A Japanese chef with a Michelin star
By Bruce Millar
Published: September 17 2010 22:45 | Last updated: September 17 2010 22:45
|Junichi Watanabe at Hiroo Ichie|
The restaurant is tiny, just 14 seats including six at the counter, behind which chef-proprietor Junichi Watanabe is in full view on a raised platform, assembling the exquisite dishes you are about to eat. He is close enough to speak to his diners at the two tables without having to raise his voice, and does so between the meticulous cutting and scooping, boiling and charcoal-grilling, talking them through the 10 courses he serves.
Conversation flows freely. The Japanese are obsessed by their food, and Watanabe uses many ingredients all but impossible for the home cook to source – akamutsu, for instance, a fatty fish available during the summer months that he dips in a soy-based sauce so the skin caramelises like pork crackling when it is grilled; or ashitaba, a leaf found only on the Izu islands off Tokyo, which he pickles for half a day to preserve its distinctive texture.
It is hard to believe, as he negotiates his way calmly through dozens of complex culinary manoeuvres, that little more than five years ago Watanabe was a Tokyo salaryman who knew next to nothing about cooking. He had spent a decade buried in the finance department of the Shimizu Corporation, one of Japan’s “big five” construction companies, before joining a small venture capital outfit as chief financial officer. This was a grim experience: given the long stagnation of the post-bubble Japanese economy, his main task was to identify redundancy targets after company takeovers.
“I was making people unhappy,” he says, and the stress led to a breakdown. “I was ill for three months, and in that time I thought about my life. I realised that I wanted to make people happy – I wanted to do something positive towards happiness, to be where people smiled and laughed.”
He had always enjoyed the communal celebration of eating out with friends or colleagues, and thought first of a switch to restaurant management. As he researched further, he became fascinated by food and traditional Japanese cooking – it was this, rather than an amateur foodie’s fantasy, that led Watanabe to retrain as a chef at the age of 35. Prophetically, perhaps, his wife Kanna had years earlier nicknamed him “Nabe-san”, a play on his surname meaning Mr Cooking Pot.
Recovered from his crisis, Watanabe threw himself into an accelerated version of Japan’s 10-year chef’s apprenticeship, setting himself the target of opening his own restaurant by the time he turned 40. His age brought certain advantages, he says. “Most young kitchen hands have no real interest in the industry – they’ve come to Tokyo looking for work, and traditional first jobs are in restaurants or delivering newspapers.”
|His ‘akamutsu’ dish|
He began by working as an unpaid dishwasher so he could watch chefs in action, but his quest for hands-on experience had several false starts. Taken on by a leading chef, Yasuo Suetomi, Watanabe quit in self-disgust after four months: “I didn’t know anything,” he says. “I realised I was nothing but a nuisance.” Eventually he found the perfect training ground at QED, a Tokyo club with high standards but which was not too busy, where he could study, experiment, and build his confidence for a year before returning to Suetomi.
By the beginning of 2008, he felt ready to embark on his own venture in partnership with Kazumi Otsuka, a former business colleague with a family background in the restaurant trade; she would look after front of house, greeting customers and waiting on tables. The pair did not look for investors, raising the funds required from their own savings and a mortgage on the restaurant; Watanabe even sold his car to make ends meet, and they kept overheads low by hiring no staff.
Hiroo Ichie – meaning “encounter at Hiroo”, a district in central Tokyo – opened six months later, drawing a clientele from among their personal contacts. Making an impact beyond those circles was difficult in a market as big as Tokyo, with its estimated 160,000 restaurants. Advertising was too expensive an option for such a small business, so they relied on word of mouth and repeat custom.
The restaurant had begun to attract media attention as one of the best of the city’s new openings but Watanabe knew from his interaction with customers that he had yet to find the right balance between cuisine and ambience. So in January last year he relaunched Hiroo Ichie as a kaiseki restaurant, where the chef offers a set meal of small seasonal courses, heeding Otsuka’s advice to relax and let his personality emerge, to “soften the atmosphere” without compromising quality.
“That was a real turning point,” he says. “I started to see things from the customer’s point of view. I realised that first-time visitors seemed a bit worried when they came in, but after two or three dishes they’d get more talkative.”
But while Watanabe had hit his culinary stride, he struggled to buck the market. According to the Japan Food Service Association, serious restaurant sales have been in a 5-10 per cent decline since the beginning of 2008, while the fast food sector has grown. By the autumn of last year, Watanabe says, “I thought I might not be able to continue.”
And if trading conditions were tough, working hours were tougher still. The restaurant opens every day except Tuesday – Watanabe’s day for research and development, rather than rest – and preparation for lunch starts as early as 2am. So if customers have lingered until 11 the previous night, Watanabe may have only an hour’s sleep on the restaurant floor.
One morning last November, he was called by a representative of the Michelin guide who told him that Hiroo Ichie would be listed with a star in its 2010 Tokyo edition, to be announced that afternoon. It was the week Watanabe turned 40 – he had fulfilled his promise to himself, and trumped it. The restaurant has survived into its third year and Watanabe has even hired a part-time dishwasher. But there is no end in sight to his punishing regime.
Hiroo Ichie, Excel Shirota B1F 5-16-16 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, tel: +81 (0)3 3280 1439, www14.ocn.ne.jp/~h_ichie/index.html. The restaurant is open every day, except Tuesday, from 12-2pm for lunch and 6-11pm for dinner. The fixed-price dinner menu costs Y10,500 (£81) not including drinks; lunch costs Y4,800 (£37).
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.