The words of my culinary friends that kept me from quitting.
How long did you stay there for?
My training there was the longest, eight years. The size of the restaurant was smaller than the previous one, and there were seven or eight in the kitchen. From morning until the night there was no break, and every day was a frantic rush to get everything done in time. If it wasn’t finished, I would just get scolded, so I had to stay at night to avoid it.
I was allowed to use a knife from an early point, but when something was cut too thick or rough, they would say, “Do it again,” and throw it away in front of my face.
I think there are many young chefs now who cannot endure such harsh direction. How was it when you were young?
Well, I didn’t think I could stand it, either! I fought back often to my seniors.
I didn’t know how to endure it. When I was in junior high school and high school, I was morethe bully than the bullied. And it turned to the total opposite.
At the time I quit after eight years, the head chef at the time said, “When you first came, I told myself I wouldn’t be surprised when you quit.” Back then, when I was scolded, you could see it on my face.
When I cooked staff meals and a senior said, “Don’t put that in there,” I talked back: “Then you do it.” Perhaps there was a rumor that I was dangerous!
How were you able to continue for eight years?
The work was hard, but I think I was a stubborn person who hated to lose. I hated being judged, like, “That guy can’t do that.” I was always like that, from the time I started there. So I stayed late at night and came in on my days off and stayed until morning, finishing all the preparation perfectly so the seniors couldn’t complain. As for my juniors, I directed them in line with their skills.
By keeping up with all these kinds of things, my position at the restaurant rose.
From my fourth year or so, I gained the trust of the head chef and senior sous chef, and I felt that I was acknowledged.
But for the three years until I got to that point, I had said, “I want to quit” about once a year.
I became depressed every once in a while, not wanting to continue, just standing and sweating in the kitchen covered in oil spatters!
Back then it was like a seller’s market, and at general companies you could be hired without much experience, and even be given a moving allowance and get a chance to go abroad once you were hired.
The salary for chefs was very low, though, so people my age working “typical” jobs earned double what I did. Everyone earned more than us. Even part-time workers, by the hourly rate, earned more.
I didn’t think I could live by myself, or get married, like this.
But whenever you said you wanted to quit, you were told not to, right?
Yes. I changed my mind the first two times. But at the third time, they accepted it.
Back then I had already been to interviews at other companies and decided to move on to a “non-culinary” field.
I told my schoolmates from culinary college about quitting. One was a friend who had been complaining every time we met for drinks, like, “What are we doing, earning this low salary and being scolded all the time?” I was expecting him to be jealous of me, but he said, “Are you sure that you’re okay with that?”
I was surprised. But because of his words, I withdrew my resignation, apologized, and asked to be hired back.
After that I never said I wanted to quit again.
It sounds like a tough time. I think there are many who couldn’t overcome such a period.
Was there any happy thing that gave you support in those times?
Perhaps the joy of improving. For example, the Chinese assortment of appetizers called pinpan is a style of food with high artistic value, made by cutting ingredients into shapes to design birds and dragons.
I was not very dexterous so I thought it was impossible, but as I tried, perhaps because I was being a perfectionist, I got into it, and even starting taking it to my room to play around with more.
I practiced next to my senior who was also cooking late at night with leftover pieces, and showed it to him to get feedback. I realized my growth when I started hearing the service staff tell me, “The guests were very happy.” I had never had the experience of being praised, so that kind of thing gradually became fun.
Wanting to learn Cantonese cuisine, and moving from a small town to the hotel world.
Why did you quit Kofukumon after eight years of working there?
I wanted to know about cuisines other than Sichuan. Back then, Cantonese cuisine was popular and also Sichuan cuisine was not very accurate, so the taste was different depending on who made it. For example, when the taste was a little off, they would remember it by something like “Okay, ten grains of salt.” They don’t measure the amount and it takes a lot of time to master those delicate nuances. On the other hand, I was very interested in Cantonese cuisine, which is more precise. Also, since Cantonese cuisine back then usually was served at hotels and I wanted to learn about hotel work, I entered Kyoto Hotel through a referral.
I could do pinpan so I could get by on my skills, but I was overwhelmed by the high level of chefs who came from Hong Kong, as well as the Cantonese language. I thought mapo was better in Sichuan, but I kept on being amazed by the soup and its depth using high-end ingredients and a whole roast piglet; I was influenced in many ways.
What I thought after learning both genres was that it was right to enter the hotel after learning the sense of delicate flavorings in Sichuan cuisine first. Cantonese cuisine has exact recipes so if I had entered from there, I might have been slower to learn flexibility.
On the other hand, the methods for storing sauces, which is a unique part of Cantonese cuisine, was an important way of thinking from a restaurant management point of view, so for both Sichuan and Cantonese, the things I learned were very helpful, even for me now. After that, I worked at the Oriental Hotel and Arima Grand Hotel before going independent.
When did you start thinking about independence?
When I was in my twenties, I wasn’t thinking about it at all. If anything, I thought that I didn’t want to.
Since my parents had their own business and I had experienced not being able to eat meals or have family vacations since they were busy, I didn’t want my children to feel the same.
But when I started working at the hotel, many other hotels were opened and I received offers from numerous places and information about positions, and gradually the salary became lower compared to before. The economy was on its way down and the era was one where they preferred young chefs who could work hard with a lower salary, in order to cut costs. I wasn’t very attracted to the idea of being head chef of the hotel, thinking that I might be told at some point that I wasn’t needed anymore, if I continued to work there.
It was okay for back then, but what would I do when I turned 40? Or 50? There would be nothing I could do if I was told to quit. Thinking about that, I realized I should have my own business.
I thought it would be better to regret it after trying and failing than regretting never having tried at all.
Did you tell your parents about that?
For various reasons we become estranged, but I didn’t think it was right to keep silent about opening a restaurant, so I sent a postcard announcing the opening. Then they called me and said,”What are you doing? How did you manage the money?” I think it was my father’s way of looking after me.
He was the one who experienced the tough parts of having a business, body and mind.
It was when I started my own business that I started to realize how great my father is.
His field of work was different but he raised three boys while running his own business. He often interrupted his work to apologize behalf of me, and also made sure we went to school.