Head Chef of caveman
●Your surname is very unusual. Can you tell us your background and where you are from?
I’m from an area close to Kabutocho. My ancestors for several generations were glass artisans in Hamacho. My family roots seem to be from the Osaka or Hyogo area, though. My surname can also be read as Isutani, but I think that reading relates to my distant relatives. If I were to ever do something wrong, you would know it was me because my family name is so recognizable!
●That’s one aspect of a rare last name! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood?
My parents lived near Tsukuda and Tsukishima. They both worked at a traditional Japanese restaurant. Since you start early in the morning and end late at night in the restaurant world, I remember seeing my father only on Sundays. I remember that my father’s favorite Sunday dinner meal was always barbeque. I played basketball in elementary and junior high school thanks to the influence of my brother who was seven years older than me. I also loved festivals since I was a child. I still put my life on the line and carry the portable shrine at festivals!
●When did you decide to become a chef?
My father is a sushi chef, so I had already decided in elementary school that I wanted to be involved in the culinary industry. We had a lot of opportunities to go out and eat as a family. We often went out to eat Japanese food and teppanyaki. I hadn’t decided at that point what kind of cuisine I wanted to specialize in. But I was thinking of something other than sushi so that I wouldn’t be exactly like my father.
Eventually, I decided that I wanted to become an independent restaurant manager while I was still young, so I enrolled in a commercial course in high school. I simply had a yearning to be a “cool CEO,” and since I would have to keep an eye on the numbers if I wanted to run a restaurant, my mother suggested that I take a bookkeeping test. However, if you can’t cook, you can’t say anything about owning a restaurant. So I never wavered in my decision to be a chef for the initial few years.
When I was in high school, I had a lot of part-time jobs. I worked in restaurants, convenience stores, transportation companies, moving companies, etc. I had so many different experiences. I was also asked to help out on the basketball team, and sometimes I joined in just for fun. I also rode motorcycles for the fun of it.
●And then you finally made your way into the culinary world, didn’t you?
That’s right. After graduating from high school, I went to a vocational school and learned everything I could about Western, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine. I had a hard time deciding which cuisine to specialize in until the very last minute. However, my brother, who was already working in the restaurant industry, introduced me to a high-end French restaurant in Marunouchi, and I found a job there. That restaurant has since closed, but I was there for about five years.
After leaving that restaurant, I joined a newly opened restaurant working there for about two years. After that, I wanted to learn how hotel kitchens operated, so I worked in a French restaurant in “The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo” in Roppongi for about a year and a half. In the process, I began to realize that as someone involved in French cuisine, there were many things that I did not yet understand. Things I could only learn by going there.
●Oh, so you went to France for training!
Yes, I did. That was when I was 29 years old. From the very first day, I had a huge upheaval. First of all, I was supposed to stay with a host family for a week, and I was supposed to meet them at the airport, but to my surprise, I couldn’t find them! I didn’t have a cell phone, so I borrowed a phone from a nearby store and was able to make a call, but as a result, they were nowhere to be found. I had no choice but to take a cab to my host family’s address and finally met them there at night.
For the next three or four days, I spent my savings and went to eat at every restaurant I could find. Because I was running out of money, I tried to find a new place to live, but there were no cheap houses available in Paris. Whenever I met someone, I would ask them if they knew of any vacant houses that were affordable. One day, when I went to a bakery, there happened to be a Japanese person there, and I even asked him, “Do you know any good houses?” And he did! Miraculously, he told me that he was planning to move and that the flat was available. I was able to find a house at the last minute.
●What luck! Is job hunting as a chef based on eating around at different places?
I think it’s better that way because you can’t really understand the atmosphere and taste of a place until you go there, even if you decide based on what you see on social media. Recently, there are lots of young people who tend to think that you can understand a restaurant by looking at its social media. But the true experience will cost you money.
As a result of my walking around, I found an opening at a Michelin-starred restaurant and decided to take a one-month internship there. Just as I was considering taking up a full-time position there a friend asked if I would like to work at a newly opened restaurant called ‘Dersou’.
It was a restaurant created by a famous Japanese chef in Paris and was so popular that it won the grand prize in “Fooding,” a famous local gourmet guide. It was a progressive restaurant at the time, serving international cuisine and paired cocktails. We made everything ourselves, even pickling our own kimchi. At the time, I was beginning to feel that French cuisine was not suited to me because of its formality or “having to cook within a framework”. So, I was shocked to still not have found my genre of cuisine.
●You were stimulated at the restaurant in a way that you had not felt before?
Yes. The restaurant was not a fancy, upscale restaurant, but rather a casual place where you could enjoy music at a slightly louder volume. The most important thing was the owner-chef’s passion for his cuisine. He said, “There are so many cuisines in the world, so it doesn’t matter what genre you choose. But it’s more fun if you know all kinds of different things.” This was a major change in my thinking, as I had been limited by the framework of French cuisine and textbook ideas. I felt like I experienced a turning point in my career as a chef. When I started working there, I was already 29 years old and had all the skills I needed, but I have great respect for the chef there, he changed my life. He passed away about three years ago, but it still doesn’t feel real.
That was my experience in Paris. I had promised my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, that I would return in a year, so I returned to Japan as planned. After I came back and got married, I worked at a French restaurant run by a friend of mine!
●How did you join the “caveman” team?
It was also thanks to a tip from the chef of “Dersou”. He put me in touch with Mr. Kuroda, who was the head chef at the time. He put a good word in for me, saying that if he were to make a restaurant in Japan, he would make me head chef. He invited me to join him, and the day before “caveman” opened, I quit my previous job and joined the restaurant on short notice. I was extremely busy for about two months from the time of the opening until the business was shut down due to Covid.
●Did you make any new discoveries working under Kuroda?
I learned a lot from Kuroda, who specializes in Italian and Scandinavian cuisine because he uses a variety of oils in his cooking. In fact, French cuisine does not use much oil.
Then, of course, there is fermentation. The approach to fermentation differs from country to country and region to region, so I think I could see through him, “this is Scandinavian cuisine”.
●You became head chef in 2021. What things have you implemented since then?
I don’t think it’s right to have a signature menu or something that says, “This is me”. If I decide on such a menu, I will be stuck in a certain frame of mind, so I take the stance of making what I want to make. If I change the menu too often, I think the quality of the food will decline, so I change the menu once every two months. I try to serve everything while keeping an eye on the balance. At the base of everything I do is to create a restaurant where people can enjoy food and have a good time.
However, we now serve soba at the end of each course, and this is something that we have continued to do since deciding to open a restaurant in Nihonbashi; we wanted to offer something that is very Edo-style. Tokyo’s food culture has many dishes that flourished during the Edo period, such as sushi, eel, udon, and soba. Therefore, I wanted to create something that conveys the “local context” in this historic city. There are minor changes we make, such as changing the flavor of the broth. If I were in a different place, I probably wouldn’t be doing this.
●How do you feel about working in Nihonbashi now?
I am from Tokyo, but I have never hung out in Nihonbashi. I have always had an image of it as “a town of your grandparents”. Even if I did go there, it would mostly be me passing by on my motorcycle. However, the redevelopment of Kabutocho has changed the atmosphere of the area, and I enjoy seeing the development of the area as I work here. Restaurants are good, but I personally feel that if more galleries and other cultural activities were to be added, the town would expand.
●What kind of challenges would you like to take on in the future as a chef and restaurant?
As a restaurant, our main goal right now is to win a Michelin star. However, we don’t want to bend anything important to achieve this goal. We will only do our best in our own way and hope that the results will follow. I think a restaurant can be an “extraordinary” place, and if you go there once a week or so, it becomes an “every day” already. The reason why we change the menu every two months is that we hope that people will return to the restaurant within that period. I believe that food is not the only thing to be savored in such a space. The wine served with the food, the communication between the service staff, and everything else adds to the dining experience. If only one of them stands out, it’s not the same. I believe that the entire restaurant team works together to create a single experience. That is why I would like to update everything, from the food to the plates to the way it is served, and to develop the restaurant in a way that will surpass the “previous” experience of the customers who come back again and again.
As for the chef personally, I will try to exercise moderately this year, and in the future, I would like to focus on work-life balance and work while raising children overseas or somewhere where there is moderate nature. If possible, I would like to take at least three days off a week!
Text : Misaki Yamashita
Photo : Naoto Date
Interview : Misaki Yamashita
Head Chef of caveman
Mr. Timothy Mawn
Interesting people in Kabutocho
Mr. Timothy Mawn – Pony Pasta
Although they serve Italian pasta, the chef is from England, and there are rumors that it has been successfully transformed into an “English Italian restaurant”. Since the opening of the new restaurant, I have heard a lot about how delicious it is, so I would like to talk to him about it.