10 years spent in Italy, eight in Venice. A Japanese trained chef made this choice because got in love with Italian flavors and kitchen.
A very hard path which has been totally self-made by starting with an Italian language course and without any previous experience of the country. Italy has been Masahiro’s first experience abroad and the first big move from his country.
Oh yes, this is a true, gigantic love story. Between a young man and a culture which is not his own one.
Your life: where does it start? How do you arrive on this world, where did you live and what brings you to choose what you did?
I was born in Japan, in a city called Okayama. It is a small town, there is mostly nothing there. But we’ve the sea and the mountains. Our town is well knowns for the very good fisheries: we use to have oysters, octopuses, canoce (the squillas, but he refers to them using the Venetian noun), also the schie as the Venetian ones (baby little shrimps). My mum and my dad were owning a little bar, to let you understand the kind of I should mention the sake bars: it’s a place where you can ate small fresh foods cooked everyday according to what there is on the market.
I was of course loving food and loving eating, so I moved on the idea to start to learn cooking.
How old are you? Do you have brothers and sisters?
35. One brother and one sister, both older than me.
My brother works for Hitachi in Tokyo and so when I return there he always invite me to dine in lots of places, by offering the meal (he smiles!).
Japan, and Tokyo in particular, is the place in the world where there are the majority of restaurants and chefs rated with many Michelin Stars…
Yes, it is true.
Further the stars and the awarded chefs, I found really the biggest quality and care in Japan: in everything. Also in the small bar close to my place in Tokyo where an old lady was brewing the best filtered coffee I ever had even if I was there to mainly discover teas.
Are you the only one in your family to follow the passion for cooking?
I was thinking to take the place of my parents, once retired, in the little bar but after high school I enrolled in the chefs school that in Japan is lasting two years. In this we’re a little different from Italy.
After the school I immediately got a job in a restaurant. I started first with Japanese cooking style for every recipe (fish, meat, pastries). We learn everything even if also in our schools you can choose a field, for instance raw fish or tempura. I learned from raw fish to risotto.
You do know of course that you can make a huge amount of money by opening a good sushi bar in Venice (that still lacks here), did you ever think to that?
Yes, but unfortunately I got in love with Italian recipes…
When I was in Tuscany, when I was just arrived here in Italy, I got in love with cow guts in a sandwich dressed with green sauce (it has a Piedmont origin but the Tuscan variation is also enriched of chilly pepper, so it is a bit hot: parsley, salt, anchovies, garlic, capers, vinegar). I was eating this every day.
Japanese people love very robust meat dishes…it is maybe because of their cold climate…
It is not colder than here: Japan and Italy are almost on the same latitude so for instance we can source the same fish (it changes accordingly to the kind of seabed, of course). What differs is the way we treat fish. Eery restaurant in Japan put fishes still alive in big tanks, the chefs are killing them once the clients pick what they like.
Regarding meat, our two cultures are very similar. Also in Japan we eat everything of any animal, included nose, head, paws and guts.
After two year being enrolled at the chefs school and after the four years working for Japanese restaurants in your country…
I was understanding that I was in love with pasta!
Every day I was free from my job, usually the Sundays, I was always going to eat Italian food…and at the end I ended working in an Italian restaurant. I worked in Kobe, in my native town and in Hiroshima.
Then I struggled to really learn Italian cuisine where it originates. So here.
I traveled from Japan to Florence: I was not speaking Italian so subscribed a language course (his Italian is very fluent, sometimes he has traces of Tuscan and Venetian dialects). I learned all what I could in two months given I was speaking a very poor English and my Italian before starting to study it was at the level of buongiorno/buonasera, grazie, ciao. I rented a room in a lady’s house, when she explained me about the washing machine I didn’t understand a word so I kept hand washing my clothes for two months, too scared to ruin the appliance for a misuse.
I was not even able to understand how to take the buses and so I was used to walk back and forward from the school, each time 5 km.
I was at that time 26: Italy has been my first foreign destination and I was also very scared from strangers. I was still a smoker in those years; in Japan nobody happens to ask for a sigarette in the street while, now I learned that, everyone does here but at my arrival I could not imagine it.
Once arrived at the train station a man, maybe he was homeless, asked me a cigarette by holding his hand close to me. I was thinking he was not feeling well so I gave him two packets of my cigarettes, after him another comes and then another and another…After many boxes gone, I learned how to tell them ‘sigaretta finita’.
After one month attending the Italian language course, I tried to find a job: I knocked at many doors, I wrote on a piece of paper I wanted to work. I firstly found a job in a bar without a chef or a kitchen, I was working almost for free – the owner was a very nice Moroccan guy. When they were asking me to buy aubergines, I was coming back with bananas because I was still have problems with the language. So, I started from scratch even if I was having a huge qualification in my country as a chef.
Today the Japanese learners attending the same school have a better life: they can be also introduced to some restaurants. Ten years ago they’re not so well organized and so many of us had keeping knocking at many doors…
Which were your strategies to select the restaurants to pitch for a job? Were you relying on others’ reviews?
Nothing at all. I was just dressing myself of braveness and went there. I was neither studying which were the most famous before. I just did all my best to arrive here.
Which was the restaurant of your dreams where you would have loved to work in Florence?
I was knowing the Enoteca Pinchiorri, 3 Michelin stars, one of the most expensive in Italy (a tasting menu is costing 350 euro).
The wine list, especially the red ones, is a book tick as the yellow pages. 150 pages. The white wines list is of 80 pages, the bubbles is of 50 and also the list of mineral waters is quite long.
I have been to eat there only once and alone. When I go to any starred restaurant I go alone because I have to be concentrated. I go there as to study and I also pay a lot of money so I have to maximize my investment. When you go to eat alone somewhere, they understand you’re a chef and maybe the waiters start to speak with you. If there is maybe a Japanese one working there, they could introduce me to to the kitchen staff after my meal and I can try to become a little friend. That’s why I prefer to go alone.
I never imagined the cuisine world is so democratic. So you went at Pinchiorri by hoping to find a job there…
Unfortunately they were full: anyone from the world sends resume to work there. I indeed succeeded to work in another famous Tuscan restaurant, 10 years ago they’re awarded with one Michelin star. Called Tenda Rossa, it was located 15 km from Florence, on the street toward Siena. It was located in a very small village where there is nothing but it, a small supermarket and a small bar. It is very well know and is run by a family: the uncle is the owner, the aunt is the main chef, her son is the pastries maker, the sister-in-law is heading the first courses, the grandmother washes the dishes. I was renting a room upstairs. I was there one year and half. Their cuisine can be defined creative Florentine: further the famous steak, they were serving fried brain with fried artichokes, an entire roasted lamb, the lamb risotto. Also fish, sometimes. Tuscany is a land for meat. It has been a great experience, it is another culture.
Is the wine list a very important ‘territory’ on which to work equally as the food list?
It is crucial. If there is not a sommelier in the place where I work, I usually organize also the wine list. Also where I work now (Enoteca ai’ Artisti) there was the 80% of wines fashionable for tourists before and a 20% of fashionable orange ones. Now there is the 50/60% of natural wines which are out of any fashion. I love to match natural choices: from the caught fish to the bio vegetables, whole flours and biological polenta, to the salad sourced only in Sant’Erasmo. So forth, also wine has to be submitted to this rule. I love that people feel well and healthy, even better than when they entered in my restaurant. I wish this also for myself, how I cannot wish it for anyone sitting at my table?
How do you succeed to push on the choice of natural wines? It is not so easy today…
I do not say that any client has to choose natural wines, I just suggest them to anyone as I suggest to them the natural meals then the final choice is up to them. Today there are so many intolerances and allergies from the food to do not even mention the very varied dietary requirements included the vegan…
The client pays and so everything is of his choice: while I thank them to have preferred myself and not others, I want to give them back a gift made of a special philosophy which aims to their wellbeing.
What about your jobs after Tenda Rossa?
I was almost screwed, I ended all my savings from the Japanese jobs. I was an intern at Tenda Rossa, so I moved to work in a small osteria downtown Florence, Bocca Negra, which was more about quantity than quality: one kitchen serving three lines (pizzeria, osteria, restaurant). We were there to make high figures but the colleagues, all young, were fantastic. I was really missing the human touch in the previous small village and so also the use of the Italian language even if I learned impressively how to cook outstanding Italian high cuisine. So, once at Bocca Negra, I finally got paid and had a good use of the Italian because we’re used to hang out also after work or in the Sundays when we often organized picnics or went to fish on the river.
Those colleagues were not all Italian, there were German, Moroccan and Brits as I recall…
I read newspapers and books but I am still unable to write in Italian.
And what about the fact that we speak in dialects here?
At the very beginning I had many problems in Veneto.
Given I learned my Italian in Tuscany where the dialect is very similar, I struggled here. And I struggled also in Sicily, where I was briefly working in Taormina. Then I was also in Milan and Bologna.
If I was not finding a job in Venice eight years ago, I had maybe loved to settle in Emilia Romagna: in Bologna and Parma especially. They meant to me the very Italy, landscape-wise.
Once in Venice, I firstly worked at Oliva Nera which is close to the restaurant Remigio at Croce di Malta, Sant’Antonin area. The first times I was having groceries at Rialto Market I was understanding zero words when they talked to me, starting from how they’re pronouncing the week days (Lune, Marte, Venere…he enunciated them to me in a perfect Venetian slang!).
How many clients of yours – or in general people affirming with you to love cooking, not only Japanese or Italian – do understand that you start cooking fish when you’re in the market to buy it?
Japanese people are very good in choosing fish. It is not just a matter of family education, for instance in our country also the school teaches a lot. Kids in our primary schools start to clean, prepare and serve the food and also to wrap up everyday and this does include also the classroom and their toilets (since they are starting their classes). Then the family members – from the grannies to the aunties or uncles – tell them always their traditions.
Convenience stores or the MacDonalds and also the availability of junk food at any time of the day are the real responsible of the destruction of the food culture. When we’re kids, beside the tradition (or beside families and schools which, I see, are very different according to the countries) we’d to respect the timetable of meals and being respectful also of the food served in the dishes, it has to be always finished. I am sad today to see that youngsters are loosing these values.
Lots of clients are ignorant. Maybe their parent did not teach them enough…we so are in charge to teach the food culture. And to trust less the supermarkets where food is already cooked and packed: we must go more to have groceries into markets and to improvise with what we find and once more when we’re at home with our errands.
I started to learn from my parents and I am still learning.
Let’s come back to Venice which is now your elective city since 8 years, what do you think to give to it as a dweller and what do you think to get back from it?
I think that Venice is changing a lot, it needs an urgent effort to keep its real culture alive. When I arrived in town, there were a lot of traditional bars and restaurants and some of them now just turned to be the nth Burger King. I also regret a lot that behind San Marco square there is a wide Chinatown on the places one time being such nice osterias. The restaurants here were in general offering an array of old and local recipes now they’re all leveled to offer the same touristic menu. Who is still cooking the go risotto (it is a fish risotto made from the ghiozzo, fishes liking to rest in the sand)?
For instance myself: I cook it at home!
According to me there must be a way to preserve such a culture. We don’t have to sell all the bars to the Chinese people, some rules should be restrictive otherwise we will land in Chinatown and not in Venice. I, for instance, like the Venetian culture and I often browse old recipes to cook here and there. As a citizen I try to keep it alive with my humble work. What do I get back from Venice? I do not know, it is still very hard for me to reply to this question.
If you would have asked me, for instance I would have love to have back more culture not only that imported by the exhibits and by the Biennali. I also miss music, the local bands on a regular basis and places for live acts…what do you think about it?
I always think is crucial to keep the local culture alive, to make a city for dwellers and not for tourists. All the young Venetian and in general the young Italians give up and leave: I understand them, it’s hard to dwell here, there are lots of taxes and the work is not enough, the rents are very expensive and houses are not enough…Everyone rents for tourists, I know that you gain more money in this way but there must be a law to protect Italians here!
When you’re not cooking for the clients or for guests and friends, what do you like to eat and drink?
Japanese food. I love yakitori (grilled chicken sticks). In Japan you can choose which part of the chicken you like: leg, breast, heart, buts…I love the leg or the neck which is very gummy to chew and release lots of different flavors. If in the near future I could choose to own my restaurant here, I would only cook traditional food…
Since I am here I just drink wine because my taste is changed. I eat pasta and Italian food everyday so I drink wine. Yes, also sake can be good with but wine is better. I am a very good wine drinker. And for breakfast I love brioche and a bitter coffee (I am very passioned, and only drink, Caffè Giamaica, which is possible to find in a few bars here in Venice: at Quadri of Alajmo family with whom I worked, at Aciugheta, at restaurant la Cantina on Strada Nuova). This roast is special, it is paired with its own coffe machine and sometimes a guy from Verona comes to check if the bartender is preparing it properly and if everything works well. It is an excellent espresso and has to be tasted sugarless of course, as any espresso should be, it cleans all your mouth. It is not expensive, it costs as the other coffees from 1 to 1.20 euro.
Since when do you work at Enoteca Ai Artisti?
Two fantastic years. I will end in April and then I will open a place of mine thanks to some investors, it will be located just before reaching the very good Osteria la Zucca where I often eat as you, close to San Giacomo all’Orio (San Stae).
It will be an Italian restaurant with a Japanese philosophy and will open between April and May.
We will be working in a very old ‘case’: once upon a time there was an affumicatore (a place where to smoke fish and meat) and there was also an osteria.
For the moment we will be not serving sushi. What is the kind of cooking style I will imprint there? Mushroom cream with browned squids dirtied with a powder made of algae and dried seeds. Do you know tempura? We are always serving a side bowl with dashi or soy sauce but there if I will cook a canoce tempura I will add a bowl with a brooth made of their biscuits. I would love to experiment also with cold small spaghetti as a soba.
We still have to name it and is still under construction. I would love to name it osteria al fumo or dei chiodi, given the ceiling is still full of all the screws to hang the food to smoke. The place beside it, which we took as well, was called Osteria ai Foresti and was also older than 100 years.
It’s nearly impossible to buy a restaurant here, the license of ‘osteria con canna fumaria’ is the most expensive. I’d dreamt longtime to open my place but I did not succeed until I found an investor who is working in the tourism sector and called me to make a restaurant together. He is not a chef but he is in love with restaurants and is very skilled.
Which is your music and the books you love?
When I was young I was a bit weird and tasted all the possible colors on my hairs, plus I was having a punk band. I listen to any kind of music, also Italian: for instance I love Battisti, De Andrè, Mina, Tenco, Gaetano…
When it comes to books, I do not have enough time to read other books than kitchen manuals. If I have time, I love to watch movies and I like Benigni!
A talent you have, the one you miss
I love arts, I love to paint and to draw. I wanted for a while to study arts. I do not really draw but in some ways I can say I do draw thanks to my job: I draw with sauces and their colors and with the colors of the food I use in my recipes. For that I study and go to museums to see works then I reproduce them on the dishes and not on a piece of paper or a canvas.
I would love to start rowing (Venetian style) but I lack the time for it. I usually work from 9 am to 11 pm, we have one hour and half of pause. On the evenings, when I finish working, all my friends call me to go to drink and so given that I’m not very young anymore I can’t wake up too early to row!
Where do you see yourself in ten years from now?
I think I will be returned in Japan, if everything goes well. Maybe after: in fifteen, 20 years.
Do you like to see other places in Europe? Do you get any interest for the cooking styles or the traditions of very rooted countries as France or Spain for instance?
Every two years I go to study and to have a vacation in France, I love Paris where I have lots of friends of many nationalities working in town: I go to visit them and also to eat everyday in a different restaurant, for the lunch and for the dinner. I love all the French styles, patisserie included (I love to prepare desserts).
So, do you think Italian cheeses are better than the Italian?
Unfortunately yes, and the wines also…But pasta, pasta beats everything. Pasta is Italy.
I believe that in Paris is more affordable to eat in high level restaurants and this is possible also in other Italian cities but is not more possible in Venice – which is outrageously out of scale!
What did you learn so far in your life?
I saw another life. I therefore learned another life. We, in Japan, live only for the work. The most important priorities for us are: work, family, money. If there is no work there is no family and no money. Here in Italy the top priority is family, then there is love, then there is work. Until I was 26 I was as the other Japanese, I was just living to work. I then learned of things like holidays. Along one year of work in Japan I had only four days of annual leave and we work six days on seven but sometimes, it happened to me in the hotel I was working for, 28 days on 30 (from breakfast to lunch to dinner for every shift, all day long).
When I came here, I learned that there is also another life: you can stay with your loved one, with your family. So, that life is not only work.
The Masahiro’s picture is from Franco Grossi, another person of this world we interviewed: he suggested us to meet and interview Masahiro. If you lost Franco’s story and his poem, you have another possibility to read them!