Describe your childhood. “I was raised as the third generation in a traditional Japanese confectionery business and had only eaten those kinds of desserts growing up. When I was in Grade 3, I went to my classmate’s birthday party and he had a strawberry shortcake. It was my first time eating a Western-style cake and I was touched by the flavour and texture. That’s when I decided to become a Western-pastry chef.
“The main difference between Japanese desserts – called wagashi – and Western cakes is that Japanese ones are more dense, so the airiness from the sponge cake of the shortcake had a profound impact on me.”
What happened to the family business? “When I was young, I had a dream of going to my hometown, in Ishikawa prefecture, to learn how to make traditional Japanese confectionery from my father and open two shops – one traditional Japanese confectionery and one Western. But when I was 18 years old, my father’s confectionery business went bankrupt, so I couldn’t fulfil this dream.
“I started joining competitions and taking lessons to become a pastry chef. At 23, I became the youngest-ever winner of a nationwide patisserie competition. These competitions helped me save enough capital to open my first shop – Mont St Clair, in Tokyo, in 1998.”
How did your family cope with the bankruptcy? “My father ran away. We didn’t know where. My mother had to take care of me and my younger brother and sister. She went through a lot when I was young, so now that I’ve grown up, I want her to be able to do whatever she wants. Whenever she wants to go anywhere, I accompany her.
“Around 2005, 15 years after my father disappeared, I found him again. I had started to appear on television shows and radio, so people knew me. One day a hospital received a patient with cancer, but he stated that he was homeless and didn’t have relatives. The police interviewed him and he said that he had worked in a traditional Japanese confectionery shop, giving the name of the shop we used to have. I received a call from the police about him.”
What did you do? “I went with my mother to see father in the hospital. The first sentence my mother said was, ‘You go die!’ After that I met my father a few times, but he rejected my financial support because he felt shame for running away. Eventually he passed away.”
Which do you like making more – cakes or chocolate? “I like both. For chocolate, I can go around the world to see cocoa farms – different countries have different flavours, acidity and texture. When paired with Japanese confectionery techniques, it can have interesting results. In Japan, there are four seasons, each having different fruits and ingredients, and I like to use seasonal products.”
Which country has the best cocoa beans? “Peru, because of the high quality, and Ecuador. To fly from Japan to Ecuador takes 34 hours with flight connections. I’m very tired by the time I get there.”
You have opened schools, one in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, and one in Okinawa. Why? “I want to teach the younger generation the different confectionery-making methods.”
What do you do when you’re not working? “I like to go fishing by myself or with friends. One time I caught a fish that was 1.5 metres long. I also like to go swimming, and snorkelling to collect shells.”