He began his career not as a chef, but on the service side of the restaurant business
First, please tell us about the events that led up to you getting into cooking. When you were a child, where you conscious of the possibility of taking over the family business?
Because “Shojin Ryori Daigo” was the family business, I was always surrounded by many people in the restaurant trade. So I think that as a child I was naturally conscious of the possibility of becoming a chef. You could say that it was an unusual home environment. My dad was a chef, and my mother and grandmother handled the service side, so I think the biggest influence was watching them.
From when I was a child, I enjoyed cooking, including the service aspect. Not just the cooking, but also making people happy, and providing hospitality. I think it’s normally pretty embarrassing to say that one “likes serving people”, but in this business, I can hold my head high and say it with pride. In this line of work, you can say something like “I think doing this will please the customer” without any shame. That’s probably the best part of this job.
So even as a child, you were full of service spirit! Did you get lots of cooking experience?
When I was a high school student, the only thing I was allowed to do in Daigo’s kitchen was help with the dishing up. And a few other minor tasks. I ended up going to university instead of avocational cooking school, but while at university, I wanted to do something stylish, so I did some cooking at a café in Aoyama.
So after you graduated from university, you got a job. But when did your restaurant career start?
After graduating from Seijo University Faculty of Law, I got a job at a trading company that dealt in oil, real estate and food products. I joined the food business division. They were running all sorts of restaurants there, like the place my old Hiramatsu-Group colleagues are working at, an orthodox French place where they serve you 60,000 yen bottles of wine. They also had cigar bars, café bars and so on.
So you entered the food industry on the service side, not as a chef.
Yeah, that’s kind of a rare background for a chef. So straight after joining up, they made me work at a restaurant in Eitaibashi, in a sort of bartender-slash-sommelier role. And it was there that I had my first major setback.
Even if you’d come from a university, I think you had some cooking experience. But you had a setback at the very start?!
Entering the restaurant industry at the age of 22, after graduating from university, is considered to be a very late start. In the beginning, I was completely useless. It was embarrassing. For three days after I arrived, they told me “We’ll pay you, but you’re an embarrassment, so just stand over there and don’t do anything”. I stood in a space behind the restaurant, by the trash cans, from 8:30 in the morning, to 23:00 at night. I wasn’t allowed onto the floor with the customers for three whole days. This was a big shock for me and hugely frustrating. Every day I cried on the way home…
They wouldn’t use you at all? That’s a rough start…
Looking back at the start of my career, I’m really happy that they did that to me. At the time, I think I was a cheeky, annoying fellow who spoke a lot of nonsense. So I have a lot of respect for the guy who gave me that Sparta training back then.
But you know, thinking back on those first three months, it still leaves a bitter aftertaste. The restaurant industry has a special kind of bitterness. You get told that you can’t do anything, so you should go shave your head and repent. I certainly think that there was a part of me that wasn’t mentally prepared enough. Where ever you are, you need to be prepared to do your absolute best. But I was just thinking of that place as a stepping stone to get somewhere else, which was very rude. People who make a living in the service industry know how to read other people. So they saw through my halfhearted attitude.
There are a lot of hardships when you’re still in training. Where did you find the strength of spirit to encourage yourself and keep on trying?
I think that my stubborn streak kept me going through the tough periods. “I’ll definitely make them rely on me! I’ll make them rely on me so much that if I disappeared tomorrow, they wouldn’t know what to do! That’s how far I’ll go!” I become obstinate like that. I’d done fighting sports throughout high school, so if nothing else, I had a really strong will to win. In wrestling, I’ve taken first place in two weight classes at Tokyo tournaments and participated in Japan-America goodwill matches. So at the time I thought “I’m not going to lose just because things are tough! I’ll show those guys who started early! I’m never going to give up!”
What kind of efforts were required to earn the trust of those around you?
After work ended at 23:30, I’d go home, and read sommelier textbooks in the bath, or memorize cocktail recipes… The café opened at 6:00 in the morning, so I got almost no sleep. After one year spent like this, everyone acknowledged my efforts and started to rely on me.
I stayed with the food business division for about 4 years. I spend 3 years of those working at Eitaibashi, and the last one at Harajuku. On occasion, I was also sent to help out at other restaurants belonging to the company. It was a tough place to work, but after people started acknowledging me, I was entrusted with more jobs. I was usually dispatched as a service staff member, but since I had the experience, I also sometimes worked at the cutting board. I’d help out with the preparations before lunch, and if one of the chefs had the day off, I’d get to wear the chef clothing and work in the kitchen.
At first, I had a sort of antagonistic relationship with my co-workers, but eventually, after we build up some trust, it all became fun. So much that I thought I could spend my whole life working at that restaurant. Once that happened, I wanted to stay there, from the bottom of my heart. They weren’t “friends”, they were “comrades in arms”. Even today, I tell the staff at Daigo, “Don’t come here looking to make friends!” You don’t want friends; you want comrades who will have your back. Between staff members, you don’t want too much familiarity. A certain amount of tension in the relationship is just right.
From French cuisine to Japanese. Days spent tackling problems as the leader of his family’s long-established business.
What made you change from French to Japanese cooking?
I’d been working in the French culinary world for 4 years. It was a tough place to work, but I had formed an attachment, and I didn’t want to let go… then my family asked me to help out with Daigo. My mother (the proprietress) had passed away when I was 15 years old, and without someone to hold everyone together, staff turnover had become bad. I knew that they were asking me because they needed someone to keep Daigo afloat, but honestly, I didn’t want to do it. Still, at the age of 27, I went back to Daigo.
What was the first thing that you tackled at Daigo?
I think they expected me to be able to do everything immediately, but my background was in French cooking, so I didn’t know the first thing about Japanese food. But apart from a few veteran employees like the hostess, the most senior employee had only been there for a grand total of 3 weeks. I was acutely aware that I would have to revamp the whole service system, and I threw myself into the work.
Using my experience thus far, I started by asking myself what would be best for the restaurant. I wracked my brains thinking about how to reform the place. But while doing that, I tried to let go of any preconceived notions, and just think from a neutral perspective. People who have studied very hard tend to become inflexible. They decide “this is how things should be”, and then start jumping the gun. I wanted to avoid making that mistake.
Were you able to use your French service experience in the reform?
For example, at the time at Daigo, the average price per customer was relatively high, and yet we didn’t have crushed ice. From the perspective of someone who has worked as a bartender, a high-class place without crushed ice is unthinkable. So that was something that I changed immediately. And when someone ordered wine, we just asked “red or white?” Pretty rough, right? Right now, we always have around 100 types of wine on hand, but at the time, our wine selection and service methods were at an embarrassing level. So I fixed each of these problems, one by one.
That being said, we don’t serve wine that’s much more expensive than the food. Apart from when a special order comes in, we don’t stock high-class wines. I mean, if you go out to eat, and the drinks end up being twice the price of the course food… What’s the point of a fixed course price? Wouldn’t you be annoyed? If there’s something that annoys me when I eat out, I definitely don’t want to inflict that on our customers.
So it was only much later that you started working in the kitchen at Daigo?
At first, I was faced with the huge task of revising organizational management, so I didn’t have any time left to visit the kitchen. That being said, at the time, everything at Daigo revolved around the kitchen, and there were these service staff members called “carriers” that were always getting bossed around by the kitchen staff.
I used to fight with the chefs every day, saying “No one wants to work if you just tell them ‘take it!'” The kitchen staff and the hall staff were very hostile to each other, and there was a lot of tension, because the hall staff couldn’t afford to make a mistake. If they said “Sorry, there was a mistake. Please make that again”, there would be hell to pay!
But at the end of the day, if you can’t even prepare Sashimi, no one in the kitchen is going to listen to your opinion. So I stopped fighting with the chefs, and instead got them to teach me their trade. Even chefs are moved when they see someone making an effort, and by applying myself diligently, I was able to slowly build a relationship where we could speak on even terms.
What did you consciously change in Daigo’s kitchen?
After I started helping in the kitchen, I thought that first thing I needed to demonstrate was, in both the hall and the kitchen, everyone should work together as a team of professionals. For example, if a new chef is bad at cutting soba noodles, he might ruin a batch of soba dough that the other members had painstakingly prepared. But in the kitchen, if you don’t have that kind of give-and-take relationship, then you can’t work effectively as a team. Or for the service staff, if you don’t give an inexperienced member a chance, then he’ll never learn. You need to be prepared to trust and be trusted. I worked so that everyone would be conscious of this relationship, and created a space where we could work together in earnest.
A team based on a give-and-take relationship. That sounds great!