Neki Sous Chef
●Where are you from?
I am from Toyama Prefecture. I lived in Toyama until I was a senior in high school.
●How did you spend your time as a student?
I went to a public high school and joined the softball club. It was a military-like high school where all the clubs won national championships. And just like in the military, there were strict rules. For example, I had to always greet my seniors and on top of that I was not allowed to walk in the hallways, so I always had to run!
●Did you also have to shave your head at the time?
That’s right. Partly because I was on the baseball team, but at my high school, everyone had a shaved head!
●Were you devoted to sports at that age?
I had played various sports since elementary school, but I started playing baseball again when I entered high school. Unfortunately, our team didn’t make it to the national tournament. We lost in the finals of the Hokushinetsu tournament, and that’s when I got burned out.
●Did you go to college after that?
I wasn’t interested in studying at all. I liked music and painting, so I had a vague idea that I wanted to do something related to that. There was a restaurant called ‘Fiore di Farina’ that I used to go to with my family. I loved the atmosphere. It was as if you were visiting a house in the Italian countryside.
●What kind of work did your parents do?
My parents owned a bakery called ‘Campagne’, which was a famous bakery in the city. Since I was an only child of the family, I guess I too was a little bit famous. I was naturally interested in making things, but when I saw my parents working from early morning until late at night, I decided that making bread was not for me, even though I loved to eat it!
●How would you describe your father?
Originally, he was a dental technician and made teeth. He used to make teeth according to measurements made by doctors, but he didn’t find it interesting at all! So he went to a famous shoemaker’s store in Toyama to learn how to make shoes, but the shoemaker discouraged him from pursuing such a career. Then he went to a patisserie in Kobe called ‘Daniel’, and after training there, he came back to Toyama and started his own bakery.
●What other influences did your parents have on you?
My parents’ hometown of Kureha is a town known for music and art. We lived right across the street from a facility called the ‘Art Creation Center’. I grew up watching people who were expressing themselves in and out of ateliers, theaters, music colleges, and so on. These people would come into my family’s bakery, so I think they had a big influence on me. I tried to play some instruments myself, but I was totally useless!
●What kind of travel have you done?
I’ve been to most places in Japan. I don’t think I had a specific purpose, but I went around with my father to see art, food and to get a sense of the atmosphere of each city. When I was in junior high and high school, I also went to Europe to help my parents research bread. I was very fond of France and Italy, and this made me think of pursuing a career in cooking. So after I had quit baseball, I went to a vocational school in Osaka.
●Which technical school did you go to?
I went to Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka. There were classroom lectures, but my mind was occupied with cooking. Other than cooking, I spent most of my time with friends or working part-time.
●Where was your part-time job?
It was a pizza place called ‘Pizzeria Fortissimo’. I hadn’t even thought of making pizza, but I was so impressed with the pizza there that after my first taste I told them I wanted to start working there. And that’s how I got the job!
●What kind of restaurant was it?
It was very popular, run by a couple who treated their business like it was a high-class restaurant. People who would visit would make a reservation for their next visit. The owner, who was originally a French chef, was so impressed by the pizza he happened to encounter in Italy that he suddenly gave up his life as a French chef to pursue pizza making.
●What makes the pizza so special?
It looked simple, but it was in fact very well-researched. The traditional way of making pizza takes one or two days of fermentation. However, we let the dough sit for at least a week to create a matured dough that would ferment at a low temperature and for a long time. It’s quite a trade secret, but I was thinking of somehow learning how to make that pizza and then returning to my hometown.
●What did you do for work after graduation?
Since the school I graduated from had a good reputation, I was approached by many restaurants. Many people entered the school for that purpose, and while others around me were taking up on those offers, I wanted to go to a place where I could pursue my own interests. So after attending technical school for one year, I decided to get my cooking license and work at ‘Pizzeria Fortissimo’.
●At the end of the day, if there is no attachment or interest in pursuing it, it won’t last.
That’s right. After working three years I managed to get to the point where I was allowed to bake. Usually, at an independent pizza shop, the owner-chef is the one who bakes the pizza. My interest shifted to the pursuit of the deliciousness of the sauce and ingredients themselves, as well as the deliciousness of the dough. To work in a restaurant that serves expensive high-end course meals one must be able to utilize the ingredients well. So after that, I decided to work at an Italian restaurant in Kitashinchi, Osaka, which was located in a newly renovated old house.
●What did you learn there?
I was given a position with a certain amount of freedom to come up with several dishes on a weekly basis. I was asked to continue to maintain that position, but the chef insisted that it would be better if I created my own ideas, so I worked in a team of about three others to make adjustments and finishing touches to the dishes.
●It must have been hard for you to work with no rules?
It was a lot of work, but I cooked while thinking about how to express my favorite flavors, which changed not only the way I cooked, but also the way I eat, and I gained a lot of knowledge just from eating different kinds of food. Even on my days off, I was always thinking about cooking. And when I watched movies, I found myself looking for cooking tips. It was a very fulfilling three years.
●Did you find your next goal during that time?
Once I knew a little, I wanted to know more and wanted to improve my skills. I decided to go to Tokyo in 2018 to grow as a person.
●How was your experience living in Tokyo?
I had been following the food scene in Tokyo since my days in Osaka. And intuitively I had a few restaurants in mind that I would like to work for. During my last year in Osaka, I would go to Tokyo every week to try out the cuisine of the restaurants I was interested in. One of them was ‘Sublime’ in Azabu Juban, a one-starred restaurant that was a pioneer of Scandinavian cuisine in Japan. I wanted to work there, so I managed to get an interview.
●It was around that time when we began to hear the term “Nordic cuisine” more and more in Japan.
Yeah, it was a year when gained worldwide attention and a movement of sorts was taking place. Mr. Junichi Kato, the chef at ‘Sublime’, worked at one of the world’s top restaurants, ‘Astrance’ in Paris. He moved to Scandinavia early on to embody the new Scandinavian cuisine and brought it back to Japan.
●How did the interview go?
He asked me, “It’s not a big deal if it’s impossible, but are you able to live nearby the restaurant?”. I thought the rent would be too expensive! Originally I was thinking about living around the Yutenji area, but I managed to find a place in Hiroo.
●I’m glad you were able to work there!
Yes. I had heard that some young chefs were quitting within a week. So I was prepared. In my case, it would mean losing my reason to stay in Tokyo, so I managed to hang in there.
●You must have been so busy that you had to live within walking distance. What was the most difficult part for you?
Not being able to lay my hands on the food. It was like that for the first year. But I knew it was because I was not good enough yet. I spent a lot of time wondering what kind of sensibilities the people around me had when it came to cooking. So, I read a lot of cookbooks at home and managed to overcome my insecurities.
●What was the trigger for your breakthrough?
It was the staff meal that I served to everyone. There were times when people didn’t eat at all. It was a continuous process of trial and error with a lot of tension every day. But somehow I managed to get people to eat my staff meal all the way through. One day, Mr. Kato took me to a restaurant in Aoyama and bought me a cookbook, and told me “It’s okay if you make the same thing every day, but make sure it’s absolutely delicious.” I was able to feel the passion in the strictness of thinking, it pushed me to work harder.
●So, you were welcomed as a member of the team?
A small team of four people with a Michelin star means very meticulous work, and I don’t think there was any other restaurant like it. I think that’s why they wanted me to join and work as part of the team, and that kind of teamwork was something valuable that I had learned during my time at ‘Sublime’.
●Can you recall other moments of teamwork that left an impression on you?
I was once invited to a starred French restaurant in Thailand. We alternated a 15-course meal with the Thai team in a five-star hotel for a dinner party for the local media. It was a great experience to be able to create with a sense of groove as I gave instructions to the Thai chefs.
●Cooking the same food in a different environment must be an interesting experience.
True, when I was in Thailand, it was really difficult. In Japan, you can make a soft boiled egg by soaking it in hot water at 63 degrees Celsius for 25 minutes. But in Thailand even after two hours, it was still not set! It didn’t work even after raising the temperature. Also, the flavor of the kelp broth we prepared just didn’t come through. There were some other issues as well…
●You needed to improvise?
It was a real survival situation. We were required to improvise, and that’s how we learned to adjust to what was available. Eventually, the team broke up and went their separate ways.
●What did you do after the dissolution?
I finally decided it was time to make bread! So I went to ‘Bricolage’ in Roppongi and ‘Vaner’ in Ueno, both of which I liked. But unfortunately, neither of them had any openings.
●What did you do after that?
Mr. Ken Suzuki who was the chef at ‘Bistro Rojiura’, introduced me to Mr. Nishi preparing for the opening of ‘Neki’. Suzuki had taken over Nishi’s job once when he was the chef at ‘Rojiura’, and he told me that Nishi was talented. When I went to Izu to see the works of Mr. Takayuki Watanabe, a ceramicist that Suzuki liked, he told me in the car that he was very jealous that I could work with Nishi and that I should try working with him. Nishi accepted me, and I have been involved with Neki since its inception.
●What was your first impression of Kabutocho?
When I was witnessing the empty space before it was built, I couldn’t imagine people coming to this place. But, like patisserie ‘ease’, we shared a common goal of making this place more exciting. The enthusiasm of everyone to create something together led to more and more stores being built in this area.
●Listening to your story, the way you pursue your favorite things is reminiscent of your father.
When I was a child, regular customers would often say, “This is the best bread your father has ever made,” and I noticed that everyone had different favorites. I think that’s amazing because it means that they are all delicious. The store is most famous for its cutlet sandwiches, but everyone listed other types of bread as their favorites. To have that consistent quality means he has to pursue each one individually.
●How was it actually working at ‘Neki’?
I’m glad that I’m here. When I look back on my life, what I did here will definitely remain an essence of my being. I think Nishi understands this. It’s something that can’t be expressed in words or numbers.
●Do you find anything in common with the atmosphere of ‘Fiore di Farina’, the restaurant you used to visit with your family when you were little?
At ‘Neki’, we provide hospitality in a space that is a collection of Nishi’s favorite things, so it does have a very similar feeling. The interior, architecture, and music in the restaurant are all made up of things he enjoys. It adds another dimension of expression to the food.
●Do you think you chose cooking as a means of expression because you wanted to express this kind of hospitality?
I grew up in an environment that was filled with music and art, and since I loved making things and working with my hands, I decided to make a living from it. Food, music, and art. Food was just the part that I felt most comfortable expressing.
The only thing that was different from music and paintings was that the food I cooked did not remain in any form and could not be delivered without my presence. In the real-life space of a restaurant, you can play your favorite music or have it performed, and everyone can enjoy it when food is at the center of that free space. The people who gather in Kabutocho know how to have fun, so after work, they would unknowingly gather at ‘Human Nature’ and dance together with a glass in their hand.
●What are your goals for the future?
In the immediate future, I would like to live in Scandinavia by the time I am 30 years old. But as for ‘Neki’, I would like to keep the restaurant open so that Nishi can move around more easily since he is also involved in supervising cooking outside of the restaurant. People in Toyama tell me, “You don’t need to go to the trouble of cooking elaborate dishes in Tokyo, the ingredients taste good enough.” I like that, but I also think there is a difference between doing something knowingly and doing it without knowing. I want to return to Toyama someday and create a fun space with food. So to prepare for that, I am learning every day from Nishi and other senior people in Kabutocho. I hope to follow my interests and pursue what I like.
Born in Toyama Prefecture in 1995. Raised by parents who run the bakery ‘Campagne’, he grew up in an environment where the world of art and expression was close at hand, inspiring him from an early age. He devoted his youth to sports, and after graduating from high school, entered the culinary field. After graduating from Tsuji Culinary Institute, he gained experience in starred restaurants of Italian and Scandinavian cuisines while following his own interests in cooking.
Text : Jun Kuramoto
Photo : Naoto Date
Interview : Jun Kuramoto
Neki Sous Chef
Bambolina- The proprietor
Interesting people in Kabutocho
Bambolina- The proprietor
The proprietor of Bambolina, located behind Neki always politely greets me, so I am wondering how the proprietor of a store that has been loved by this town for a long time views Kabutocho now that it has been redeveloped.