GINZA KOJYU x GINZA OKUDA x Le SUSHI OKUDA
Toru Okuda is the head chef of Kojyu in Ginza, and he strives to spread the word of “Washoku” (Japanese cuisine), that has been recognised as a world heritage. We were given the opportunity to talk with him about the world view of the exquisite Washoku, and how its dignity is perceived in France, the land of the gourmand, as well as his approach to cooking and his passion for sharing culinary culture.
Betting on the Possibilities of Life
When he was in junior high school, Okuda dreamed of being a primary school teacher. “I wanted to rebel against the academic meritocracy that based importance solely on study.” He explained. "I believe every child should have access to 'endless possibilities'." It was this strong belief that sowed the seeds of Okuda's initial goal to become a teacher.
However, when he entered secondary school, he found himself up against a major setback: he couldn't understand what he was studying at all. Instead, he decided to turn his thoughts towards the future, which is where he came across "the world of cooking." "The more I cooked, the more I felt like the world of cooking was mine, and that it had all this hidden potential." Okuda says. “I’m really no good with my hands. Art, technology, and creating things had always been my weak point. But in life there are challenges we must overcome! It’s precisely this perseverance that I wanted to show through my work.” At only 16 years old, this vision was already clear in Okuda’s mind.
Alongside Okuda’s strong desire to fight back against the academic meritocracy, he also says: “I wanted to become a man able to talk with anyone as their equal. That includes those who were lucky enough to breeze through life, as well as those who had worked tirelessly and studied hard to get a good job. Although I got frustrated with my studies, I never once thought that made me inferior.” Okuda took that passion and used it as his drive to succeed in the world of cooking. He thus set foot on the rigorous path of the Japanese cook.
The World Seen Through "Japanese Cuisine"
After his rigorous training, it was at the age of 29 that Okuda became independent at a restaurant called "Hanamikoji" in his hometown of Shizuoka. He started out with an izakaya where you could eat and drink for 5,000 yen. Their reputation spread in the blink of an eye, to the point where no seats were left empty, and every day was a great success. Incredibly, there were customers unable to visit for many years because they were unable to secure reservations. Following this success, Okuda couldn't possibly give up on his dream. That dream was to "open a fully-fledged Kaiseki restaurant, making full use of the skills from [his] training". At the age of 33, he followed that dream, and decided to open "Ginza Kojyu," which is still famous to this day. He tells us that when he first opened the store, "There were almost no customers for the first two or three months," and says that he couldn't have even imagined being awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide four years down the road.
When the Michelin Guide made its debut in Japan, Okuda, who was 37 years old at the time, was informed that "Ginza Kojyu" had been awarded three stars. Looking back on that time, Okuda says "I thought to myself 'How did my restaurant get three stars...' That feeling, and my own personal mission to spread the word about Japanese cuisine, is what drove me forwards. But at the same time, I felt a strong sense that there was an impending crisis on our hands: the future decline of Japanese cuisine, along with its traditions and culture. I worried about this future decline because in Japan, it had become the norm for things from overseas to be the focus of cooking magazines and articles. Young Japanese cooks were particularly enamoured by international cuisine such as French, Italian, Western confectionery, and the art of the wine sommelier. I was deeply concerned that the wonderful things about Japan would gradually fall into decline if we didn’t do anything about it. I felt that if we were to introduce Japan’s cuisine and culture abroad, it could open up a new road of possibilities." Inspired by the prestigious award of his three Michelin stars, Okuda was led straight to the homeland of the Michelin Guide: Paris, France.
The Road to "World Cuisine"
On his trip to France, Okuda had one goal: "To create an authentic Japanese restaurant in Paris, the city of gastronomy and art." For Okuda, this goal was not spurred on simply by his own success, but rather to "Broaden the horizons of Japanese cuisine that should be considered a part of 'world cuisine', and lead the way for future generations." He held a whole-hearted devotion to this mission. Okuda believed that Japanese food could become 'world cuisine' if authentically delicious Japanese food could be made with ingredients outside of Japan. "If we didn’t compete on the same playing field as French cuisine, no-one would take Japanese cuisine seriously. So, if we could get people in France interested in Japanese food, we would also have the chance to show just how wonderful Japan’s other traditions and culture are too." And his belief grew stronger and stronger.
"First off, I wanted to bring true Japanese architecture abroad. With Japanese architecture, you can really feel the splendour of Japan's traditional sense of aesthetic that has been cultivated over so many years." With timber and designers that aren't from Japan, it ends up becoming more a part of Japonism than something truly Japanese. Okuda tells us that therefore, he set out to build a full-scale restaurant with Japanese timber, Japanese designers, and Japanese craftsmen. He even carefully brought Japanese bowls and crockery to Paris of his own accord. "The most important part is the people. The staff decided to bring in a chef who had spent many years mastering Japanese cuisine. And of course, I continued to hunt down quality ingredients." It's not hard to imagine how Okuda was convinced of the "endless possibilities" not only in life but also in Japanese cuisine.
Taking the Lead in "Ikejime" in France
These days, even in France, the practice is now so well-known that it’s not uncommon to see "Ikejime" on a menu at a restaurant. But when Okuda first visited France, there was no such culture. "In Japan, the more people that are involved, the more people think about the subtleties of the ingredients. I want these things that Japanese people do automatically to become more well-known throughout the world. If we can change this, then the world's food scene will change too." Okuda brought new life to French ingredients through Japanese cuisine by holding several ikejime workshops and inviting chefs and fishmongers alike to take part.
Until then, the main reason ikejime was not practiced in France was because of the idea that "damaged goods can't be sold." Okuda worked against this conception and tried his best to explain just how high quality ikejime could be. "I kept saying that it's really important to get rid of the blood. But it was quite a challenge, because such a simple thing was just not getting across." He says, adding: "Throughout the world, nothing can begin unless someone is there to switch it from 0 to 1. Because of my personality, I had no desire to step in the footprints left behind by someone else." But despite coming up against such challenges, Okuda’s willpower is to be admired, because he simply didn’t give up.
“By using the freshest fish, I believe that other cuisines could be made simpler, yet even more delicious. Using simple ingredients allows you to truly experience the flavours and the turn of the seasons. Butter, cream, oil, seasonings, and herbs are all structured completely differently, and I think there are plenty more possibilities to be discovered in all sorts of cuisines." By traversing the boundaries of what it is to be a "Japanese chef" in this way, Okuda has achieved a great feat that he can wear as a badge of honour.
"Looking at what I have achieved overseas, I want young people to travel around the world to instil the wonders of Japanese food culture into the hearts of others."
Toru Okuda has independently opened an entirely new pathway full of possibilities to bring Japanese cuisine to the world. Okuda's guidance is etched into history, alongside his passion for Japanese culture, traditions, and cuisine that the nation should be proud of. That unwavering spirit will live on, come what may.
5-4-8-4F, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo