Tokuoka is the grandson of Kitcho founder Yuki Teiichi, from whom he learned the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine. He has been executive chef at KYOTO Kitcho Arashiyama’s flagship Arashiyama restaurant since 1995, and in 2009, became managing director of KYOTO KITCHO Co., Ltd. He was also responsible for the dinner served at the G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit in 2008. He is an honorary director of Japan’s Society of Industry, Culture, and Science, as well as a visiting professor at Tokyo University of Agriculture. He regularly participates in overseas events, while domestically engaging in regional revitalisation activities and initiatives to solve problems in Japan’s primary industries. Having been awarded three stars from the Michelin Guide for twelve years in a row now, Tokuoka is one of Japan’s most esteemed chefs.
First, I’d like to ask what led you to becoming a chef of Japanese cuisine and taking over Kitcho.
My family ran a Japanese restaurant. All my relatives worked in the restaurant business. When I was in high school, I wanted to become a rock musician; naturally, my parents were completely opposed. All of us were too stubborn to back down, and I ended up seeking advice from a Buddhist monk whom all my family respected. He suggested I spend some time at his temple, and so, at the age of 19, I became a trainee monk. After spending a while in training, I began to realise that my dream had a negative effect on the people around me. It didn't feel right, and I came around to think that I wanted to do something that made not just me, but everyone around me happy as well.
Going through that thought process, I gradually warmed up to the idea of a career at Kitcho, the restaurant my grandfather had founded. From the moment I decided to become a chef, I knew I wanted to be one whose creations would have a global appeal. I thought that the surest path to achieving that world-class cuisine would be at Yuki Teiichi’s side, and so I took up the opportunity to work at the flagship Kitcho restaurant in Osaka.
It’s so surprising to hear you once wanted to be a musician. As the third generation of your family to run Kitcho, have you tried to innovate, as well as preserve the traditional ways?
In the beginning, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather and saw firsthand how well-liked he was, and how generous to him people were. I wanted to be just like him. However, I eventually realised that I never could be the man he was.
I came to understand that our restaurant, our customers’ tastes, the ingredients we use, and so on, are things that should, and do, evolve. Back in the days of the bubble economy, everyone was travelling overseas, and that had an influence on the food culture here. Wine parties became a very popular way for people to network and socialise, and that gave birth to a whole new culture. Japanese food culture went through various evolutions throughout the 80's and 90's. I’ve always endeavoured to adapt my cooking to the changes brought by each new decade and social movement. I believe people’s creativity is governed by the depth and breadth of their experience. In order to keep improving, I continue to actively seek out new experiences and input from various sources.
So you preserve what should be preserved while adapting to suit the times. Your dishes are like edible works of art – what inspires them?
I think what drives me to create beautiful dishes might simply be the wish to bring joy to my customers. It takes more than excellent flavor to truly delight customers, the service you provide also plays a significant part – just a few well-chosen words can make all the difference. Both kitchen staff and front-of-house staff have to work in harmony; it takes teamwork to create a space where the customer can enjoy a truly moving experience. In my opinion, it’s nothing short of a miracle when we’re able to elicit that kind of emotional response. Ever since I became executive chef in 1995, I and all the other staff have been devoted to creating the finest, most intense culinary experiences for our customers.
You want to create dishes that are not just delicious, but bring genuine feelings of joy to your customers.
That’s right. I’ve even been seriously considering how I might create dishes that will move them to tears.
People lead such busy lives these days, only able to focus on what’s right in front of them. But only when they come to Tokyo would they be able to walk away from that lifestyle and have the space to breathe and do things at their own pace. In my case, it gave me the time to think about my past, present and future. That relaxed, easy atmosphere is exactly what I strive to maintain in my restaurant. I’m always reminding the staff to make sure the garden is beautifully maintained, and to have calm, friendly manner with the customers.
People’s palates all subtly differ, and their enjoyment of food can depend on the nutrients their body is seeking, and how much of it. A host of other factors such as their upbringing, the surroundings in which they eat, their gender, and their age can all alter their perception of flavor. The ultimate chef is someone who can take all of those factors into account to create the finest possible dish for each customer.
You explained earlier that, along with the unique Kyoto atmosphere, service is an integral part of the stirring dining experience you hope to create. How do you train your employees to provide that service?
All staff employed at management level, from the chefs to the front-of-house staff, attend an MBA course in business administration, and are provided with the necessary facilities for learning. We reward good performance in tests with pay rises, and staff can also complete assignments such as reviewing the literature used in classes. That skill of being able to organise and coherently communicate your thoughts is actually very important in cooking. Completing assignments such as those review papers, or drawing up new business plans, also earns rewards. At the moment, about half of our staff are involved in this programme.
Having all the staff attending business administration classes is really quite unusual. What kinds of opportunities have you had to promote your philosophy overseas? And lastly, is there any message you have for our readers?
I’ve been invited to events across Europe and the United States to participate and give presentations. These events have been a wonderful opportunity for cultural exchange with chefs from all around the world.
I’ve also been collaborating with major Japanese food producers to bring a range of all-natural products to the global market. I want to use the skills and knowledge I’ve accumulated at Kitcho to delight people all around the world, not only those who can afford to frequent high-class restaurants. The challenges brought about by the Coronavirus will be with us for some time, but I firmly believe that no difficulty is insurmountable if people join forces to tackle it together. We need individuals from diverse backgrounds to pool their ideas and create new forms of culture, and new values.
Some aspects of our culture, such as tea ceremony, have stood the test of time for over 500 years. According to Tokuoka, there is good reason for that – indeed, he believes that nothing persists in our culture unless we continue to value it. As an inheritor of traditional Japanese cuisine, he shoulders the responsibility of passing this culture onto future generations. Never one to rest on his laurels, Tokuoka will continue his endeavors to change society’s relationship with food.