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 Interior

Hoping to incorporate lifetime employment in restaurants to attract people to the industry

Are there things you’re hoping to do with the restaurant from here on out?

I’m hoping to create an environment where people think they want to work, in the same way they want to work at a regular company. Above my restaurant, I have an office where staff can unwind. I brought in a proper designer and appointed it with decent furniture. Unlike the typical image of an office, it’s a pretty fashionable atmosphere.

In addition, I want to make the restaurant a place where people can continue working, not a place where they come for one-time training. I believe that if we don’t create that, then not just our restaurant but the dining industry as a whole will find it difficult to attract people.

To shift to a lifetime employment system, we have to create an organization of at least 200 people in scale. The reason for 200, in my thinking, is that it won’t be sustainable unless we have 5 staff persons at each age between 20 and 60. That’s a difficult thing.

That’s because in Japan, because of the influence of tea culture, there’s a tendency to prefer a sort of “famed hole in the wall restaurant” style. Overseas, people like large-scale restaurants with a castle-like scale of several hundred persons, but that’s not so in Japan. This means that it’s not possible to scale up one restaurant and increase the number of employees. Since a limited number of customer seats means sales are limited, it’s difficult to increase the pay of staff as they advance in years. For that reason, you have to increase profits by increasing the number of restaurants or raising prices.

That action tends to be generally seen as “they’ve decided to chase profits by becoming a chain,” but I think that’s not the case. Owners who expand into a chain do so precisely because they care about and value their staff, I think. In addition, restaurants that raise their prices could be viewed as not simply making food but as also adding creativity to it. An example would be offering something not found elsewhere, even when using the same ingredients. Rather than being forever bound by cost-first thinking, we have to find value in creative work, or creators won’t develop in Japan. Of course, toward that end, we have to always take on new challenges in order for people to sense value.

I think that if we don’t first start from the spot where we originate, and spread out to where other people see that and say “let’s try it at our place too,” we won’t be able to change this industry. As restaurants everywhere are facing a shortage of staff, I believe that the industry will have no future if we don’t think about these things. I often have opportunities to talk with famous robotics engineers, and it appears that “robotization” is coming to the dining industry, too, 20 years from now. Already, artificial intelligence is yielding great results.

The dining industry is a labor-intensive industry centered on manual work, and at present things must be done by hand. But with a decreasing birthrate and other issues arising, already the industry is facing a shortage of people. One big factor is that young people already think of the whole industry as “black.”

In other advanced countries, industry is supported by immigrants and so on working for low wages, but Japan is, in a good sense, an egalitarian society, so the same style won’t work here. Precisely for that reason, robotization is necessary for the industry to survive amidst a declining birthrate. When robots that never tire can cut vegetables, clean up, and perform other work, I think this industry’s work style will drastically change. However, at that time we’ll definitely need to consider what is the work that only people can do, and build up strength.

Work that only people can do. What sort of thing would that be?

I wonder. There’s a history of one basic human action after another being replaced by machines. Travel by foot has been replaced by cars and airplanes, and the fires we light after dark have become electric lights. When everything that people used to do gets replaced by machines, I wonder what will remain in the end. I think eating will likely remain.

It’s been said that artificial intelligence will exceed the human brain in 2045. Amid the progress of robotization, already some occupations have been lost. From here on out, there will be an increasing number of jobs that do not require people. The dining industry will be no exception.

There are labor standards issues, and if people are unable to work for long hours then I think there may be a tilt toward viewing mechanization as an answer. There seems to be a lot of work more suited to robots. They’ll measure sugar content using taste sensors, and cut things to millimeter-level precision. Humans require time to learn, but robots can learn instantly via input.

As for the inability to feel emotion from robots, we can see from computer-generated movies that that’s not the case. We laugh and feel emotion over movies that feature not a single human.

Also, if you take a close look around a kitchen, you’ll see that it’s quite mechanized. Long ago we made fires and even collected firewood, but now we can cook at the flip of a switch. Instead of a mortar, we naturally use a mixer. If this trend keeps up, the robotization of the kitchen is not a dream.

In such a society, the capabilities of chefs will really be tested. That’s because they’ll of course have to be able to issue accurate instructions, but will also have to create. I myself feel that I’d like to try all kinds of new things in such a world. For that reason, I exchange information with people in this field.

It looks like you’ll be able to evolve again. Is there anything else you want to tackle in the future?

I want to offer gastronomy in forms different from those of the past.

As an example, last year I participated in Design Week* in Italy, and experienced creating “spatial art.” That was all about having people experience a space with their five senses, first by looking at pictures upon entering the space, and then by “eating pictures.” It was a completely new undertaking, but was well-received from both inside and out and received an award.

We took the concept of “space,” which has been designed through furniture and lighting and has had “see” and “touch” as its norms, and we added the new values “smell” and “taste.” So, what would this be like if it were a movie? If we take the part where people feel emotion and enjoyment through seeing, and if we add “taste,” people may be able to understand the movie all the more. I believe that, in this way, there are all kinds of places with possibilities for a new gastronomy.

*Milan Design Week 2015. Here, Mr. Yoneda received the Best Entertaining Award together with Product Space Designer Philippe Nigro.

Restaurant HAJIME Hajime Yoneda

What spurs evolution is none other than diversity

In closing, do you have any messages for young people with their hearts set on cooking?

In truth, I have no sense of myself as being a cook. I have worked as an engineer, undertaken martial arts, and painted pictures. I’ve long had interest in many things, including art, traditions, and philosophy. The commonality among these within me is the values I hold, by which I like feeling emotion, like creating things, and like things that are of the highest quality.

For example, in martial arts, a honed body and motion without waste are beautiful. Or in terms of the appeal of a Japanese sword, I think the appeal lies in the functional beauty that results from thoroughly pursuing the function of “cut.” The academic field of mathematics, too, has a beauty that leads to functional beauty.

In the coming era, the time will come when a single specialization alone will hit a standstill. When you’ve come to a stop while trying to master one path, try taking in expert knowledge from some completely different field. I believe that through the mixing of two seemingly unrelated worlds, you are sure to find a path to evolution there.

Instead of knowing only the world of cooking, I think it’s better to try learning all about fields that are of interest.

(interviewer:Osamu Saito writer:Maki Nakahara photographer:Keigo Osaka)

Restaurant HAJIME appearance

Restaurant HAJIME

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