"My journey as a chef"

Like many children growing up I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. However that all changed when I was a kid, when my friend told me he would open up a bakery and I told him that I would like to open up a restaurant next to his bakery. Despite never particularly a good student in school, I was fortunate to get into one of the best culinary schools in Japan. My parents refused to help me pay for my schooling, not believing that I could make it as a chef. I was determined and told them that I would do whatever it takes to pay for it myself. Even though I was set on becoming a chef, I soon realized I had a hard time grasping the technical side of things in school, and became disinterested with some of the classes and ended up falling asleep in them. However, when it came to the Japanese cuisine classes, I realized I was always wide awake and took a keen interest in them. I discovered my passion for cooking Japanese cuisine. After graduating culinary school, I was fortunate to find work at one of the highest acclaimed restaurants in Japan. I thought maybe it would be smooth sailing, but as you can imagine this would not be the case.

I soon realized that things would be very difficult after the first day. Four of my coworkers with whom I studied at culinary school with, quit on the very first day of work. It was a tough environment, and most ended up quitting. Very few of us remained. And the ones that remained were mostly relegated to doing menial tasks. I was very fortunate though, since I was one of the few that got transferred to a branch that allowed me to assist with actual work in the kitchen preparing food and not just cleaning. I did do a lot of cleaning too though, and I polished so many pots that my fingerprints just about disappeared. At the time, I had no idea how all of these things would be useful for me. I sometimes had days where all I would do is touch sesame all day, broiling it and straining it. I later came to realize that no ordinary restaurant would spend that much time making sesame tofu. But in order to achieve extraordinary things, you must do things out of the ordinary.

I worked for 14 years in Osaka and Kyoto while pursuing my dream of going solo. I spent all my money regularly going to the best restaurants to learn more and understand what it is that is different about them. The training was tough. However even through all of the hardship, I had little idea of the difficulty to come.

One day while I was working at “Ichijunisai Ueno”, I had thought that my wrist of my right side was a bit strange so I went to the hospital to get it checked out. The doctor brushed it off, and told me that there was some inflammation in my tendon and that it would be fine. Then one day, while I was preparing some fish, I suddenly dropped the knife. I was scared because my wrist and hand seemed paralyzed and I couldn’t even grip the knife. There was definitely something wrong with my wrist, so I talked to the owner that told me he could introduce me to a good doctor, a wrist specialist. I saw the specialist and was given some shocking news. They found that I had contracted a rare disease in my wrist which caused the bone to dissolve. I was in disbelief. They told me “The disease has already reached an advanced stage and you may never be able to grip a knife again. You should forget cooking. With your wrist in the condition it is in, you can never be a chef”. I was heartbroken and in disbelief. My dreams were crushed in an instant with that one sentence uttered to me. If I couldn’t grip a knife, how would I cook?. Cooking was everything to me and I did not know what to do. I decided to consult my master, because I felt he would know best what to do. My master told me “I will take care of you and your salary. It’s okay if you can’t cook, just take phone calls and do other things. For now, just go and get surgery on your wrist.” However, it was really hard to see everyone in the restaurant working so hard, while I was limited to little tasks and could only mostly sit around and do nothing. After lots of thought, I told everyone that I had to quit. I could not contain my emotion, and my eyes started to well up in front of everyone. I was in tears.

I was really fortunate to be around a good environment and wonderful people which enabled me to grow. People such as Hiroshi Sasaki, the Head chef at “Gion Sasaki”, who greatly influenced me, both as a chef and as a man, as well as Norio Ueno of Ichijunisai Ueno who brought me under his wing as a head chef.

After surgery and long rehabilitation, miraculously, my wrist healed. I was able to fulfill my dream, and purpose in life and on the 20th of June 2012, at the age of 32, I opened “Oimatsu Kitagawa”. I will always strive to do my best in order to repay all the people who have supported me. I will also treasure the friendships I have made with the people I have met, and will continue to meet at Oimatsu Kitagwa.


Toru Kitagawa