Born and raised in Yokohama’s Chinatown, and start using a knife at age 11.
You stand out among the chefs in Japan with a unique career.
My beginnings were at Chinatown in Yokohama. Back in 1958, It was not like it is now, that is, a tourist site with mainly Chinese restaurants. It was an entertainment district with theaters, bowling alleys, and bars and cabarets for American soldiers and foreign crews.
My family had seven brothers and sisters and, unable to afford even powdered milk, we grew up with ramen broth instead of mother’s milk. We lived on the second floor of the restaurant that my father ran, and our great feast was rice topped with corn soup. We could not eat unless we worked, so all brothers and sisters helped at our father’s restaurant. I was 11 years old when I start using a knife; I was in the fifth grade. After that, a TV program aired and the whole town turned into a tourist site overnight. Our house and those around us became palatial residences.
So you saw the very moment that Chinatown changed.
At that same time, food was evolving. It was a time in which Jukei Hanten, an old Sichuan cuisine restaurant, and Mr. Chen Kenmin were becoming famous. Long ago they made mapo tofu with soy sauce, sugar, umami seasonings, and chicken broth. But these innately complicated and deep tastes are the essence of Sichuan cuisine; they are made up of sharp tastes, the stimulus of the Sichuan pepper, and acidic tastes and seasonings. It was a time where Sichuan mapo tofu, chili shrimp, and others came to be recognized.
At that time I was a junior high student and there was a Jukei Hanten on the site of the Yokohama Overseas Chinese School, where I studied. I was given a chance to eat rice topped with mapo tofu in exchange for peeling onions and cleaning vegetables; that was when I felt how food could change on my tongue.
Is that when you decided to become a chef?
No; actually, I wanted to become a teacher. I admired my P.E. teacher, especially.
But when I was in my second year of junior high school, my father’s restaurant became very busy and there were days where no one was at home, and I went in a bad direction a bit.
I was a good fighter and I think I was famous in Chinatown. Three or four years passed like that and one day I did a prank on a truck’s cargo box. My father started pushing me away and said, “If you want to go that far, become a Yakuza boss and then come back.”.
Then I realized that I should stop what I was doing, and start helping his restaurant and get a part-time job. It was too late to become a teacher.
Thinking “What am I going to do?” I thought there was no other choice, so I picked up a knife and decided to become a chef.
Meeting a great master who gave me the skills that led to my nickname, “Gi of stew.”
And when I was 18 years old, I was given the chance to work at the original Jukei Hanten for about two years. Then I learned Shanghai cuisine at Furin in Roppongi for three and a half years. Mr. Sokin Kaku, who I met at Furin, was my master. He passed away, but people had said there was no chef who cooked Shanghai cuisine better. Specifically, his skills in stewing were fantastic, and I think I was the only one who succeeded that work.
So Mr. Yoshihiro Murata of Kikunoi told me, “Your stew is the best. Your shark fin is the best in the world,” and introduced me as “Gi of stew” everywhere. In Chinese cuisine, steaming and stewing require many skills and much experience, so it’s a high-level field.
That’s why it is such an honor to be acknowledged in that field.
So you were able to be taught by a superstar of Chinese cuisine.
And then while I was back home and studying cuisine, I thought that I should study serving, too. It was such a simple thought but I believed that if I could serve and promote, I could have my own restaurant in the future. And back then, dining hall staff were cool. They had cool hairstyles and polished shoes. They wore classy uniforms and could cook, too.
I thought It would make me popular with girls. It didn’t really work out in the end, though!
It’s not easy, but you were moving strategically toward your future goals.
I had something to aim for, specifically. And it was Manchinro, which I chose as a place for my training. My father was famous in that field, and I did not want to be seen as riding his coattails, so I changed my family name to my mom’s and started work there.
As a result, I was able to be trained quite hard. It was a restaurant that served 1,200 people a day, so I carried beer cases and oversaw the footwear of several hundred customers; I changed light bulbs when they died, and brushed the chandelier in the hall all day with a ladder when it was dirty. It was like that every day when I first arrived.
From there I was promoted again and again, and I was assigned to the hall staff of the original restaurant. Then when they opened in Aoyama, and when they started a dim sum restaurant, and even when they started a steak house, I was assigned to join the opening staff, and I was at the top position in the end. By the time I was acknowledged by all the members, they were shocked to hear about my roots.