Creating Joy in Japan with Food A chef maneuvers ingredients, time and space
Born in Tsuruoka, Yamagata in 1969. Owner and chef of Italian restaurant Al-ché-cciano in Tsuruoka (a solo venture in 2000 at age 31) and other restaurants. As the chef and producer of local projects around Japan including in his role as “Goodwill Ambassador for the Food Capital of Shonai”, Okuda has launched several restaurants around the country. He acted as food supervisor for “Japan Night 2012” at the World Economic Forum at Davos, and has presented food demonstrations at international festivals around the globe. He is the winner of many awards including “The First Annual Shizuo Tsuji Gastronomy Award”, “Yamagata Prefecture Industry Award”, and “The Cooking Masters” by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. He lectures around the country and has written several books including his latest, Chihou Kaisei no Recipe.
Masayuki Okuda on “Cooking and Space”
What kind of spaces do you find comfortable?
People who make you comfortable are those who breathe with great “timing”. As an experiment, focus on the breath of someone around you and try altering your own breath so it clashes with theirs. It’s uncomfortable, right?
It’s also important to consider the “territorial” kind of distance between people. The relaxed and comfortable distance that exists among families and close friends is different from the distance with someone you’re meeting for the first time. When you study people’s breathing styles and match your breathing to theirs, keeping the right distance, you’re able to achieve great comfort in the restaurant and the service.
Someone’s “territory” can be measured by the length of the elbows.
Take a sushi counter, for example. They are designed to be twice the length of the elbow. When a sushi chef reaches over the counter to place an item on the customer’s plate, he stretches out his arm and enters the customer’s territory.
He stands at a distance that allows him to hear the customers’ conversations, but his positioning is outside that roped-off area. Sushi chefs seek out the perfect moment in the conversation to enter the customer’s territory with the sushi, which is why their timing is so comforting.
What about in restaurants?
Here at Yamagata San-Dan-Delo, space is limited as we’re part of a prefectural facility, but we still needed to create a certain number of seats. So we ordered custom-made chairs and tables.
The tables are at a height that don’t cause women to have to raise their shoulders when they rest their elbows on the table. The seats allow for good posture where the esophagus is straightened, which allows ten or eleven menu items to go down easily. It’s also the perfect distance to talk deeply about love, should the need arise (laughs).
This will become a comfortable restaurant to visit if the timing of the service is right. I teach the floor staff not just to listen to the customers’ words, but to hear them and understand their surroundings. Pay attention to their breath, the speed and tone in which they speak as well as their gestures, to understand how they’re feeling and what they need in that moment.
We hear you’re planning a new restaurant in Shonai.
The ideal space is one that clears your emotions, and relaxes you before you even know it. You can hear sounds of cooking in the kitchen, and other sounds that signal the passing of time that are not loud or bothersome. We hope to create a space that maintains a natural feel, one in which customers can enjoy the air and atmosphere.
We’re working with architects, sound experts (a KANSEI Project Committee member), and other professionals with a grasp on how to achieve my vision. We’re in the middle of planning now, and haven’t even begun to build the space, yet people are already talking about it. I’m excited to see what happens when we actually open.
Sounds will be recorded in a forest that you frequent. (KANSEI Project Committee Sound Expert).
At the end of last year, we opened a store in Miyajimaguchi, Hiroshima called Miyajima Bocca Al-ché-cciano. It faces the Seto Inland Sea with a view of Itsukushima Shrine, and you can almost hear the roar of the sea.
I was tapped to work on the project, and fell in love with the space instantly. After many twists and turns, we’ve decided it will be under our direct management, which seems like an order from a higher power. We haven’t even put a sign up, and are still getting reservations everyday.
It would be fantastic to record the sounds of the sea. What does kansei (sensibilities) mean to you?
When I began training as a chef, I remember the olive oils I tasted weren’t very good. Only blended olive oils were available to me then. And though I’d never tasted it, I had a vision of my ideal olive oil, somewhere in the far future. And at 32 years old, I finally found the olive oil that made me say, “This is it!” Which happens to be when Al-ché-cciano became popular.
It’s similar to running a full marathon. Depending on whether you have a clear vision of the goal in your mind, your time will change at the 10-kilometer, 20-kilometer mark. The same goes with training to become a chef. I’ve always had a clear vision of the ideal chef in my mind, and have gotten one step closer with every task I accomplish.
Currently, I’m aiming to reach my goals with people whose sensibilities I share, keeping myself in shape and my ideals high.