Chef Yoneda: Leading the Way in a New Era, Constantly Progressing with an Eye to the Future and a Wealth of Experiences and Knowledge

Restaurant HAJIME
Hajime Yoneda

Restaurant HAJIME

Training in France, and a fundamental difference from Japan in values

You quit that restaurant, where you had worked up to sous-chef, and then studied in France, correct?

In France, I gained experience for almost three and a half years at a 1-star restaurant and a 2-star restaurant in the Loire region. A trainee rarely becomes a station chef, but a month or two after traveling to France I was appointed fish station chef. The restaurant was famous for gibier (game) dishes, but the comments it received from Michelin the next year praised the fish dishes.

In actuality, there are not many pure French persons working at restaurants in France. There were people of all races there, and discrimination issues were commonplace. However, those who were able to make good things were properly judged as individuals, not as a race. I thought that was an interesting thing about France as a country.

Another big difference I felt between France and Japan was that it’s common in Japan to look up to predecessors like gods, rather than try to surpass them, but that’s not the case in France.  “I’m going to teach you everything, so in return, do something different from me” is the style over there. I was taught everything, from seasoning onward. However, there are a lot of Japanese who take back to Japan what they’ve learned that way, and try to reproduce it. Even now, you hear it said: “Japanese have skills and knowledge; why do they only copy?”

I guess that what’s demanded is that one be original.

Let me use gastronomy as an example. The catalyst behind the spread of this new concept throughout the world lay in France. After a seminar held in Spain, a lot of chefs, who at the time only had experience with local cuisine, went to France for training. After their studies, what do you think they did upon returning to Spain? Instead of copying the nouvelle cuisine that was popular in France at the time, they created “modern Spanish cuisine.” Using things like liquid nitrogen, they brought attention to new and unique Spanish cooking, and soon chefs from around the world were congregating in Spain. People who went from there back to Denmark created modern “Scandinavian cuisine,” and those who went back to South America created modern “South American cuisine” that incorporates the local food culture there.

While people around the world are inspiring each other to create new things, what are Japanese doing? Unfortunately, they’re still reproducing “French cuisine.”

I think that underlying this is still the effect of Japan’s value of seeing overseas things and authentic things as good. Right now, there are more and more things originating from Japan. There are business categories like ramen heading out into the world, and an increasing number of people think that there is no particular need to study overseas. I think we should be able to take a closer look at our familiar culture, and create “originals” that only Japanese can create.

That’s entirely different from neglecting culture. “An art” is a different thing from “art.” Art exists within cooking, too. And that keeps changing. This is something we need to properly understand. I’ve come to think so strongly.

Restaurant HAJIME Hajime Yoneda

Independence after returning, and the world’s fastest awarding of three stars

After returning to Japan, you finally went independent and opened a restaurant. You earned three stars from Michelin in one year and five months, the fastest time in the world.

When I went independent in 2008, I was really busy at first. I started the restaurant with an idea of preparing a new menu every time, a wish I’d had from my time in France. But we gained too many repeat customers and became too busy. Some customers came two times a week. Pretty soon I’d run out of ideas. So after just half a year, I took a break from the restaurant and went back to France.

A local friend put me into training, and one day when I showed a dish I’d served at my restaurant, he told me, “This is no good. You’re just copying the restaurants where you’ve worked so far.” I protested, we fought, and I left (laughs), but those words hung in my head the whole time. Since nothing was coming to mind, all I could do was making the things I’d experienced so far.

I started to wonder about the roots of my own cooking. When I recall back to before I entered the cooking world, I remember things like my childhood with my parents, or the curry I made with friends. It was food familiar to a Japanese lifestyle.

So, when I thought about what sort of food is Japanese cooking, I realized that I hadn’t ever eaten real Japanese cooking. While visiting a number of famous ryotei establishments in Kyoto, I was really shocked by the depth of it. For example, the presentation aspects that we perceive simply as appearance all have reasons within the world of Japanese cooking. As in, “Because today is such-and-such day, this is placed here, and these ingredients are used.” What is this? I thought. I’d been flying around the world thinking I could do anything so far, but in fact there was something so amazing right here. It was a powerful shock, like I didn’t know what was around me.

From there I started to study Kyoto cuisine, and, going back through history from the tea ceremony to Zen and the origins of Buddhism, I discovered the amazing aesthetic sense of the famed Sen no Rikyu.

But as to whether I used what I learned to reproduce the way of tea on my own, that’s not what I did. That would be the same thing that I’d done already, with copying French cuisine.

While discovering the greatness of the worldview that Sen no Rikyu created, I came to the idea that I should freely express the worldview that I held. That I could create freely, without being bound by French cooking or Japanese cooking. So, in May of 2015, I removed “French Cuisine” from the sign on my restaurant, and arrived at my current style. The folks at Michelin didn’t care for my removing the “French Cuisine” sign, though, so I was moved down to two stars (laughs).

Restaurant HAJIME appearance

Restaurant HAJIME

1-9-11, Edobori, Nishi-ku Osaka-shi, Osaka
550-0002, Japan