Don’t over-think. Do what I can for now, diligently. Innovation is born from the cumulation of day-to-day activities.
Koizumi Kouji, the owner and chef of Koharu
There’s only one restaurant that got promoted from two Michelin stars to three Michelin stars in the 2016 Tokyo Michelin guide (end of December, 2015). That restaurant is Kagurazaka’s Japanese restaurant, ‘Kohaku’. The head chef, Koji Koizumi was trained under the head of Kagurazaka’s ‘Ishikawa’, Hideki Ishikawa, since the restaurants founding. In 2008, in connection to Ishikawa moving, he took the position of head chef in the newly established ‘Kohaku’.
Currently, he is 36. He is the youngest active individual in the country to receive three Michelin stars. Working as a member of ‘Ichiryusankodo’, the representative company of Mr. Ishikawa, Mr. Koizumi is also revered as an older brother to the staff members of Ishikawa and its sister restaurant ‘Ren’. I took the chance to ask him about his outlook on work.
He entered culinary school, lured by a friend. At first, he couldn’t even crack an egg.
After graduating from high school, you entered a culinary school in Tokyo, right? Did you always have an interest in cooking?
Not at all. A high school friend was going to take a tour of the school, so I tagged along. On a whim, I also decided to enroll. I couldn’t even crack an egg when we were practicing cooking in the trial enrollment session.
Why did you major in Japanese Cooking?
I’m Japanese, so I thought that Japanese cooking would be a good choice. Initially, I hadn’t thought about anything. I had never eaten in any so-called high-end restaurants and I didn’t know anything about flavors. I just wanted to do a job where I could master the skills and put them into practice.
Where was your first training after graduating?
It was ‘Okazaki’, a Japanese restaurant in Yaesu. At that time, it was four years before Ishikawa’s opening and Mr. Ishikawa was the head chef. The vocational school’s teacher-in-charge used work in the same place as Mr. Ishikawa, and I got introduced through him.
Was your training tough?
Because it’s the same everywhere, I didn’t really feel that it was so tough. My desire to master the skills quickly, to learn how to slice sashimi, and deal with various types of food was stronger.
From your words, it seems that by the time you had started your apprenticeship, you had taken up the attitude of a professional. Did you discover the charm of Japanese cuisine in vocational school?
‘As I have decided to live as a chef, rather than thinking too much, I have to put my heart into learning.’ That was my frame of mind when I was a student. When I started my apprenticeship, rather than feeling like I want to focus on Japanese cuisine because I was interested in it, I wanted to do something that made a positive contribution to the customers and the people involved with the restaurant. I began to feel the charm of Japanese cooking after I started working on-site. Even now, I’m continuing to discover its charm everyday.
Moved by the master’s passion, he became one of the starting members of Ishikawa
When you were in Okazaki, was Mr. Ishikawa like a reliable older brother figure to you?
He’s a head chef who’s 15 years older than me. Rather than a senior figure, master (Mr Ishikawa) is more of a teacher to me. The chefs of Okazaki were Mr. Ishikawa, me and one more person. As a rookie right out of school, being able to see Mr. Ishikawa in action from up-close was fantastic.
Which part was fantastic?
He has a passionate soul. He had a strong attitude, and refused to compromise the food in any way. That’s passion, isn’t it? He has an attitude where he will execute things the best way possible to make the customers happy. For example, he was very strict about ingredients. Even now, if the dish is even a little imperfect, he’ll clearly tell the vendor, ‘we can’t use this’. This way, because the vendors also have pride, the next time they would properly bring products according to the standards of the restaurant. At that time, Mr. Ishikiwa will thank them and tell them how pleased the customer was. This acts as a positive stimulus, and it was the same for me. I think Ishikawa or Kohaku is a cumulated result of that. Also, usually, when you stand in the kitchen, it’s common to end up using standard ingredients every time. However, Mr. Ishikawa put into practice the idea of purchasing various ingredients everyday. I was also positively influenced by the fact that he thinks outside of the box.
You seem to have learned a lot from Mr. Ishikawa.
Actually, he doesn’t teach much (laughs). At least, in my time, he didn’t spoon-feed his apprentices. Of course, if you asked him something, he would teach you, but generally, he entrusted you and let you figure it out. Being entrusted, it meant that he had put his faith in me and I needed to do something beyond his expectations.
Did Mr. Ishikawa seek any advice from you before opening Ishikawa?
Well, he didn’t particularly ask for any advice, but we did talk a lot. We’d go out for drinks occasionally and talk about our future dreams. We’d discuss about opening a restaurant, or exchange ideas about food, utensils or service. We’d talk about reaching out to the world and get excited imagining our ideal scenarios. Without even the prospect of opening a shop, we’d even discuss things like what to do if the media shows up, and say things like, ‘well, the kitchen comes first, so we have to decline because filming takes time’ (laughs). Those were fun times.
It seems that after Ishikawa first opened, there was a tough period with barely any customers going there.
I didn’t talk to Mr. Ishikawa about management, but I understood that we were going through tough times. I always wondered what I could do. We made a natural habit of having meetings to discuss what to do to bring customers in. Knowing that we have to make the customers happy when the come, we even did reception simulations with the two us. There were even days with no customers coming in at all. We were really happy on days when the restaurant was full. I never want to forget that joy and have engraved it in my mind.