that time. I thought it would become much more popular in the future so I decided to pursue it.
How popular was Italian cuisine at that time?
Mr. Ukai :
At that time, not so much. The images of Italian cuisine were only pizzas and spaghetti. There were only a few restaurants in Kitachinshi, Osaka. I only saw ten restaurants among he recruiting advertisements.
I wanted to go to Italy for my apprenticeship as soon I graduated from college. However, I didn’t have much money so I decided to earn and save money in Japan. Then, I started working in an Italian restaurant in Kitashinchi, Osaka.
An apprenticeship where put himself in a strict learning environment
How was your apprenticeship?
Mr. Ukai :
I worked part-time at a pizza shop, a Japanese Izakaya, and Japanese restaurant when I was going to Tsuji Culinary Institute. I studied and worked all day from early morning until late evening. Since I was a student, I didn’t think the work there was hard. However, something happened on the first day of work which made me think I would quit the restaurant… On the first day of work, I asked my senior what time they usually come to work. He said they would be here by 7 am so I decided to come earlier than everybody, at 6 am. However, my seniors came at 10 am. I was very upset with him lying to me! If I quit on the very first day, it would give them an image of me running away from them so I decided to quit only after experiencing every job in the kitchen. I was told by the owner of the restaurant that I wouldn’t be able to cook during the first year. Therefore, I went to work as early as possible to learn so that I would be able to quit sooner. I worked harder than anyone else. I went to work at six in the morning and worked until the last train. I went to work even on my days off. I only had three days off in that year. After half a year, I was allowed to come into the kitchen. I was taught appetizers first, then pasta, and main dishes. I experienced all the roles there so I finally told the restaurant to quit.
Because of your positive behavior towards work, you were able to work in the kitchen sooner than you expected.
Mr. Ukai :
I guess it was one of the reasons but I also think I was quite lucky.
I went to the restaurant at 6 am everyday. I could finish cleaning by the time the chef arrived. Then he said “If you already are finished, come in and help us.” As I did this routine everyday and helped him, he taught me every job in the kitchen. One day, he didn’t come to the restaurant. On that day, I did the prep work since I figured he must have overslept. The owner of the restaurant came to check on everything and asked me, “Who did the prep? The chef isn’t here, right?!” Ever since then, I was allowed to work in the kitchen, so I think I was quite lucky.