Hideaki Matsuo - Born in Osaka, Matsuo graduated from Department of Physics, Faculty of Science of Kwansei Gakuin University. After training at the famous ryotei restaurant Shofuku in Shiga Prefecture, he returned to his family’s Japanese restaurant, Kashiwaya, and became head chef there in 1992. Kashiwaya has held three Michelin stars for 1years in a row, since 2011 until 2021. In 2015, Matsuo opened a new branch of the restaurant in Hong Kong’s Central district. He is a member of Relais & Château, an international association of top restaurant and hotel owners. He has also won silver and bronze prizes at the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ Culinary Masters Awards.
First, I’d like to ask what made you want to become a chef of Japanese cuisine.
It was an encounter with tea ceremony when I was 20 years old; that was when I made it my life’s goal to become a chef. Every aspect of the tea ceremony, from the utensils, furnishings, and calligraphy used to decorate the room, to the architecture of the room itself and the garden outside, is carefully considered by the host, simply so their guest can enjoy a simple cup of tea. It was the wish to express the philosophy of the tea ceremony through Japanese cuisine that started me down the path to becoming a chef.
Taking a look back at your early life, I see you graduated university with a physics degree. Have you found ways to apply your knowledge of science in the kitchen?
The study of physics is a means for human beings to make sense of natural phenomena by formulating logical explanations. Japanese cuisine, meanwhile, expresses the changes in nature that we observe throughout the seasons. The means of expression is different, but both physics and Japanese cuisine are about interpreting the natural world, so in that sense I do feel that my knowledge of physics is useful.
That’s a very interesting way to look at it. Even though the methods are completely different, they’re both ways of interpreting and expressing natural phenomena. For our overseas readers, could you explain how your customers can experience traditional Japanese culture while enjoying their meal?
At my restaurant, customers dine in their own specially prepared private room. We ascertain their preferences when they book, tailoring the menu and the ambience of the room accordingly. I believe offering that kind of hospitality is the purpose of a ryotei restaurant like Kashiwaya. Accents like the paintings or calligraphy displayed in the tokonoma alcove, and the ceramic tableware, give customers a taste of traditional Japanese culture.
Relais & Châteaux is an international association of top-class hoteliers and restaurateurs. Tell me about your involvement with it
It’s been about ten years since I joined. I was interested in how chefs in Europe were doing things and was keen to speak with them directly; that was why I decided to become a member. Participating hotel and restaurant owners can email each other with invitations to collaborative events. This arrangement has allowed me to travel to around ten countries across Europe, America, and Asia. When I became a chef in 1986, the biggest influencers in the food world were figures like Paul Bocuse and Alain Chapel. The opportunities to meet celebrated chefs like them have been a wonderful, definitely the most rewarding part of being a member of Relais & Châteaux, as far as I’m concerned.
That really is wonderful. Speaking of global organisations, in 2013, UNESCO recognised Japanese cuisine as an intangible cultural heritage. It seems the whole world now acknowledges the value of Japanese food culture.
At the collaborative events I mentioned, I’ve had opportunities to dip into the food cultures of many different countries, but I honestly believe there are very few who can offer such a range of world cuisines at the level of quality Japan does. Eating establishments in Japan run the full gamut, from the casual to the high-end, of course, but they all offer a high-standard of cuisine, with efficient, well-organised work practices.
That doesn’t go only for restaurants, but producers too; they take great care to ship only the most perfectly in-season produce to market. Overseas, I’ve often seen unripe and overripe produce at market, but that doesn’t happen much in Japan. Quality is not only consistent, but consistently high, and I believe that’s reflected in the high standards of Japanese cuisine.
So we should not only thank restaurants, but also the producers for maintaining the excellent quality of Japanese cuisine. At your restaurant, what steps do you take to keep your employees motivated?
At my Osaka restaurant, the dining rooms and kitchen are separate, so chefs don’t interact with customers face-to-face. This makes teamwork with the serving staff extremely important; in order to give the customer the best possible experience, everyone has to be on the same page. Teamwork is
absolutely crucial. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer young people aspiring to a career in Japanese cuisine. I think Western cuisine simply has a more appealing image these days. It’s up to us to redress the situation and create attractive workplaces that will draw in young talent.
Lastly, do you have a message for our readers? What are your ambitions at this point in time?
Relais & Châteaux has spoken in strong terms about Japan’s rather laissez-faire attitude regarding its use of marine resources. Responsible management of these resources is a key point in the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Marine resources are coming under intense strain all around the world; it’s an issue that we in island countries like Japan, where they are abundant, need to be aware of.
There’s a strong perception among Japanese people that wild-caught fish is best, but I think that could change if we showcased farmed fish in cuisine that would let its flavor shine. Delicious fish would come to be associated with particular producers, just the same way vegetables are. With these issues in mind, I started a study group with my fellow Japanese cuisine chefs in the Osaka area. I want people in Europe to see that Japan is also taking the problem of our dwindling marine resources seriously.
Matsuo’s study of the tea ceremony led him to regard it as a quintessential symbol of Japanese culture. I found the story of this chef striving to express that culture through food so inspiring; it reads just like a beautiful waka poem. Matsuo deeply treasures the connections he’s made with the people around him, ever keen to exchange knowledge with his fellow top chefs, and support and nurture his young employees. He also doesn't shy away from facing global problems, such as the decline in marine resources and the difficulties created by the Coronavirus. It is this willingness to go above and beyond his role as a chef that has forged him many long and trusting relationships with people from across the world.