His own restaurant, opened out of necessity
Did you dream about owning your own restaurant?
Mr. Ukai :
I didn’t really dream about having my own restaurant, but needed to do so.
I know my personality. I always devote myself to the restaurant I work at. I can’t do things I would like to try if I continue working for someone else’s restaurants. Therefore, I had no choice but to open my own restaurant and try what I wanted to do. Everything was experimental for me at the beginning. My first restaurant was located in Tanimachi 9-chome, Osaka, and ran for about 12 years. I have done everything I wanted to try during these years.
Actually, my wife graduated from music college and used to be an opera singer. I hold some music and cooking events for people to enjoy both opera music and cooking. In terms of cooking, I always had ideal tastes in mind for all the dishes I cooked. I wasn’t satisfied with the taste of a particular dish until I succeeded in creating the ideal taste. I always thought there was something different from what I imagined. Therefore, even when my customers said “It was so delicious! Thank you!”, I wasn’t really satisfied. I was not able to make the ideal taste at all. However, eight years after I started my restaurant, I was able to create my ideal tastes. In the aftermath, I felt I had finally reached the level of cooking I dreamed of and achieved my ideal cooking. After ten years, my restaurant business was going well. There were a lot of frequent customers coming. However, I lost a goal once I achieved my ideal cooking. There was a bit of burden on my wife, too, so I decided to close the restaurant.
Then, I decided to do something for my customers who had supported me and my restaurant. I didn’t tell them I was going to quit but served delicious dishes for the next two years. Then I quit the restaurant and my work as a chef. It was when I was 42 years old.
That must have been a hard decision. What did you do after you decided to quit being a chef?
Mr. Ukai :
If I chose to quit as a chef, I would need to work a different job. I knew I lacked the knowledge and skills for clerical work. I found a job advertisement for a telephone answering job. I learned computer and telephone skills by working there. I had some chances to be a part of turning restaurants and cooking jobs, too, so I stayed involved in the food industry a little bit. I would like to live in Italy in the future so I went there to find a job. I looked for some regular jobs and found a Italian cooking tool manufacturer that was looking for someone who can speak both Italian and Japanese because they were going to expand their business to Japan soon. So I made a contract with the company in Italy and started working in the Japan branch. I was the only employee there, so I had to manage everything by myself. However, I was able to finish work at 5 pm every day and I enjoyed the job very much.
I am satisfied if my skills can be utilized for someone else.
You had been away from the food industry, so was there any reason that made you join the restaurant?
Mr. Ukai :
I was away from a chef job for a while but as I talked to the chef of the restaurant, I offered him some help after my main job, as I usually finished at around 5 pm. As I helped him with the restaurant, I was eventually asked to become a head chef of the restaurant. That’s how I returned to the food industry! When I entered the kitchen, of course I became positively turbulent as a chef. Also, I was able to find new cooking and heating methods so it was so much fun.
When you started again, didn’t you think you would want to stick to Italian cuisine?
Mr. Ukai :
I quit once so I didn’t think I would cook only Italian cuisine. I enjoy cooking freely. I am happy if my skills can be utilized for someone else throughout the meetings with the people for whom I am grateful.
The restaurant earned Michelin stars after you became a chef there. What do you think are the reasons behind being able to receive that honor?
Mr. Ukai :
I am not sure how the previous chef managed the restaurant but what the people from the Michelin Guide said was that the way of cooking meats had changed.
I think it is my mission to continue the past customs basically. I don’t change much of the ingredients and menu. However, I was very persistent about the way of cooking meat, which is the most important process in cooking, to maximize the ingredients.
In terms of cooking meat, I think I was able to utilize the cooking theory that I learned from Mr. Marchesi. I struggled and tried many ways to cook as it was my first time using a stove. I cut them into pieces of uniform thickness and weight. I made a chart for each part of meat and took data for two weeks. After that I thought about the characteristics of the stove and the best cooking method to maximize it. I experimented a lot to find out the best cooking methods.
Do you still think you want to quit? You still continue working as a chef, so I guess there has been some changes in your situation?
Mr. Ukai :
I don’t know how to explain my feelings… but what I can say is that now I would like to focus on making the best steak at Fukutatei.
I am honestly happy when my customers say “It was so delicious. I will come again soon.” Also, I was glad that the people with whom I worked in Italy were very happy I earned Michelin stars. I have a feeling now that I would like to focus on cooking like I did when I was in Italy. I feel that my motivation as a chef has been dragged out from me again. I think there are new evolutions around me thanks to what I have achieved in the past.
It sounds like you are not really interested in the status or authority you might gain with all your experience and successes.
Mr. Ukai :
I don’t have much desire for money and fame, I think. I am the type of person who doesn’t really think about earning a lot of money or gaining status in business.
I enjoy taking on new challenges after studying, much more than gaining status and being in a high position. I don’t like to settle down in such positions.
It is easier to get into the Italian food industry if I start learning about coffee. Therefore, I started talking with people in the coffee industry. I learned how to choose the beans and roast them. If I learn something new, I can utilize these skills in the future.
I am very keen on coffee and some people in that industry even think I am in the same line of work! I would like to live in Italy in the future and do coffee business there.
There are some changes in my mindset recently. I didn’t eat out or watch cooking magazines or cooking shows on TV. I deliberately avoided getting such information from outside in order to create my original cuisine. Instead, I appreciated paintings or pottery to gain ideas from other things and become more creative. When I look at pictures or pottery, they sometimes look like food to me. I enjoyed expressing these senses in my cooking. However, I try to have a wide point of view and get more interest in the information in the magazines or even from the customers. I think my creativity has developed since I got affected by other restaurants by seeing their dishes. I didn’t want to get ideas from other chefs cooking in the past. However, I started accepting it recently and considering them part of my motivation and energy towards cooking. I would like to be flexible as well as creative to pursue my originality in the future.
(Interviewer: Takashi Ichihara Text: Keiko Ikegawa Photography: Yasunori Matsui)