A restaurant cannot be run without possessing a sense of appreciation and humility.
After graduating and working as a chef for over 10 years, Mr. Yamamoto went independent and opened RyuGin in Roppongi, Japan.
What made you think of opening a restaurant on your own?
The restaurant I worked at was frequented by prominent people from all walks of life, giving me a strong impression of the power cuisine holds within it. Strong personalities that could not accept that anyone could possibly love cuisine more than he, as they whipped out amazing dishes. I absolutely admired my master, and wanted to be like him. But then one day came where I had a realization. As long I was supported by others and looked up to others I would never be like them. I had to establish my own sphere and convey my own personal outlook to others. I realized that to do that, I was left with no choice but to go independent.
You opened your restaurant on December 23, 2003, on the Japanese national holiday known as The Emperor’s Birthday.
Correct. Normally, not many restaurants would choose to open so close to the end of the year. After all, most potential diners would have made other plans already, nor could many walk-ins be expected. It didn’t matter though. As the owner of a restaurant specializing in Japanese cuisine, I made the decision to open on that particular holiday, The Emperor’s Birthday.
How many customers did you attract in the end?
I was prepared for it to be difficult to attract customers near the end of the year, but even worse than that, guests did not arrive even after the New Year. There were some days where not a single person came. To open the restaurant, I had taken out a loan with my parent’s new home as collateral. To make things worse, it was a newly-built home they moved into after retirement. I was completely miserable.
My funds continued to deplete, yet I couldn’t reduce the quality of the ingredients I kept in stock. I also had rent and employees’ salaries to pay. This continued for two years, while I rarely paid myself, and just ate meals that used fried scraps of vegetables, or egg over rice.
What was it that moved more customers to come?
It’s not like there was one major event that suddenly made customers start coming in the door, but I think being picked up by a number of magazines played a big part. At the same time, I was working like crazy doing my best to prepare dishes that would make people think, “This dish so good I just can’t bring myself to eat it anywhere else.” If I hadn’t, the restaurant would have surely gone under.
After opening my own restaurant, I became keenly aware that I was a nobody. Back when I was working in someone else’s restaurant I could get by with knowing nothing other than how to prepare a meal properly. If I did the work I was assigned to a high standard, then I would be praised. But once you open up your own restaurant, no one knows who you are. You end up starting out with potential customers saying, “Who are you?” Those are the moments you are asked to face the world with some humility. I came to a clear realization that a restaurant cannot be run without having a sense of humility as well as a sense of appreciation for the people who part with their hard-earned money to eat a dish that you prepared.