Owner, and chef of Neki
●Where are you from?
I’m from Kameoka in Kyoto. I lived in Kyoto all my life until I was about 25 years old.
●What kind of work did you do in Kyoto?
My first job was at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto, nearby Kyoto Station. I worked there for five or six years. I had graduated from a confectionary school and originally wanted to make sweets, but the confectionary department at the hotel was already fully staffed. So I was sent to go help out at the French restaurant inside the hotel. That’s when I decided to start cooking!
●Have you always wanted to be a pastry chef?
My father was the executive chef of a hotel, and so, I had always thought that I would become a chef. However, when I was in high school and wondering what I was going to do, my father advised me that I might be better suited to making sweets. At the time I was into music and art, so I thought that maybe pastry would let me express my creative side more so than cooking.
●But you ended up being assigned to cooking instead of sweets. That’s such a strange thing to happen! What kind of French restaurant was it?
It was a nice French restaurant, like the main dining room in a hotel. When I found out that they made everything themselves, even the desserts, I thought it would be a good opportunity to study pastry as well, so I started working there. I was 19 years old at the time, and I still don’t know if it was good luck or bad luck that I was able to work at a place that usually only takes in experienced people. I had never cooked before, so I had no idea how to do things. It was really difficult in the beginning. But I’m glad that I jumped in; I’m the type of person who wants to do what’s right in front of me even though I don’t know what to do. I’m thankful for that experience, I don’t know if I would have started cooking if I didn’t have that.
●What is the most important thing you have learned in your culinary training?
At that time, the restaurant industry was at its peak. …… I was inexperienced so I was constantly being criticized and told off. I think all the chefs of my generation, and maybe the generation above me, may have a similar story. I think I gained a lot of patience, or rather, I became mentally able to endure and that made me stronger. I learned about the harshness of society. I hated it at the time, but I don’t know if I would have become the person I am today if I hadn’t gone through those tough times.
●Neki doesn’t have that kind of strict atmosphere at all. It’s mild, but there’s a good amount of tension, and I think it’s a restaurant that, every time I visit, has a good balance.
We don’t have a sports-like atmosphere, and I don’t want our restaurant to be like that either. But when I’m working, when I’m cooking, I like to have a good sense of tension. It’s good to laugh and have fun, but I think it’s necessary to keep a sense of urgency in the cooking process. I try to encourage my staff to maintain this balance and to sustain their motivation.
●Jumping back a bit, did you leave Kyoto because of your studies in France?
Yes, I was 25 years old. One of my seniors introduced me to a friend in France, so I decided to leave Kyoto and study in France. When I was working at the hotel in Kyoto, I was wondering whether I should go to France or Tokyo as my next step.
●Where in France did you study?
In a small village called Riquewihr in the Alsace region. It’s so small you can walk the whole village in 10 minutes. Since it was a tourist spot, there was a large auberge (*1), and that was where I worked as a live-in trainee.
Restaurant with accommodations
●I heard Mr Oyama from ‘ease’ say that he used to work at the auberge too.
That’s right! I guess about three months after I started working, he came in. We worked together for about six months. We were living in the same dormitory, our rooms were next door to each other.
●It’s amazing that the lives that crossed paths in Alsace once again cross paths in Kabutocho! How long were you in France?
About one year. I spent the last month wandering around France, so actually, I worked in Alsace for about 10 months.
●What did you learn in France?
A different way of working. The way they work is completely different from Japan. The chef at the auberge was a person who especially valued his time, so it was refreshing to see how he used it. In Japan, it was normal to work from the first train to the last train. But in France, you work from noon, take a break, and after the restaurant closes, you can go out for drinks, go to the market, go see a movie, or visit wine producers. I’ve only ever worked, so I wondered how I could make good use of this time (laughs). But that’s what makes it all worthwhile. I don’t linger for hours preparing food, but when I have to do something, I do it quickly. Finishing on time is important, so you need to understand what you can produce and how much of it within a given timeframe. I think I was able to learn not only how to think creatively about cooking, but also how to work with my hands. How to work as a craftsman, how to make delicious food, but all within a certain amount of time.
●What have you been doing since you came back from France?
After returning to Japan, I went back to Kyoto and worked part-time for about a year to save money. I was planning to go to Tokyo, but it was the year of the Tohoku earthquake, so it made it difficult for me to come to Tokyo. I also worked at a Western-style restaurant in town, making omelets and other casual Western dishes. I think that that experience has led to the lunches that Neki serves today. I started to make not only restaurant food but also more casual food.
●Did you move to Tokyo after that?
Yes, I did. I joined Cuisine Michel Troisgros (*2) in Shinjuku and worked there for about three years. After that, I worked at Bistro Rojiura (*3) in Shibuya for about five years.
A two-star restaurant at the Hyatt Regency that closed in 2019.
An authentic French and wine bistro in the back alleys of Shibuya.
●After working at Bistro Rojiura, you started Neki, right? How did you come to have your own restaurant?
Thanks to an invitation from Mr Oyama. He asked me, “Are you thinking of starting your own business? Because I have this property…” At the time, I was thinking about starting my own business, but I was also thinking about going back to Kyoto. There are already so many good restaurants in the Shibuya area, so I didn’t think it was necessary to open a restaurant there. I thought that since I was from Kyoto, I should look for a place in Kyoto. But that’s when I heard about Kabutocho, and everything just clicked. At the time, Kabutocho was an empty place and I had never been there before, I didn’t even know where it was!
●I think Neki is a restaurant that captures the needs and atmosphere of today’s times, how did you come up with the concept?
At first, I didn’t think I wanted to open a restaurant in Kabutocho. But I was introduced to the property and started to think about what I could do here and what kind of things would fit the atmosphere. I wanted to serve the French cuisine that I had studied, but I also thought that the interior and atmosphere of the restaurant would change the cuisine. That’s why I didn’t start with a clear concept in mind. It was more like a combination of elements, one by one.
●How did you develop your sense of style?
I used to love cafes. When I was 20 years old, cafes were becoming more and more trendy, and I was fascinated by the culture. There were some great cafes in Kyoto too, and I always wanted to explore and visit them. It made me want to open a restaurant in a cool space. In that space, I thought it would be nice to have really good food there, so that’s when I decided to learn more about cooking. So it made sense that if I wanted to do French cuisine, I should go to France. If I wanted to learn about restaurants, I should work in starred restaurants. It’s hard to put into words, but I feel like I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge from all these things I like, and it’s led me to my current style.
●Is there anything that you do in order to think more creatively about food?
I think it’s important to be interested in lots of different things, not just cooking. I think that’s what everyone does, like going to museums. I look at art and think about how I can create such beautiful colors using ingredients. I also like music, so I often go to record stores. I check out the new releases and try to keep up with what’s new. I also listen to music on my computer and phone, but still, I like to have music on records too. Buying music is a thrilling experience, isn’t it? I try not to forget that feeling of discovering something new.
●Is there a particular genre of music that you like to listen to?
I listen to a wide range of genres, but I originally started with rock and punk, and then I started listening to hip-hop. But I also like house music and techno. The mood changes from day to day, or even from week to week! Most often I like to listen to hip-hop and gangsta rap, like 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. Sometimes I listen to it because it reminds me of the energetic atmosphere of junior high school, and I miss that.
●I heard you are also in charge of the music selection at Neki.
That’s right. The beauty of vinyl records is that you can change the music according to the situation, so if the weather is nice, you reflect that and play this kind of music. Or if the store is in a lively mood, you can play this kind of music. I’d like to make the restaurant a place where everyone can work together.
●What do you have in mind for the future?
At Neki, I would like to collaborate with my friends who make clothing or people from other industries. Also, I would like to open a store in Kyoto, even though that sounds like a dream right now. I think it would be great to have two locations, one in Kyoto and one in Tokyo.
●It has been almost a year since you opened, has the customer base changed since then?
At first, we had a lot of locals from the neighborhood, but now we have people coming from other parts of Tokyo. Also, we have a lot of female customers, especially in the afternoons. And even though there are cheaper places to eat, we have many young people coming to visit. When I was that age, I couldn’t afford to eat or drink wine in a place like this, so it’s nice to be able to share that experience with younger people.
●Neki is a great example of a community that uses diversity to thrive. I think it has an important role to play in passing on culture to the younger generations of Kabutocho.
That’s right. So far, as far as I know, people as young as one through to people as old as 96 have come to the restaurant. It makes me happy when I see a 96-year-old grandmother leave the restaurant saying, “It’s delicious,” and I think it’s great that people of all ages can enjoy the space. I hope that the situation with Covid will end soon, and people from overseas will be able to come and visit too.
Born in Kyoto, Japan in 1983. After training at a hotel in Kyoto, he moved to France and worked at an auberge in Alsace before returning to Japan. In May 2020, he opened the restaurant, Neki, in Kabutocho.
Text : Momoko Suzuki
Photo : Naoto Date
Interview : Akihiro Matsui
Owner, and chef of Neki
Interesting people in Kabutocho
Mr. Tsuchimoto, President of Heiwa Real Estate, has visited us many times. He has a very warm personality and always introduces me to new people. I was wondering how he feels about Kabutocho now.