A young man who loves baseball enters the “Tokyo University of the culinary world”: the trial classes that changed his life.
I hear that you first got interested in cooking from your mother’s home cooking.
My mother was a housewife, not a chef, but she liked to cook, so thick books by Masaru Doi or Gyosai Tamura were common in my house. I would gaze at them when I was hungry, thinking “those are really pretty…” I also watched a lot of cooking shows on TV, and I thought that chefs were really cool.
So you wanted to go down the path of cooking from when you were young? Mr. Watanabe: I started thinking about it from about the time I was in the fourth grade of elementary school. In my elementary school graduation essay, I wrote that I was going to become head chef at the Prince Hotel. But actually, I played baseball all through elementary school, middle school, and high school, and in middle and high school I played at a really strong baseball school in my prefecture. When I graduated from high school my dream was to become a social studies teacher and teach baseball. But, after all, I liked cooking, so I was wavering.
Then one day, as I was living the life of a cram-school student getting ready to take the university entrance exams, I was reminded by my elementary school teacher Takako Nakazawa of the words that were still inside me: “Wouldn’t it be cool to become a chef?” This gave me the push I needed. I told my parents I was going to cram school, and then I jumped on the bullet train to attend one day of trial classes at the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, Abeno.
Why did you choose the Tsuji Culinary Institute? Mr. Watanabe: On a show called “Cooking Heaven” that was being broadcast on TV at that time, some teachers from the Tsuji Culinary Institute appeared under the catch-phrase “the Tokyo University of the culinary world.” As a child, I didn’t know anything about cooking, but the power of those teachers and the excellence of their cooking, the idea that “this was without question the real deal”—those were the feelings that came at me through the screen. So I thought that if I am going to study, it’s got to be at the Tsuji Culinary Institute.
Did you make up your mind when you went to those trial classes? Mr. Watanabe: During the day of the trial classes, there was a practical class on making an omelette. Of course I had never made one before, and I’d also never learnt how to do it, so it was a first for me. But I’d been playing baseball, so I was good at analyzing a person’s form. I observed the motions of the teacher who was giving the example—things like the angle of the frying pan, how many times he moved it, how many seconds he applied heat—and when I imitated him and tried doing it the same way, it came out extremely well. The teacher was really surprised, and he called over the other teachers and praised me. You feel happy when you are praised, right? That’s when my mind was made up.
I went home and immediately sat down in front of my mother and father and told them that I’d gone to a day of trial classes. Then I said that in the future I wanted to live as a chef no matter what, so I asked them to please lend me the money to go to culinary school.
Did they oppose you?
At that time, it was an era when company employees who had not graduated with a four year university degree could not advance in their careers, and my father had gone through some troubles because he had dropped out of university part way through, so I had been told all the time to go to university. However, on that day, when my father heard my talk, he said “OK,” held his tongue, and let me have my way.
My father died six years ago, but right before he died, he said this to me: “At that moment your face was the best. Even now I cannot forget your eyes, filled with hope and determination. That’s why I did not object.”
During his training, studying voraciously and establishing foundations as a chef.
Now you go to the Tsuji Culinary Institute as an instructor, right?
I think of Osaka Abeno’s Tsuji Culinary Institute as “holy ground,” and I think that the origin of my ability to work as a chef like this today was without question born at that place. So when they call me to give classes, I do it out of a sense of gratitude as a former student, and when I stand at the lectern my feeling is that I want my students to feel inspired.
The story I always tell is that 30 years ago I was also sitting in the same position as they are. I try to encourage them: if you work hard things will work out in the end, and you can do it!
During the time you were a student as Tsuji Culinary, what kind of things did you think about? Mr. Watanabe: I had absolutely no interest in trying to enjoy campus life. I entered with the sense that this was a place for me to study in order to be able to live as a chef, as a professional. I never skipped class. I was never late. In class I was determined to take notes on everything, and I always sat right at the front.
When class was over I would go to the staff room and persistently ask questions. The teachers got annoyed with me, but I was borrowing tuition money from my parents to attend, so I went to school thinking that I couldn’t waste even a single second.
You really had a lot of enthusiasm for culinary school at that time! On the other hand, according to some people, they say that “studying at school is not the same as practical experience, so it’s better to get out to a real job sooner rather than go to school.”
That is certainly sometimes said, but I think that it is good to go to school. The fact that in one year I was able to study Japanese food, Western food, Chinese food, and pastries, this has become a weapon for me now. Because I was able to study everything, I am without question able to think more flexibly.
I think that a vocational school is an important place, as a time to prepare before going out to a real job. Because it’s not easy to find a place where you can be taught everything, starting from how to sharpen a knife. At Tsuji Culinary, they let me enter the French school, and it was such a valuable experience that if I had the chance today, I think I would like to study again as a student.
As a chef, it is a special thing to be able to study the cooking of a country other than your own. The sensations that spring up from the cooking, or the way of engaging with the taste, these things just have to be learnt through study.
At the beginning there were some ingredients that didn’t suit my palate to a surprising degree when I ate them. However, as I investigated “Why can I not eat this?” and “What will happen when I cook it?” I came to understand why these ingredients had to be there. When you go the actual place, you can learn about these kinds of things that come from a totally unknown world, but it is also a big deal to be able to study them systematically, which you can do precisely because you are at a school.
Why, as you were studying Japanese, Western, and Chinese cooking at school, did you decide to go into French cuisine?
I like all cuisines, but when I ate French cuisine there was a big impact. To say it in an exaggerated way, I had the feeling of being blown off my feet.
The first thing I ate was foie gras terrine, from a restaurant that my parents took me to when I was in the fourth grade of elementary school, and the impact was strong enough to have remained in my memory. I remember even now not only what I ate at the time, but even the scenery on the plates.
So, when you entered Tsuji Culinary you had already decided to go with French cuisine. When you were attending, Shizuo Tsuji, the school’s founder, was still alive, right? Had the ideas of Professor Tsuji also taken root in the classes?
You could feel an “ism” there. When we were there, just having the headmaster (Professor Shizuo Tsuji) come in made us all really nervous. Even the teachers got nervous.
The right to take the headmaster’s class was decided by lottery. I missed on the lottery so I could not take his class. One of my friends, who was generally not taking classes that seriously, got picked, so I tried to negotiate: “let me go instead!” But my desire went unfulfilled. I regretted it so much. I could not sleep… Even now I regret it. This episode even appears in Professor Shizuo Tsuji’s book, which was published recently (laughs).
I wanted to see what kind of expression the headmaster had when he was standing before his ingredients, what kind of expression he had when he was cutting and frying them, or even just his manner or his gestures while checking the taste.
That’s really too bad… In your second year at Tsuji Culinary you went to France, right?
Yes. In the French school, for the first six months we were in the school studying cooking and the French language, and for the next six months we were sorted according to grades and sent to train in restaurants in various parts of France. The training was harsh—if you really couldn’t cut it you could even be forced to go home—but in six months I was able go around to three different establishments, from a bistro to a two star restaurant.
The head chef when I was at the two star restaurant was Stéphane Buron. He was four years older than me, and he took care of me like a little brother. At that time he was only 25 years old, but had been selected to be head chef. He shone in a way that was clearly different from the people around him.
We only worked together for a short period of time, but in that time he had a big influence on me. He showed me the manners of a good French chef. Even if I could not understand his language, he was the kind of person you learn from just by watching. We are still in touch today, and when he comes to Japan he always contacts me.
The people you work with when you are young, in your twenties—even if it’s just a short time they become friends for life.
The thing that made me the most happy was that, when he was featured in the famous French cooking magazine “Thuries Magazine,” they put a picture of me and him in the area that showed pictures of the past. At the time we were working together I was just a trainee, so he asked me if it was okay to put in a picture with him, and I said: “Of course! I would be extremely honored!” They even put in my name, so I was really happy.
Even though it was only for a short period of time, maybe Mr. Buron also has some special memories of you?
I was really voracious at the time. I said to him: “Just let me see the recipe!” and then I copied it out. There were no copies or photographs at that time, so everything was written by hand. At the time, as a joke, he used to call me “Thief!”, but maybe he felt that drive and that’s why he remembers me.