YUCa is an entrpreneur and cook who operates the highly reviewed Tokyo based ‘YUCa’s Japanese Cooking’ — a business that offers intimate and highly engaging cooking classes that help introduce the local cuisine.
YUCa, has there been a recent surge in interest in Japanese cuisine from amateur cooks? Or do you think the fascination with Japanese food has always been high and it just depends on fluctuations in media coverage?
YUCa: I think many amateur cooks come to my class these days because they are interested in Japanese food itself, especially ramen and gyoza class.
But in your experience have there been certain events or periods in pop culture that have led to a surge in the number of interested people?
YUCa: Some people join my class to learn how to make character Bento Boxes and sweets. Other people love ramen and gyoza from scratch because ramen restaurants usually don’t [reveal] the secrets of their recipes. I teach home style ramen from scratch. My class is usually very busy in spring — March and April — and summer — July and August. People come to Japan to see cherry blossoms in spring and to enjoy the summer holiday as well.
What was the first dish you found yourself often explaining or repeatedly helping prepare for people you knew? Was it at that point when you realized you had a knack for guiding others through meal preparation?
YUCa: The first dish was Okonomiyaki. This is the Japanese-style savory pancake. At that time, I was living in Toronto for a few years for study and a food writing job. In Toronto, there were no authentic Japanese restaurants [where] I felt at ease. So I always cooked and shared with my housemates. I remember that I enjoyed teaching since then.
Did it frustrate you to see inauthentic Japanese cuisine being passed off as the real deal? Why do you think there were such limited options in a metropolis like Toronto?
YUCa: A little bit [laughs]. I think there was no one who understood authentic Japanese food, especially home meals, and there was no place that people could buy the ingredients at reasonable prices. There were several sushi shops but the owners and chefs were not Japanese. It was more like a fusion of Japanese and Toronto food.
How long did it take you to commit to the idea of starting your own cooking classes? Did you move back to Japan specifically for that purpose?
YUCa: I came back to Japan because my visa expired and all of my family was living in Japan. After coming back, it took three years to start these classes. The big change was when we had a big earthquake in 2011. I was working at a food marketing company then. That day, I felt I [might] die in the office but I survived. Since then, I decided to do what I can do, what I am passionate [about], and what people want. Also, it was important for me to work from home since I hated the commuter train in Tokyo [laughs]. Brain storming for a little bit, I decided to start this business.
When you came up with the idea, what was the local food scene like in terms of other cooking classes? Was there an abundance of similarly styled businesses that forced you to think hard about differentiating your style and format?
YUCa: Yes, before and after the earthquake, Japanese old style food, like fermented food, was so popular at the local scene. We called it Koji — rice mold dishes. We used Koji to make salt or soy based sauce.
What were some things you felt were important to do differently from other cooking class institutions? What type of student did you initially have in mind when designing your classes?
YUCa: The important thing was branding myself. For example, I chose to use my lifestyle with family, two puppies, and my wealth [of] knowledge about healthy eating — macrobiotic, raw, and yakuzen food. From the beginning, my target guests were expats and travelers who liked cooking.
Did it worry you in the beginning to have your life heavily featured in social media? Was your family always on board to help you curate a specific public image or did it take a lot of convincing to give up some of their privacy?
YUCa: No, I didn’t worry at all. Maybe I was hoping to be featured or interviewed a lot at that time. I still think that I need to work harder to be featured more. My husband is always helping me behind the scenes so he appears in the media.
Japan is really just starting to make headway with equitable distribution of household responsibilities. What kind of conversation did you have with your husband about starting your own business full time while you had a young child?
YUCa: My husband and I believe that we should do what we love in our life. Luckily, my husband can work from home so he takes care of my son and puppies while I am working.
Do you remember the highs and lows of the very first couple of classes you taught?
YUCa: At the beginning, it was so hard to [publicize] my class. I went to the international food supermarkets in Tokyo to [distribute] the leaflets about my cooking class. Expat friends living in Tokyo at that time helped me a lot as well. Slowly, word of mouth became the main source of gathering guests. This made me motivated to improve.
Did you notice any trends among the first couple of students that have continued on to this day?
YUCa: The first couple of students were expats living in Tokyo who didn’t know about Japanese home cooking. Those expats brought other guests who were visiting Tokyo for the summer holiday.
Were there certain stereotypes or misconceptions of Japanese cuisine that you knew you would have to tackle within your classes?
YUCa: Oh, there are still some [laughs] — like pouring Miso soup in rice and eating together, [overusing] soy sauce, and using forks and spoons for Miso soup.
Why do you think there’s a tendency to add soy sauce to Asian dishes? What do you teach students about using condiments and sauces?
YUCa: I guess maybe many people like seasoned dishes. We usually don’t make or eat rice without adding salt, vinegar or palm oil. I teach my guests that Japanese people make other flavors by combining foods in the mouth. An iconic food is the Bento Box. So that’s why we don’t use a lot of strong seasonings but enjoying the natural flavor from each ingredient.
What are some simple ways beginner cooks can update their own version of the Bento Box at home?
YUCa: [Use] the dashi soup stock instead of water. Dashi is the base broth. I think if you can cook Japanese food with this soup broth it will change a lot.
You mentioned that you set out to start teaching others in the midst of having a family. Did raising a young child influence your teaching style and the lessons you attempted to impart on students?
YUCa: Yes, I think so. I created leaflets with various illustrations so that students didn’t get bored. Also, in the class, I [keep] students busy by working on their own work. I also try to tell my favorite [expression] to my guests, which is ‘you are what you eat.’ I believe that this also means if you want your family or loved ones to be healthy, you have to be healthy.
Your classes have been highly reviewed and recommended. Now that you’ve established your brand as one of the best cooking classes for tourists, how much longer do you plan to carry on before making any major changes?
YUCa: I think this market is slightly changing. These days many companies come into the cooking class market. So I believe that to create my own brand and to be [the best] is the most important thing. This is one of the reasons why my family bought a new house, renovated the kitchen area for cooking classes, and moved closer to the center of Tokyo. It took about three years to become what we are now. My husband and I still [face] tough challenges every day.
Where do you hope this all ends? How do you hope to have changed Tokyo’s culinary education scene?
YUCa: I hope Japanese food, especially home meals, will be [cooked] as casually as [other] overseas everyday meals — like pasta. I want myself to be the key person in the Japanese home meals scene. My current goal is to publish a cookbook in English.
Seven Things to Know About YUCa
A Japanese cartoon she thinks put local cuisine on the map: Cooking Papa
The most complicated dish she’s ever seen created: Kaiseki cuisine
On three cooking essentials a foreigner should bring to Japan: Understanding raw food, especially, sashimi, sushi and eggs. Using chopsticks — even during cooking. Slurping noodles.
Her favorite place to dine in Japan that’s off the beaten path: Hyotei in Kyoto
The biggest disaster to happen with her cooking classes: Since my husband and I bought this house and moved to a new location, all my previous TripAdvisor reviews were gone. I needed to start from scratch.
On what foodies should skip when sampling the cuisine of Japan: Natto [fermented soybean]
Whether she thinks Japan’s aging population will help or hurt the future of Japanese cuisine: I think it will help because an aging population means what we are eating now is healthy food.