●I heard that you are from Sumida Ward in downtown Tokyo?
I grew up in the downtown area, and next to my house was a 50-60-year-old wooden apartment that my father ran. The apartment had been vacant for a long time, so we renovated it ourselves and started our first shop called ‘Spice Cafe’.
●What was life like in the downtown and Oshiage area back then?
The apartment building itself was interesting, with six rooms including the second floor. In those days, there were a lot of buildings like that around, and each room was occupied by a family, whether it was a couple, a child, or an elderly couple, and the kitchen and bathroom were shared. We lived next to the building, and I still remember how we used to exchange side dishes and borrow soy sauce from the neighbors.
●Was this experience of eating food together, across households and generations impactful on you?
My father is a craftsman, so there were many craftsmen living and working in my parents’ house. The neighboring town, Kyoshima, is a place where there are many tenement houses in the downtown area, and my parents’ house and factory were located there, so it was common for about ten people to gather there and eat together. My father was home every day, so on weekends, we would eat out as a matter of course. There were many sushi restaurants, yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants, and snack bars in the neighborhood shopping district. And I remember eating at about three or so of them, or driving to a department store in Ginza and having a children’s menu in the large dining area.
●When you were a student, what club activities were you involved in?
I’ve been playing soccer all my life. I’m also into river touring, which is kayaking, river rafting, and camping in parallel. I started playing soccer in junior high school and continued into college, but after that, I stopped playing soccer and got into diving and traveling. I even traveled to Southeast Asia for a month.
●It was a time before the Internet, so getting information on hobbies like soccer or traveling was difficult right?
There used to be a program called “Diamond Soccer” on TV and it was broadcast only once a week during the 45-minute halftime, with the second half being broadcast the following week. But I was of the generation that watched it week-in, week-out. When I was in junior high, I began to watch soccer from overseas leagues and that developed my interest in Europe and South America, and it made me interested in the idea of traveling.
●When you were in college, graduation was approaching and you were looking for a job, what did you think about work at that time?
I really wanted to go on a trip, but at that time, the Japanese economy was in the midst of a bubble. And Japanese companies were said to be the best in the world. It’s hard to believe now! Moreover, there was a tendency that you had to be a new graduate to enter a company as an employee. If this truly was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join a ‘best in the world, Japanese company’ I thought I would just jump in and see what happens. Speaking of the success of Japanese companies, I did actually notice that a lot of the cars and electrical appliances used in countries like Australia were all Japanese-made!
●What kind of company did you want to work for?
I wanted to work for a fun company where I could create something. During a trip, I happened to meet a Japanese guy who was on his graduation trip and he said, “The company I work for is really interesting. Why don’t you apply for a job there?”. I thought it sounded interesting and the company happened to be close to my home. I began visiting the company before I had even attended a job fair. After that, I talked to various employees and came to know more about the company and the industry and eventually joined the company and worked there for four years.
●After working at that company for four years, did you start to develop various ideas about what you wanted to do after that?
I was working at a museum, so I was doing nature-related exhibits, such as a river flowing from a mountain to the ocean, with actual fish swimming inside of it! Or I could be working on a full-scale reproduction of a pit dwelling from the Jomon period. It was fun, but my desire to travel and see the world grew more and more each year. Maybe it was because there was no Internet and that information was difficult to access back then, but I had a strong feeling that now was the time for a round-the-world trip. I decided to quit my job and go on my trip. I was 26 or 27 years old, so it was in ‘96 or ‘97 I think.
●For how long did you travel after quitting your job?
I visited 48 countries in three and a half years. First, I spent a year in New Zealand on a working holiday, where I got used to living abroad and working in English. And then I moved to China, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, North America, Central America, and South America. During that time, I didn’t return to Japan once.
●What was the most memorable part of your trip?
As is the case with all long-term travelers, they gradually become content. You can visit amazing tourist spots, but don’t find them interesting at all. The only things that remain are the people you meet and the food you eat. The interesting guy I met in India, or experiencing daily life in Syria, what people eat in Ethiopia, these are things I never grow tired of. Another thing I noticed while traveling was that I had only been working for four years of my life. I didn’t have a job and so I felt like a bit of a nobody. Most of the travelers I met were Westerners, and when I talked to some Germans and Canadians, they would introduce themselves. For example, “I’m a programmer, a teacher”, and so on. When they told me what they did and that they took a month or a year off every year to travel, I gradually came to reassess my own life and time traveling.
●Do you think that through this journey you have come to realize your own way of being?
One big event was my encounter in Istanbul with a couple of Japanese potters. The couple had come from China and had traveled across Eurasia to Istanbul, where they told me they were studying ceramics. I was shocked when they told me that they travel to different places every year, and when they return home, they reflect it in their works. It left an impact on me, and I thought, ‘this is how I should live!’. I decided to translate that into my cooking. So, I decided to return and study cooking. I had never actually cooked even part-time, so I was very nervous. But I thought that if I was going to bet my life on it, traveling and cooking were the only two things I could do. I wanted to be a chef as a craftsman, not a manager of a restaurant or café, so I entered the kitchen from scratch and trained myself.
●So that’s what brought you back to Japan?
I wanted to own my own restaurant as soon as possible, but I also needed a job, so I decided to work at a small restaurant with an owner-chef. At that time, I was about 30 years old, and I thought it would be too late to start working in a large restaurant. I worked in a small Italian restaurant with the enthusiasm that I would do anything, and that pay didn’t matter. It was my first time working in a restaurant, and the place I chose to work at was very demanding, so naturally, I couldn’t keep up with it at all, and I quickly learned about the reality of restaurants.
When it came to opening my own restaurant, I wanted to serve a wide range of dishes from various countries, to reflect my travels. I thought it would be really interesting to serve food from Ethiopia, Yemen, and Guatemala that no one else in Japan was serving or eating, and I thought it would be really fun if travelers could gather there. But when I entered the world of gastronomy, I realized that such a thing was totally impossible and too naive.
Because of my age, I thought that in order to beat other chefs, I would have to go deeper and narrower, and that’s when I discovered the power of spices. Curry is so widespread that it is called Japan’s national dish, but when you look at spices on their own, Japan’s curry lacks complexity. Spices equals curry. This is because curry in Japan started with curry powder and curry roux. But in fact, in addition to India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and other places where curry and spices are used, spices are commonly used all over the world, including Europe. So, I thought at that time that I would compete with spice dishes that have not been introduced in Japan.
● It was an idea that came to you from your experience of traveling?
Exactly. Although there were many Indian restaurants, when I asked to work or study there it was difficult because there were Indians and Nepalese in the kitchen whose position would be taken and they would be sent home in favor of a Japanese worker. But I was lucky, I met these kind-hearted Indians and Japanese who said that they wanted to spread their authentic cuisine in Japan and so they allowed me to train at their restaurant. I worked at an Indian restaurant for two years and a year at a Sri Lankan restaurant.
●Did you go through any other training before you opened your own restaurant?
I was aware of my inexperience as a chef and my lack of ability, but I had reached a good age, so I decided to open a restaurant anyway. However, I had been traveling on a tight budget for three and a half years and had been training since I came back, so I had no money at all. I looked for a place in Shibuya or Shimokitazawa to open a restaurant, but of course, it was impossible to find a place like that. When I looked at my house, I saw that it was vacant, but it was more than a 15-minute walk to the nearest station, and there was no Skytree back then, so the number of tourists and visitors wasn’t like they are now. I thought it was impossible to find a good location, but since I had no money, I felt like I had no choice. In New Zealand, one of the people I lived with had built a house next door to his own, and of course, he would ask a professional carpenter to do the important parts, but I saw that he usually painted and built the walls by himself. I didn’t order anything except for electricity, gas, and water, and I got help from my friends and craftsmen in the neighborhood. For example, I put up each tile and floorboard by myself, so I felt very involved in the creation of the restaurant.
●And you opened the Spice Cafe in 2003?
There were two things I decided to do when I opened the store. The first was to take a month off every year to rest. Nowadays, there are a lot of shops that do this, but back then, there were no stores that took a month off at all. It was normal for everyone overseas to take a month off, so I wondered why Japanese people didn’t. I planned to use that month to study since I was aware of my lack of skills as a chef. I decided that I would definitely learn something there, and when I came back to Japan and reopened the restaurant, I would definitely add something new to the menu. I went to India and Sri Lanka and worked in the kitchens of cheap restaurants and hotels for more than ten years and gained a lot of experience.
●What was the other thing you decided to do when you opened the restaurant?
I wanted to create a course menu. There were many places where you could eat Indian curry, but even if you took the train or drove for an hour to get to the restaurant and had a delicious curry, you would finish it in 10 minutes. I’ve been experiencing the joy of eating out and restaurants since I was a child, so I love restaurants. For example, in the case of Italian food, I’m the type of person who thinks it’s really fun to go to a restaurant and choose an appetizer, main course, and dessert as a prix fixe. I love the time I spend choosing while having a drink, so I decided to do the same thing with curry. I think we were the first to serve curry as a course menu.
●Have you felt that spices have gradually become more popular in the world over the past ten years?
Yes. About ten years after we opened, there have been many competitors who have gone to India to study. But then it occurred to me that the level of restaurants in Japan, especially in Tokyo, is much higher than going abroad. Especially French, Italian, and Japanese food. The level of quality is some of the best in the world. Rather than going to India to study spices, I thought it would be much faster to knock on the door of a restaurant in Tokyo and ask to study there.
●How do you think they feel when you ask them to do something like that? Are they surprised?
No, they are very accepting. In French, Italian, and Japanese cuisine, there is such a training system or culture, and young people usually go to the restaurants of their competitors to study. On the other hand, top chefs from French and Italian restaurants say that they will teach you any recipe you want, but they want to learn about spices in exchange. I would go and help out for a day, just to do the dishes and show them what I can do, but they would say, “No, please don’t do the dishes, just teach us a little about curry and spices while eating and drinking wine”. So it’s very interesting. One of them is Mr. Masakazu Taira (*1). I went to Don Bravo for training and he taught me how to make pizza dough from scratch, and I was amazed at how intricate and difficult it is to make pizza dough! I thought, “How hard can pizza dough be?”.
※1 Mr. Masakazu Taira
He is the owner and chef of Don Bravo, a creative Italian restaurant in Chofu, Tokyo. Supervises the Italian menu at KABEAT in Kabutocho.
●The Covid situation must have been difficult for restaurants. Did it have any impact on your own restaurant business or your thoughts about restaurants in general?
Once Covid happened I noticed a sharp decrease in the number of customers. Even before that, there were times when I was not busy, but you would always see customers coming through the door. Some restaurants were still open, so I went to one during the pandemic. When I did, I quickly realized that restaurants are fun. When I thought about what it means to go to a restaurant, I realized that it is not just the act of eating the food on the plate, but the experience of going to a restaurant, eating, and coming back. I realized for myself that this type of experience would always be relevant.
●That was a new feeling for you, wasn’t it?
What chefs and restaurants can do is create an experience that brings people to the restaurant. As refrigeration technology improves and big data is utilized more and more, I think the time will come when anyone can create something that the majority of people say is delicious. I think that restaurants will not be able to survive unless they specialize in making people come to their restaurants to experience them. Not just because the food is delicious, but because the ambiance and service are great.
In the past, I had a very rigid idea of what a restaurant should be and so I used to be very strict and yell at my staff. I used to be the kind of chef who would snap at them if they dropped something. Now it’s the exact opposite. If I and my staff don’t feel happy working, the customers who come to the restaurant won’t feel happy either. I think that’s what it’s all about. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to open this second restaurant.
●How did you decide to open a second store?
At Spice Cafe, it was our policy not to open the restaurant for even a minute unless I was there. But I suddenly had to take a look at myself as a chef and decided to take a step back from the kitchen. Of course, I would check the taste of the food, and develop and supervise the dishes and menu, but I thought that I didn’t have to actually cook the food. By letting the staff do that, they can have fun and grow because they can gain more experience. I think that by developing two restaurants, it will be easier to run the business.
●Why did you decide to open your restaurant in Kabutocho?
Actually, I had a lot of requests to open stores, but I turned them all down. I had a policy of not opening a store unless I was working there, so I refused to open two stores because it was physically impossible. They try their best to say nice things and promise everything, but it felt like they just want you to sign a contract in the end. For this property in Kabutocho, the client was obviously very friendly and asked us to open a store in their building. Moreover, I could feel their enthusiasm toward Spice Cafe, so I sympathized with them. Before we signed the contract, he showed me around the town several times, and I found many unique stores such as K5, Neki, and Ease, which made me think that the town was very interesting. I didn’t know anything about Kabutocho, but when I heard about the stores that were going to open in the future, I was really attracted to it and thought it would be interesting to work here.
●So the first second restaurant was not launched as Spice Cafe Kabutocho, but rather as HOPPERS, why was that?
Originally, the offer was to do the same menu as the Spice Cafe, but I said I didn’t want to do the same exact thing again. For the new restaurant, I wanted to express new possibilities, new ways of working. I wanted to focus on modern Sri Lankan cuisine, which I felt had not been done yet from a global perspective.
●The lunch is a colorful plate filled with nine side dishes!
It is what is called “rice and curry” and is a set meal that is eaten every day in Sri Lanka. It uses a lot of vegetables and comes with rice plus four or five kinds of gentle side dishes and curries. In Sri Lanka, there are only two seasons: a rainy season and a dry season. But here in Japan, there are four distinct seasons with a wide variety of produce. I wanted to make use of those ingredients and vegetables and use new ingredients, but not deviate from the traditional style. I wanted to express the orthodox rice and curry that we do in Japan, but with a higher grade, like something you would eat on a special occasion.
●When I hear the word “spice”, I tend to think of something spicy or hot, but when I tried it, I found it to be very gentle.
It’s gentle, isn’t it? Sri Lanka is a country that has adopted Ayurveda (*2), so from the Ayurvedic point of view, the importance is based on creating dishes that can be eaten every day; something that can be healthy and that you will not grow tired of. For example, when you go to a Grand Maison, you may enjoy the food, but the next day your stomach may be upset or you may feel tired. I want people to come to the restaurant to eat and when they leave I want them to feel better. I want them to say that they feel happy mentally as well as physically. I think that’s what a restaurant should be, so I always try to keep that in mind.
Traditional medicine originated in India and Sri Lanka
●At night, it’s a course meal, just like the one served at the Spice Cafe?
I think it would be boring to do a regular course, so the concept is to introduce the possibility of a new modern Sri Lankan cuisine to the world from here.
●What is the origin of the name HOPPERS?
If a Sri Lankan were to name a Sri Lankan restaurant, they would probably use the name Colombo (like the city) or Tunapaha (Sri Lankan mixed spices), or something directly related to Sri Lanka and its cuisine. I don’t think that that would be very interesting, so I decided to use a word that is not directly related to Sri Lanka, but that people who hear it would definitely know that it is a Sri Lankan. Hopper is a bowl-shaped pancake made of fermented rice flour and coconut, and it is a typical Sri Lankan dish, but it is not very well known among Japanese people. But I feel that as a dish it has a lot of potential, so I decided to name the restaurant HOPPERS.
●Spice Cafe is a renovated space, but HOPPERS has a completely different atmosphere.
Yes, that’s right. Sri Lanka has very interesting architecture, as can be seen by the works of Geoffrey Bawa (*3). Many resort hotels in Sri Lanka are simple, minimalist, and modern, in stark contrast to the cluttered feeling you can get in India. The concept of the interior design is a small restaurant in a coastal Sri Lankan town where such resort hotels are located.
※3 Geoffrey Bawa
One of Sri Lanka’s leading architects, who influenced resort architecture around the world by creating resort hotels that blend with nature.
● I’m sure you have a lot of ideas, but do you have any ideas about what you would like to do in Kabutocho?
I would like to have Sri Lankan mothers prepare delicious home cooking for lunch. For example, if a different Sri Lankan mother cooks for us on each day of the week, we can introduce real Sri Lankan home cooking, which until now has only been eaten by locals. This place is perfect for that. In disseminating spice cuisine, I am also thinking of collaborating with other chefs. I’ve already asked Chef Taira, who supervises Italian cuisine at KABEAT, where I did my training, to collaborate with me, and I’m also good friends with Mr. Kotaro Otsu (※4), a Chinese chef, so I’ve asked him to do the same. For example, if Mr. Taira were to make half of the rice and curry, it would be very interesting and we might discover a new Sri Lankan cuisine. I want the restaurant to be a place where both the people who come and the people who work there, including the way they work, can feel that restaurants are so much fun and that they want to run a restaurant and become regulars. Under the current environment and working conditions, the number of people who want to become chefs or open a restaurant must be very small. The number is decreasing. I really don’t want my favorite restaurants to disappear, because that would mean that food culture would become obsolete.
※4 Mr. Kotaro Otsu
The owner and chef of “O2” in Kiyosumi Shirakawa. He supervises the Chinese menu at KABEAT.
Born in Sumida-ku, Tokyo in 1970. After graduating from university, he worked for a space design company for four years before embarking on a round-the-world trip that took him to 48 countries in three and a half years. Among all the cuisines he encountered, he was particularly struck by South Indian cuisine, including rasam, and decided to open his own restaurant. Upon returning to Japan, he worked for a year in an Italian restaurant, two years in an Indian restaurant, and one year in a Sri Lankan restaurant. He renovated his parents’ 1960s wooden apartment and opened the Spice Cafe in November 2003. In December 2021, he opened his second modern Sri Lankan restaurant, HOPPERS, on the first floor of KABUTO ONE in Kabutocho.
Text : Takeshi Okuno
Photo : Naoto Date
Interview : Takeshi Okuno
Mr. Yasutsugu Ishiwata
Representative Director, WAT
Interesting people in Kabutocho
Mr. Yasutsugu Ishiwata
Representative Director, WAT
The person I really want to talk to is Mr. Ishiwata of WAT, who runs KNAG. When I met him at the reception, I thought he was very interesting, and I often work at KNAG. The scale of the company is not too large, and I really like the atmosphere, including the staff. I’d really like to learn more about his skills as a manager. I’m thinking of asking him if he would like to go out for a drink sometime.