●What were your aspirations as a student?
I’ve been swimming since I was two years old. So, up until I graduated from high school, my dream was to become an Olympian.
●And how did you enter university? Was it by referral?
It was thanks to the fact that I had many opportunities to meet good teachers that helped me decide to attend Tenri University in Nara. I studied to get a teaching license with the goal of becoming a physical education teacher.
●So you became a physical education teacher when you graduated?
When I was 20 I started working as a bartender at a bar in Kitashinchi, Osaka. I really enjoyed the service industry. Of course, I only thought of it as a part-time job until I graduated, but gradually I began to think about a career in the restaurant industry.
●Giving up on the teaching career you went to university for?
When I was in my third year of university, my image of a teacher as a “mentor for life” was completely changed during my educational training.
●What exactly happened?
I realized that teachers are people too; that they are just humans. They would talk badly about students in the staff room without hesitation. And no matter how hard I worked to become a good teacher, I would be paid the same as these people. That made me feel bereft.
●You realized that teachers are also human beings?
Yes, but I thought that what the children who will be entering society need are someone who has a lot of life experience. Someone who has met many different people. So I hope to become a teacher when I am around 60.
●So what kind of person do you think makes the ideal teacher?
As a child, I thought that what makes a good teacher is someone who has certain attractive qualities as human beings or people who are able to share their good side. But I think a good teachers is someone who can see the potential in each and every person, even when they are in charge of 100 students. I think this is one of the most important qualities to have.
●When you worked as a bartender in Kitashinchi, were you also striving for these same qualities?
That’s right. I thought I would work in the food and beverage industry after graduation but the bar I was working at closed while I was still in school. I was thinking about what to do after graduation, when I happened to visit a restaurant and asked them if there were any roles available. Luckily, they introduced me a nearby restaurant that was hiring and so I interviewed the next day and started working immediately.
●What kind of restaurant was it?
It was a Spanish bar with a nice atmosphere. The bar in Kitashinchi where I had been working while attending school was similar to Ginza in Tokyo, and so the clientele were upper-management types that I would never normally have the chance to meet. So when I heard the stories and experiences of these people on a daily basis, I compared them to people of my generation and got really carried away! In a way, I was bringing it up as my own experience.
●Have you been able to make use of that experience, working behind the bar?
The role of a bartender is to make cocktails while listening to the customers’ preferences. But I realized that no one drank cocktails in a bar and that instead knowledge of wine was required. I decided to learn at least the wines that were available at the restaurant, and so I asked a sommelier who worked at a nearby restaurant to come have dinner with me. I asked him what books I should read and began studying. By the time I was 24, I became a certified sommelier.
●What was studying wine like?
The difference between cocktails and wine is that wine will taste different depending on the producer. In fact, there are hundreds of different types of Pinot Noir from Burgundy alone. I was studying while being conscious of being able to share a closer sense of the wine with the producer of that wine.
●The world of cocktails, where you have to play with combinations of liquors and techniques is so different from wine! How did you communicate the intricacies of wine to your customers?
The flavors and aromas change from year to year, so the closer I’m able to get to the producers, the more I’m able to feel the human element of the wine itself. I began discussing with customers, sharing the story of how difficult it was to get a good crop this year, and from there we gradually started to have conversations.
●Did your point of view change after passing the sommelier exam?
I knew I was getting carried away! I didn’t get along with the president of the sommelier school very well and he told me that I wouldn’t be able to pass the exam anyway. So I went into the exam with that rebellious spirit!
●Did the president’s attitude change once you were able to pass the test?
I ended up getting along well with the president. At the time an acquaintance of mine was opening a new bistro restaurant and asked me to be the manager. And so, at the age of 25, I became the manager of the restaurant.
●How was your first experience as a manager?
I was completely new to the business and had no boss to talk to, so I consulted with some of my good friends around me in the food and beverage industry and spent a year learning and experimenting. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not. Even now, when I see my staff from back then, I apologize to them!
●What was the restaurant like?
We had a chef with a French background who worked with chefs from Spain and Italy. So we thought it would be more interesting to mix things up rather than focus on just one cuisine. I was the manager there for three years, and it went well, but the last year was somewhat difficult.
●I know there have been some changes over the past three years, but what happened in the last year?
It was a restaurant that lacked vibrancy but had good wine. After three years, there was a turning point in my life, and I made a major change in how the restaurant was run and I asked the chefs to change the way they served food.
●What was the turning point in your life?
I read a book by Alice Waters, who runs a restaurant called “Chez Panisse” in California, and it completely changed the way I think about cooking.
●The restaurant in Berkeley, right?
That’s right. She is known as the mother of Californian cuisine, and I really sympathized with her philosophy of “local production for local consumption,” which we hear so much about nowadays. I thought to myself, “this is what I want to do.”
●And that influenced the restaurant’s approach to food?
I started to move in the direction of food mileage and sustainable ingredients.
●We hear the term “local production for local consumption” a lot nowadays, but awareness of it may not have taken root to such an extent in Japan.
Alice Waters’ definition of local production for local consumption is a radius of about 160km. So if you draw a circle from Osaka, it would be Ise in Mie Prefecture, Kyoto and Wakayama, and Okayama to the west.
●It sounds like a promising concept?
It would have been nice if that was all, but it also focused on the issue of food loss. There are three times when ingredients are lost: the first is in the field, the second is during transportation, and the third is in the refrigerator or when the food is thrown away. So I reduced the menu as much as possible. But I didn’t know how to communicate that.
●It was 5 or 6 years ago, and I can understand why a restaurant with a rich menu would be more popular. But when you actually visit the fields, I think your approach to food changes.
That’s right. When I see the faces of the farmers and the vegetables grown in their fields, it makes me care more about what happens to the food after it is served.
●Did you go to California to visit Chez Panisse?
I had never been abroad before and didn’t even have a passport. But I wanted to visit Ace Hotel, so I went to New York first. I booked a room there for six nights, and when I received the confirmation email, I was so excited that I went and got my passport.
●How was your first time in New York?
When I first arrived I thought it was just like Shinsaibashi! I went straight to the Ace Hotel and tried to enter the restaurant on the first floor, but a female waiter who looked like a model started talking to me amidst the queue and blaring music. But I couldn’t speak English and my mind went blank. But she came from the back carrying a small table where only one person could sit. I remember thinking that she was very friendly and thoughtful. The atmosphere and the attitude of the workers were cool, and of course, the food was delicious.
●Did you notice any changes during your stay?
As I continued to stay at Ace, leaving and returning every day, little by little the people at the reception and restaurants started to change, and I no longer felt like a visitor. That’s what I was aiming for when I stayed at the hotel for six days in a row, and slowly they began to remember my face. I felt like I was one millimeter closer to being a New Yorker! When I went to the lobby, people would ask me, “Would you like your usual latte?”.
●What did you do after returning home?
I thought about working in New York, but when the restaurant closed the following year, I decided instead to go to Napa Valley in California to do an internship at a winery. As usual, my English was not good, but it was harvest time and luckily there were other Japanese people working there, so I was able to experience many different things.
●Did you ever make it to Chez Panisse?
Yes! The owner of the winery made a reservation for us, and we ate food in a renovated old house. It was just after I lost the restaurant, so it made me cry. I was experiencing the very thing I wanted to achieve. While everyone around me took pictures before eating, I thought it was best to remember this kind of thing, so I didn’t take any pictures at all and just savored the food.
●What did you eat?
I don’t really remember!
●It must have been so moving to taste the food that could not be realized in Japan?
That’s right. But two weeks after I returned from California, I saw the news about the wildfires. I heard a rumor that Japanese sommeliers and importers were going to hold a charity event in Tokyo, so I contacted an importer I knew and decided to help out.
●Did you have any chance encounters whilst in Tokyo?
The person who organized the charity event was a Japanese sommelier who was working in New York. And when I asked her how I could work in New York, she said, “Why don’t you go to Toronto on a working holiday?” I thought, ‘New York is just a bus ride away!’, so I decided to apply for a working holiday in Canada.
●Then you’ve been to Canada!
All I had to do was buy a ticket and a warm down jacket and I was ready to go! Then the sommelier contacted me and said, “I’m looking for a sommelier for a restaurant in Bangkok, are you interested?”. I was going to Canada with an eye on New York, and suddenly had a down jacket that I no longer needed! I looked up the restaurant and discovered that it was Gaggan, a restaurant ranked number one in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. That’s when everything changed.
●What did you end up saying to your friend the sommelier?
I slept for a night and thought about it, and the next morning I said, “I’m going.” So I put the down jacket in the closet and went to Bangkok a week later.
●You decide to go to Bangkok so quickly?
When I talked to him later, he told me that he had contacted about five famous sommeliers in Tokyo, but I was the only one outside of Tokyo who he contacted and that it was because of the charity event that he contacted me.
●You had proven your enthusiasm!
But it seems that I was the only one who replied “yes”. Maybe I just didn’t know what to be afraid of. I was like, “Oh, there? Sure, I’ll go there!”
●So how was Asia’s No.1 restaurant?
It was not a high-class restaurant, but rather a “fine dining” restaurant with a “fun dining” concept that focuses on entertaining the customer. Rather than being polite to customers, all I could think about was making them laugh. As usual, I was not good at English, but luckily one of the three sommeliers was also Japanese.
●That’s lucky! What was the clientele like?
There were Australians, Indians, Singaporeans, South Americans, and everything in between. So thanks to that, I was suddenly able to understand English spoken in many different accents, including the American accent.
●As a sommelier, were able to demonstrate your knowledge of wine?
I was frustrated that the wines that I used to take for granted in Japan were not available in Thailand at all. But the head sommelier there introduced me to many natural wine producers that I had never heard of, and it was a series of new discoveries. He was a person aiming to become a master sommelier, which is a higher qualification than the Japan Sommelier Association. There are only 200 master sommeliers in the world, but in the end, he gave up on the idea.
●What made him give up?
I asked him, “What made you fall in love with natural wine?” and he said that when he went to Italy, the sommeliers there were drinking various wines from producers he didn’t know, and they were having producer-focused conversations, saying, “This producer is like this, and that person is like that,” but he couldn’t get into those conversations at all. He liked the traditional textbook wines, but he started to get interested in natural wines, thinking that he had overlooked such wonderful producers. “It’s the people that matter after all,” he said. And so I also stopped studying myself and started focusing on natural wines.
●How long did you work at the restaurant?
It was about a year and a half. I knew I was going to move in two years, so I had three choices: stay with the same team, move overseas, or go back to Japan, but then I happened to see an opening for Kabi on Instagram.
●So, you decided to go back to Japan?
I didn’t actually know Kabi that well, but I heard about them from a friend in Tokyo and followed their Instagram. To be honest, there wasn’t a restaurant that I wanted to work for in Japan, but I sent them a message because they were close in age to me. There’s a lot of places to drink wine in Tokyo, but I thought Kabi looked interesting.
●How did they reply to your message?
Kentaro, the owner/sommelier, replied, “I heard about you from Mr. Kuroda,” and said, “If you come back to Tokyo, let’s train together!” When I was in Thailand, we never met, but we were connected through social media and through acquaintances. I had completely forgotten about the message he sent me, and didn’t realise that Kentaro was actually now the head chef at Caveman. We had a video call the next day and I immediately headed to Tokyo to begin working at Caveman.
●You’re very active! It’s finally time to use that down jacket!
●How was the training?
Scandinavian food was also fresh and I discovered many new things. In fact, I went to Maaemo in Norway to eat Scandinavian food if I was going to work with Acchan (*1).
Atsuki Kuroda (Acchan) is the former owner and chef of Caveman. He is currently preparing to open a new restaurant in Tokyo.
●Did you get to wear your down jacket?
It was in the summer! But if we were going to build a store together, I wanted to be able to get a sense of the direction the store was going.
●How did you feel when opening Caveman?
When we opened in February, the restaurant was full every day. But due to Covid, we had a rush of cancellations in March, and we closed for two months in April. People often say to me, “It’s tough to open a restaurant and then suddenly have to deal with Covid,” but on the other hand, I think it was a good thing that we had to close.
●And why is that?
I was so busy doing the work in front of me that I felt like my vision was becoming more and more narrow. Being forced to take a moment, I was able to think about my next steps and had time to look at what I really wanted to do.
●What were the next steps you decided to take?
During the pandemic, the idea was to run a minimalist store with a small team and a small number of customers.
●As the manager of Caveman, what is your vision for the future?
Actually, I was planning to resign this July and work as a freelance sommelier. But everyone, including the new chef, formally asked me to continue as manager. The chefs on site said they wanted to work with me because they wanted to get a Michelin star next year. So I decided to continue.
●And you personally, do you want to get a Michelin star next year?
It’s not that I desperately need a star, but it’s not like I don’t want one either. There are many young people in their twenties on our team, and if they can use the fact that they worked at Caveman as a way to go out into the world, then that’s a good thing. If we don’t get a star, then that’s fine too. I won’t be embarrassed to tell the world about it.
●What do you think will be the most important thing in the future?
I think service is so important. I believe that the food is delicious, and as long as the chef and the kitchen team can continue to deliver what they think is good food, that’s all that matters. But that’s not all. If someone chooses to have a special meal with us, I want to make them happy with good service. It could be celebrating a birthday once a year, or it could be something more casual. It would be sad if your parents or friends came here and received bad service, wouldn’t it? If you get carried away just because the packaging is cool, you have a lot to lose.
●You have been steadily accumulating experience. I’d be lying if I said I was in such good form when I was in my 20s!
Of course, I think it is possible to make a restaurant popular by using technique, but I think we should keep improving the basic things that we do as a restaurant. It’s about communicating good things as good.
●Is that similar to the feeling you had when you were inspired by the image of a good teacher?
Since I became a manager, I think I am closer to that feeling. Before I didn’t have a position, so I often couldn’t share my thoughts even if I had a feeling about them, but now it’s easier to communicate them. I put the player’s head down and think about how we can all give 100 rather than how I can give 100.
●What do you do on your days off?
I drink so much wine, I wish I had a body that could handle 100 bottles! My routine every morning is to keep track of the wine inventory data in Excel. I’m always looking for new wines, and I think about wine from morning to night. I also enjoy climbing. It’s really hard, but the wine I drink at the top of the mountain makes it all worth it.
●Is it good to drink wine at the top of a mountain?
Of course, drinking wine in the city is delicious, but drinking wine at the top of a mountain is very special. It’s also great to be able to share it with everyone, not just yourself. But my friends always laugh and say to me, “It’s too heavy to bring so much wine up the mountain!” But that’s what I want to do. It’s not about what to drink, but who to drink it with and where. Drinking wine at the beach or in the mountains. I want to use my experience to make those ideas happen.
Born in Osaka Prefecture in 1989. As a student, he spent most of his time swimming with the aim of becoming an Olympic athlete, but a teacher he met inspired him to change his mind and enter Tenri University to become a teacher. After working as a bartender and manager at a restaurant, he passed the sommelier exam and became a certified sommelier. After that, he gained experience as a sommelier at Gaggan, the No. 1 restaurant in Asia, and joined Caveman upon returning to Japan. Currently, he is active not only as a sommelier but also as a manager.
Text : Jun Kuramoto
Photo : Naoto Date
Interview : Jun Kuramoto
The owner of the laundromat
Interesting people in Kabutocho
I often go to the laundromat, and I always have long conversations of about 20 minutes with the owner. I don’t mind it at all, but if I don’t say stop, he keeps talking forever. The other day, he was talking so long about the beauty of Russian women!