The world of cuisine – a fascination from childhood, unforgotten as an engineer
What led you into this world?
My father often went to Europe on business, and would bring back chocolate as a souvenir. Since my childhood, I had a sort of fascination with Western culture, which differed from Japan. On top of that, my mother was a good cook. Coming into contact day by day with dishes made with seasonal ingredients or a seasonal touch, I naturally developed an interest in food. I’d play and come home, where a nice meal would be ready on the table. I loved that matter-of-course warmth.
Partly I just liked to eat, but I was also fascinated with the world of cooking I saw on television. A lot of factors came together to make me dream of becoming a chef.
Did you set off straight off onto the path to becoming a chef?
No. At first I hoped to enter a cooking vocational school, but my parents objected. I went on to the electrical engineering course in university, where I could make use of the mathematics I liked in high school, and then got a job involving computer design. That was the time when PHS phones were giving way to cellular phones and DVDs were taking off, so needs related to computers were growing. There was a lot of work and I kept busy.
I’d just entered the workforce, though, and soon felt that it wasn’t the work I wanted to do. I wondered whether that was the temporary thinking of a new worker, or whether I really wanted to pursue cooking. While saving up the money to attend vocational school, I decided to test myself. To do so, I set a goal of saving up 6 million yen in two years. To save 200,000 yen per month, I got by on about 300 yen a day (laughs). I somehow saved up the amount, and was able to reaffirm my own feelings. From there, I explained things again and again to my reluctant parents, and entered the Tsuji School of Culinary Arts.
Things learned at school and the real workplace difficulty
So while taking some detours, you set off on the path to becoming a chef.
Vocational school was good in terms of learning the principles of cooking. I learned French cuisine at the school, but listening to the teachers, I gradually came to sense a certain regularity. After this task comes that, then you add wine and condense it, and add butter in this case, and so on. I got a clear picture of the regularity of it, just like mathematical formulas. As I did in my engineer days, I wrote down everything I learned and noticed in a notebook, and reviewed the notes daily.
But I graduated thinking I had understanding, and when I first started a real job in a restaurant, I learned the hard way that you can know the theory yet find it not at all useful in reality. I can be full of all kinds of knowledge, yet be unable to move at all.
That’s the “real workplace wall,” isn’t it. What was your time as a new chef like?
The restaurant I joined first was called first rate, but it was a tough place where a dish would be smashed if there were one fingerprint on it, and frying pans flew through the air. It was an environment you couldn’t imagine now. However, at that time books and television programs were all full of information about how tough the world of chefs is, and so by experiencing it myself, I saw that world as just like the image I’d gotten from books and television, and was actually spurred on by that.
However, work would usually end late night at around 3:30, and I’d have to leave for work again three hours later. I only had one day a week off. Then, one day, the deputy chef and the third chef suddenly quit. The only people left were me as a useless new worker, and two 19-year-olds who started there before me. It was quite a situation. However, even with insufficient staff, it was an environment that allowed no compromises. We kept up the same sort of everyday conditions – like having to polish a plate from the start again if we found one fingerprint – and I really became stressed out.
Every day I’d go home and, staring at a corner of the bed, would wonder whether there was some meaning in going so far. More than anything, I no longer felt the affection a chef should have for his staff, and because of differences in our sense of values, I decided to quit.
The second restaurant I worked at was a small place in Kobe, where from the first day I saw the sous-chef beaten. I was a bit disappointed that it seemed the same as the first restaurant, but I worked for two and a half years, thinking that I didn’t want to repeat the failure of the first place. But here, too, for the first three months I was just standing there. The other staff persons must have been thinking “This guy’s no good, he’s sure to quit.” But I somehow got along with the chef, and myself wasn’t beaten. Still, I don’t think I was useful at first.
It’s hard to imagine today’s Chef Yoneda having had such a rough beginning. How did you get through it?
I wasn’t able to put what I’d learned to use in real work. I couldn’t move. I don’t know what to do. Since I was worried all the time, one day I had a talk with the chef. He said to me, “Up to now you may have studied what’s called ‘French cuisine,’ but do you really know our menu?” I’d thought that I’d get by if I knew the source, but that made me finally realize something obvious, that there were differences among restaurants.
So, what I first undertook was learning the restaurant’s menu, so that just by hearing a menu item all the necessary ingredients would come to mind. Orders came jumbled at this restaurant, since even with the same course, diners could choose from four types of hors d’oeuvres and main dishes. It took me about a year to learn that, and, when orders came in, to immediately put them together in my head and smoothly carry out the necessary tasks.
I prepared, and cooked, and washed. While being commanded to do this and do that, I was always thinking I couldn’t go on any more. But even while thinking those thoughts, somehow every day I made it to closing time. No matter how tired I was, I knew closing would definitely come, so in the end, there was nothing to do but keep my head calm and move frantically. Beyond that, there was nothing but to keep thinking of efficient ways to do things so the work would finish quickly.
It was do or quit. I changed my mood, and, somewhere during my reckless trial and error, it was like my brain cleared up amazingly and I was taken by a feeling of having woken up. Suddenly my hands were moving twice as fast. They knew what was necessary and what had to be done next, before I could think it. And instead of thinking about just my own work, I started to place importance on how a chef could create an environment for working easily. When the chef starts moving, if staff can immediately ready and wait with the necessary ingredients, frying pans, and dishes, training at that restaurant is done, I think.
By gaining this sense, later when I trained in France I was able to work smoothly even in an environment where I couldn’t understand the language.