Findings from culinary school pushed me toward my independence
Your independence was part of the natural flow. What was your plan for a restaurant of your own?
That story goes back a little ways, but when I was working as head chef at Esato, I was asked to teach culinary school in the afternoons. I had a chance to be a culinary teacher for two years.
There were two schools that I taught at. The first one was a cooking school that mainly taught home cooking to housewives or women about to get married. And the other was called The Independence Support Center, a place for retired people and those looking to open small restaurants that they had always dreamt of – bars and okonomiyaki restaurants, etc.
Like I mentioned, customers who came to Esato were mainly dohan and business people, so they were mostly men. They came to talk with a woman or eat before a business golf meeting… “Drinking and talking” were the main purposes so its role as a social place for men was important, and food came second.
The food we cooked was often left on the plate and I thought it was typical and gave up, but there still remained a sad feeling, as a chef.But when I taught at the culinary school for women, they were very happy with my food. When I cook something very usual, that I serve often, they would say, “This is delicious!” and were very impressed.
I found out that women, who always cook and know how hard it is, become happy and impressed with food. In that moment my awareness towards cooking was changed.
From that experience I started thinking, “If I were to have my own restaurant, I want to make it for women and make them happy!”
On the other hand, my experience as an instructor at the Independence Support Center gave me another inspiration.There, men with no knowledge at all became independent with a certain amount of money, even without being able to slice fish or make dashi – but with their passion. I was so surprised.
Honestly, there were some students who made me think, “Are they really okay?!”
But in my case, even after training for 15 or 16 years, I had not made up my mind.“What in the world am I doing?” I thought, but they gave me courage.
In that way I worked as head chef and taught at school in the afternoon; and the idea of my independence was born from many findings and inspirations.
And in May 1999, I decided to be on my own in my 19th year. I was 39 years old then.
What did you think about the location and the concept of the restaurant?
After leaving Kiccho I worked in Shinsaibashi, so I was thinking about opening a restaurant there. I looked for a place where women could feel safe and visit both in the afternoon and evening. This place here is close to the station, where customers can stop by after shopping, right? This place was just as same as my imagining.
As for the menu, I wanted to make a busy restaurant by focusing on lunch.
I had a specific idea in mind for women customers who would come to cooking school, and I wanted to make this restaurant a place where they could come eat with their husbands or colleagues at night.
In order to do so, I thought of how to enhance the lunch menu to make it easy for customers to come. And as I had predicted, many women visited, right from the opening.
It was a product that just fit with the target. For the food, did you think of specific ideas for female customers?
When I was in Esato, I did not focus much on appearance, but upon opening this restaurant I focused on beauty and splendor in the aesthetics.
I prepared big wide plates decorated with small serving dishes and many expensive big bowls.
It was something I learned at Kiccho, but I finally had a chance to do it in real life.
The reason behind the idea of decorating small serving dishes on a long plate, which is unique of our restaurant, was from when TV changed to a wide screen, which I thought had an impact. I also found out that at the aquarium, which I always liked, wider water tanks looked more beautiful.
Our restaurant has a counter with no gaps at all, using one flat board, and the reason is to serve those big plates smoothly.
You were thinking about the future, thinking about making the food “Instagenic” even way back then! What was the menu like?
Upon starting the restaurant I decided to take off a la carte items and serve only courses.
Back then it was a trend to prepare various things a la carte, so when I told my senior at Kiccho, he opposed the idea: “It must be difficult to serve only courses in a personal restaurant.”
But having many a la carte items leads to ingredient loss and a mind to put those leftovers into courses before they go bad. I wanted to serve primarily courses, but that would force me to get my priorities backwards. So I ended up not serving a la carte at all – but it was a gamble, indeed.
You can do your own food when you can master the techniques of seniors.
You have many briliant juniors. How do you do staff training?
I am not doing anything special… Even though it has nothing to do with cooking, I want them to act while thinking about how to make sure the customers have fun, so I talk about that a lot.
And as for cooking, I always tell them, “Look at your seniors carefully and become able to copy them perfectly.”
It includes how to hold chopsticks and knives, how to use your left hand for support when decorating, tiny movements of the body, and manners and all. So guys like Mitsuta of Toyonaka Sakurae even writes his character exactly the same as I do.
When I saw his writing, I said, “Wow, did I write this?” and got confused!
He now performs brilliantly based on what he learned and shows his originality, so that kind of thing makes me happy.
And I change the menu once every two weeks; I tend to post menus that I think of in the kitchen. And I tell them to write it all down in a notebook if needed, and learn until you can cook those foods.
The menu list that I write has menus in black ink, recipes in red, plates in green, and other precautions in blue. I use four colors and keep them in files with Polaroid photos of food. I want young staff members to make them their own, one by one.
Terada, who was a trainee of mine and went independent two years ago, uses recipe that he recorded when he was training here as a reference. He said, “I am copying exactly what you have been doing.” He is good with his hands and also very creative, so I think he will soon pass me and become a great chef.
You continue working for your trainees by utilizing your own experience! When did you start recording your menus?
I have been doing that since my training period in Kiccho. So I have all the records of menus for several decades, but I still use them as a reference and because I had this record, I could come up with menus when I became head chef at Esato.
I share it with my trainees at my restaurant, thinking they can use it in the future as an asset, and I continue.
Now I always have seven or eight staff in our restaurant, but I do not think things like, “Young people now do not have this and that.” A person with an open heart and the will to strive goes independent and walks along his own way, and so I am happy when great trainees leave.
That they steal my techniques and ideas and talk up Japanese cuisine is the footprints of what I have done, and I want to continue cooking and training while enjoying that.
(Interview: Osamu Saito Writer: Keiko Ikegawa Photographer: Wakana Nouya)