Manager of Patisserie ease
●Where are you from?
I’m from Meguro-ku, Tokyo, where I have lived all my life.
●What was your childhood like?
My father was from Kumamoto, and my mother was from Yamagata. It was a pretty traditional Showa-style upbringing with the traditional values of a man that works and a woman that follows. When I was young, I wasn’t at all interested in stereotypical ‘girly things’ like piano or ballet, but I do remember being curious about my father’s martial arts. I was also interested in films like Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” or “Gorenger”, so when I began thinking about what kind of things I should learn my parents took me to Kyokushin Karate dojo. I thought, “This is what I want!” and I began learning from the third grade of elementary school all the way through to high school. It was full-contact karate, and I really liked hitting and kicking. When I was in junior high school, I won third place in the women’s team All-Japan.
●It’s such an interesting story and we’ve only just started!
That’s right! I won the Tokyo tournament a few times. But at that time, when I was in my third year of high school, there were no women’s competitions in K-1, let alone the Olympics, and there were no world junior championships either. The moment I realized that even if I won the championship in Japan, there would be no more competition after that, I gradually lost motivation.
●Besides martial arts and Bruce Lee, were there any other things from your parents that influenced you?
Not so much. I played guitar and other instruments in a band, which is similar to my dad who also played in a band. For three years in junior high school, I played in a band in the light music club, playing Deep Purple and so on. Everyone else was playing Judy and Marie, but I was going a slightly different way.
●What did you do in high school?
I entered an all-girls high school, but I wasn’t involved in any club activities. And there wasn’t another person with the same taste in music, so I couldn’t even form a band. I entered the school after taking the entrance exam, so was a bit of an outsider compared to those that had transferred directly from the affiliated junior high school. There was a rather large gap in academic ability. And for the first time in my life, I was in the category of those who did well academically. I had a competitive streak, and to protect it, I studied hard every day for three years.
●You mentioned that you hate to lose, but looking back, what do you think you learned from martial arts?
At first, I was just doing karate, but I would go on to compete in tournaments. I would somehow participate in them because my father was an experienced karate fighter, my mother told me that I would not be able to win unless I not only went to the dojo but also practiced on my own. So I asked my father to teach me, and he would bring out the pits for me to practice on. So when I wanted to do something, I learned that if I didn’t put in the effort, I wouldn’t be able to achieve the results I wanted.
●What about in high school, did you also do well academically?
I went on to college, and from there I worked part-time in a cake shop. At the time, there was a cake shop called “Dolce Maririsa” near my house, and I was a night student, so I worked there during the day for four years and went to college at night.
●Besides being a local store, were there any other reasons why you chose that cake shop?
One of my lunch-packing buddies in high school was in the cooking club, and one day he made a pound cake. At the time, all I could think about was studying, and I had a very limited perspective. I was surprised that someone else was doing something completely different. How could they make something like this? Where did they learn to do that? And from there, I became a little curious. I vaguely remembered that, and when I became a college student, I began working in a cake shop. I didn’t make the cakes myself, but I wanted to be a part of it.
●What were your responsibilities there?
I did sales, packaging baked goods, and making the drip coffee since there was a café, and also I would make a wide variety of sweet drinks and teas. At Christmas time, I helped cut strawberries or did other cake preparation things. I was happy to be able to do that because the buzz of Christmas was exciting to me so I enjoyed it. I was able to walk home, so I would do it even after the last train had left.
●Your four years there marked the beginning of your work at the confectionery store, didn’t it?
It was a pretty big trigger for me. I studied very hard for the entrance examinations and was admitted to Waseda University, but after entering the university, I suffered from burnout. I thought about dropping out, but everyone around me told me not to, so I decided to try my best to graduate. When I was doing karate, I always had the feeling that I had what it takes. That feeling disappeared around high school, and instead, I was studying. When I was looking for a job, my boyfriend at the time was looking for a job at a PR company. I didn’t have any particular aspirations, so I just followed his example and also applied for a job at a different PR company.
●And during your college years, you also worked part-time at a confectionery shop?
Yes, I had been struggling with it for a long time. About a year after I joined the PR company, I was assigned to do PR for a mail-order frozen cake shop on Yahoo Shopping. I think it was still a new venture at the time, but it brought me back to cakes, so I decided that I wanted to work in confectionery. And that’s when I changed jobs.
●It was fate that the product happened to be cakes!
Yes, that’s right. I knew I wanted to be a pastry chef. The chef at the restaurant where I worked when I was in college always said, “The cakes I make are the best in the world,” and I thought it was nice that he took such pride in his work. That’s why I joined a French pastry store in Toritsudaigaku, but it no longer exists. They really appreciated that I had practiced karate for a long time, and so they took a chance on me. But it was really tough and not at all what I expected from a cake shop, so I quit after three months.
●Was there a big difference between this shop and the store you worked in before?
Quite a bit, yes. Looking back, the first store was quite loose.
●You’ve had experiences with both sides of the extreme!
I wanted to work with pastries, but I was afraid that if the same thing happened at another restaurant and I happened to quit again, then I would really hate myself. It was around this time that I was watching a lot of videos on YouTube by the American baker, Martha Stewart. I had given up on French pastries, but then I saw her introducing cakes with an American taste, such as the carrot cake and I started thinking that this might suit me. It made me want to visit America.
●Yet another encounter with a different kind of pastry!
Yes, exactly! However, it is very difficult to obtain a work visa in the United States. I did some research and decided to go to England instead, which has a working holiday program. Before that, I went to a school that specializes in cake decoration. You might imagine it as decorating a wedding cake or something like that. It’s called sugarcraft, where you create flowers and letters with cream, and there is a school called Brooklands College in the suburbs of London that is considered to be a prestigious school for this kind of work. I decided to go there because I wanted to study English and it seemed like a good fit. I was 26 or 27 years old at the time.
●How was life in England?
Sugarcraft is a kind of edible craft but you don’t actually eat it. It’s common in England, and also in the U.S., mainly you see it on wedding cakes and things like this. I realized after four months of living in London that I wouldn’t be able to find a job in Japan with those types of skills. With more than a year and a half left on my working holiday visa, I fell into the “what am I going to do!” panic again. But at that time, my parents told me, “Don’t restrict yourself; you are in England after all! You should enjoy the things that England has to offer, even if it is just for fun.” Then, with a flash of inspiration, I decided to go to music festivals and just travel around. Since I had come all this way, I decided to join a cake shop where I could make cupcakes and other things. I also began working at a Japanese restaurant which was good because my English still wasn’t strong enough. During my second year, I decided to work at a restaurant where there were no Japanese people at all. That restaurant was LOLA’S Cupcakes (*1), where I worked as a cake decorator for a year. During the three-day trial period, I was asked to create type designs using buttercream, and when they saw my work they were like, “Oh wow, you’re good!” And that’s how I got in. There were about 14 stores in London at the time, but I worked in their central kitchen.
※1 LOLA’S Cupcakes
A cupcake specialty store from London. They opened their first shop in Japan in October 2015 in Harajuku.
●You were able to put your study of sugarcraft to good use there.
I was able to make good use of it and worked there for over a year. Just as I was about to return to Japan, some people came to visit the factory to discuss opening a branch in Japan. I wanted to stay in the UK and work in other cake shops, but I was told on the spot that I would be welcome to work for them after I returned to Japan. So I decided to leave. After that, we worked together to start up the business in Japan, and I became the one who trained all the staff.
●Do you feel that you have changed a lot during your two years in London?
I was really struggling during that time; I just didn’t know if what I was doing was right or not, or if I could say with confidence that this was the right thing to do. It may be very cliché, but you know it’s often said that life is about connecting dots together? I had that in my mind for a long time. It was the same when I was doing karate, and it reminded me that if you give your all in every moment, if you give it your all in everything you do, you will make something happen. So I decided that if I was going to do sugar craft, I was going to give it my all. When I was attending school in Japan, I had already obtained the qualifications to become an instructor, and I was able to make use of that.
●When you were working on the launch of LOLA’S Cupcakes in Japan, did you also start to think beyond that?
I was a supervisor at LOLA’S, but the president at the time did not know that I, a Japanese national, was there, so he had already hired a pastry chef in Japan. That person was the first female owner-chef of a patisserie in Japan. She was very kind to me and asked me if I would like to open a store with her, but at the time I still did not have the image of opening a store. My father was self-employed, and I had seen how hard it was, so I didn’t have the courage and ended up turning down her offer. But I still wanted to do something, and when I found out that BAYCREW’S (*2) was going to launch FRANZE & EVANS in Japan, a deli cafe from London, I applied.
A company that designs, manufactures, and sells fashion items such as “Journal Standard” and operates restaurants such as “J.S. BURGERS CAFE” and other businesses that provide “food, clothing, housing, and beauty.”
●Makes sense with the British connection!
When I joined the company, I was assigned to a different café than the one that I had hoped for, and the café closed about two weeks after I joined. I was asked to be the manager of another chocolate stand called HI-CACAO, which was about to be launched within the company.
●Your job description and position changed! What kind of experience or challenge was this for you?
I didn’t realize it myself at all, but I was told that I was quite suited for a leadership position when I was working for LOLA’S in Japan. I like teaching. Even when I was doing karate, I taught people how to train, how to move their legs, and so on. In the back of my mind, I had been holding on to the fact that I had quit the French pastry store after only three months. When I joined LOLA’S in England, I was in a situation where I couldn’t even remember my name at first, but I thought I had no choice but to show them through my work. I worked really hard in England, partly to make up for that time I had quit so quickly from the previous company. The chef who had taken such good care of me at LOLA’S in Japan, heard my story and took me under her wing. I will always have a special place in my heart for the way a great French pastry chef such as her treated me. She was a role model to me. She really took an interest in each and every one of her employees and would always talk to them. She was a leader and older than me, so normally our paths didn’t cross often, only the occasional business trip, but she would often take me to various confectionery stores and restaurants. When I became the manager of HI-CACAO, I was reminded of that. It makes me think that everything is connected.
●Did you have a chance to start thinking about your future and other challenges?
HI-CACAO was going to lose the space that we were renting, and we weren’t able to find a new location. Then we were hit by the Corona situation, and I was transferred to another brand within the company, a hamburger restaurant. Finally, I was transferred again to an onigiri shop, and I knew I was getting further and further away from cakes, so I decided to change jobs.
●Did you look for a new job mainly in confectionery?
Yes, that’s right. A few years ago, I was afraid to open my own cake shop, but times are changing and more and more people are starting small. I thought it would be better to do what I can do while I am still alive. However, after making rice balls for almost half a year, I thought it would be a little strange to suddenly start my own cake shop. I decided to make cakes somewhere else, and that is how I came to ease.
●Had you been to Kabutocho before that?
I had never been here before, but when K5, ease, and Neki opened, there was a lot of talk about them at my former company, so I went right away. After visiting several times, I realized that people were doing interesting things and that the cakes made by Mr. Keisuke Oyama, the chef at ease, were really quite different from the traditional French cakes I had been exposed to. I thought it would be good to see such an interesting world before I set up my own business.
●How was it once you actually started working?
I joined the company in March 2021, initially as a pastry chef. As someone with managerial experience, I had some thoughts about how to do my job, things that were beyond just the taste of the pastries, and so on. I would make lots of suggestions to Mr. Oyama on how to improve attendance and other necessary administrative aspects of the store, as well as asking him about work methods, and so I was asked to take on a management role, and eventually became the store manager.
●When did you become manager?
In September 2021. I had a hard time deciding whether or not to accept the position, but, in my family, we are taught to give 120% in everything we are asked to do. Eventually, I would like to go out on my own, but I was told of this opportunity at a time when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed, so I thought it might be a good time to take this on.
●Do you feel that you draw your leadership style from your experience working with the chef at LOLA’S in Japan?
She often said, and my father also told me, that I must lead by example and take the lead, and that I should be truly grateful to my employees. I am neither a manager nor a chef, but rather somewhere in between, and I enjoy that.
●ease is unique in that the kitchen and sales space are integrated, and I think that teamwork is a very important element of the restaurant.
We are talking about that a lot right now. For example, meetings used to be mainly about communicating information, but recently we have been thinking about it from the customer’s point of view, not only about sales but also about production since we have an open kitchen. We are also working to improve our product quality and to create a new product line. So the cooperation between production and sales has increased considerably.
●So communication is also increasing?
Yes! We have barbecue parties outside of work hours. At the end of the year, I asked Mr. Oyama to grill some meat for everyone, and we had a big Christmas party in the kitchen, inviting people from teal as well.
●What do you keep in mind when communicating with your staff?
This is something that changes every day, perhaps I’m just a little unsure. But first of all, when I talk to younger people, like those in their 20s, I want to be seen as someone who’s easy to talk to. I don’t try to match their language, but I do intentionally make fun of them a little. It’s a way of easing the tension. Mr. Oyama grew up in a tough world, so he is very strict with himself, and just by showing up, the place becomes quite tense. On the other hand, I am not a person who is easily distracted, but when I am trying to implement a new initiative or get something done that I have asked for, I am careful about my attitude and communication because I feel that I cannot really do my job if I have a boss who is always rebellious. I try to be careful in my attitude and communication. I treat them with a flippant attitude, like, “I’ll work hard with you, so let’s do it together.”
●Do you have a particular experience you would like customers to have at ease? Is there a way that you want them to enjoy the space?
I have no doubt that everyone will be surprised by the cakes. But more than that, I really want to aim for that level of surprise. We talked about this in meetings recently and at Christmas time, about whether or not we can make ease unique. Even though other stores can copy our products, store atmosphere, dried flowers, and so on. From our point of view, we welcome about 200 customers every day, but for each customer, it is a one-time experience. It is up to the store staff to make sure that they are happy and want to come back.
●The kitchen and sales space are integrated into one, so there is a sense that the space is a stage, or a live performance, where things are moving day by day.
Yes, it is like that. There is also the aroma of sweets in the air. There are many things to talk about with customers, even if it is just one thing. Now that we have reopened the eat-in section of the restaurant, we would like to improve communication between staff and customers, which is our current task.
●What do you find most rewarding about working at ease?
When I recommend a cake to a customer, I do my best to make it sound delicious, because I myself am still a cake lover. When I do that, customers react quite well. For example, they might say, “I was supposed to buy just one cake, but I can’t help myself buying another one.” It also makes me very happy when they eat them at the eat-in counter and tell me how delicious it was.
●What are your own goals for the future?
It could be a small store limited to two or three years, but I would like to try opening a store at least once. After all, my goal is to be like her, the chef taken such good care of me at LOLA’S in Japan. I really respect her way of life. She is opening her second baked goods store at the age of 50. I am also a rather intuitive person, so I would like to open a bakery someday when I feel the time is right.
Born in Meguro-ku, Tokyo. Influenced by her father who was a martial arts practitioner, she started Kyokushin Karate in elementary school and won third place in the women’s division of All-Japan at the junior high school level. During her college years, she worked part-time at “Dolce Maririsa,” a specialty cake store located in Tokyo Metropolitan University, and began working in the confectionery industry. After graduating from Waseda University, she worked at a PR company and a French pastry store before moving to England in 2013. She worked as a cake decorator at “LOLA’S Cupcakes” in London, and after returning to Japan, she worked as a supervisor for the launch of “LOLA’S Cupcakes” in Japan. She has worked for BAYCREW’S since 2006 and in 2017 was involved in the opening of chocolate stand “HI-CACAO” in the role of manager. In March 2021, she started working as a patissier at “ease”, a patisserie in Kabutocho and has been working as the store manager since September 2021.
Text : Takeshi Okuno
Photo : Naoto Date
Interview : Takeshi Okuno
Manager of Patisserie ease
Ms. Shoko Takahashi
Interesting people in Kabutocho
Ms. Shoko Takahashi – KNAG
I often stop by KNAG in the morning before coming to ease, and Shoko-san really cheers me up. She has a really nice smile, and I think she probably likes to talk. As a person working in customer service, I want to learn from her.