Food

Mar 2016
Interview 01

Life and Work Based Around Food (1/2)

In Kobe, I never lose track of where I am.

From left: Daisuke Kimura, owner of Beyond Coffee Roasters; Junpei Tsuge, chef of Brasserie L’Ardoise; Miho Ando, food coordinator at Marmelo and Neighbor Food; Hirofumi Ando, owner of Jeroboam wine&spirits

Kobe is a city nestled between the mountains and the ocean, and its Chuo Ward is a bustling district in the center of that narrow area that attracts many people. If you walk from there towards the ocean, you will find retro buildings and stores that evoke memories of old-downtown scattered here and there, the heritage of Kobe’s history as a port town. The area has a nostalgic atmosphere, with a sense of many things blended together that were loved and cared over a long period of time.

We would like to introduce a chef, a wine shop owner, a food coordinator, and a coffee roaster. They all have their lives and work based around food, and they are each located slightly away from the center of Kobe.

The Reason the Couple Decided to Open a Shop in Kobe

— What led you to start your present work?

Hirofumi Ando

I have been running a wine shop and living here in Kobe since I was 30. I was raised in Oita and lived there until I became 18. Then I lived in New York, Tokyo, and a bunch of other places, but I always thought I should put down roots by the time I hit 30. It has now been 18 years since I came to Kobe.

Before that, I handled wine as a part of my job working in restaurants, but I seriously studied wines during the 5 or so years that I was in New York.

— Did you go to New York to learn specifically about wines?

H. Ando

After graduating from college, I was at a loss as to what I could do while just working an ordinary job at a company. I was looking for a good reason to step out. So I thought, right, I will master the art of alcohol. I took the grand in savings I had and flew to the States. At the beginning, I worked at a Japanese restaurant run by Chinese, a karaoke pub, a moving company, etc. I was struggling to work and study at the same time, as I didn’t have much money and could not speak much English back then.

After a while, I was asked to set up and run a small vacant storefront in a food court in New York. I had some experience working at a bar during my college days and thought of a unique concept inspired by Japanese tea ceremony, a quiet bar for sipping on small cocktails. I put up a list of rules in front of the bar, and customers had cocktails in an unusual atmosphere that didn’t exist in NY back then.

Somehow, people liked this novel style, and the business went very well. The bar, “Angel’s Share”, is still thriving thanks to the hard work of the young staff that I had taught when I was there. My wife and I went to visit 7 years ago. The ambience of the bar had changed a lot, but it was filled with many fond memories.

— Why did you choose to put down roots in Kobe?

H. Ando

I had made my mind to settle down by 30. So when I returned to Japan, I was looking around searching for a location and was thinking maybe Tokyo. I had lived in Kobe for just one year during my college days, and remembered that the size of the town fitted me well. When I visited Kobe again for the first time in years, I happened to find a wine shop. The moment I entered, I was struck by the feeling that, yes, I belong here! I immediately talked to the owner of the wine shop and told him that I would like to work there. That was the start of my retail career with wines in Kobe.

— Miho, why did you decide to become a food coordinator in Kobe?

Miho Ando

I was born in Osaka, but I always felt lost in Osaka’s busy flow. Kobe has both the mountains and the ocean, so it is difficult to become lost. But it is not just the physical aspect of the city. I could really see a life for myself here.

I became an office lady during Japan’s economic bubble boom [in the late 1980s to 1990s], and while I was working I did not really think much beyond maybe getting married and becoming a housewife someday. But during that time I soon found myself wanting to put more effort into my work. I was an only child growing up, and my mother was a full-time housewife who always prepared handmade treats throughout my childhood. I really enjoyed making sweets myself because of this, so naturally I gravitated toward food in my work. Right now I am trying to connect the urban and rural parts of the city through food. It is easy to connect with farmers in Kobe because they are so close, only a 30-minute drive from the city center.

I am currently operating a space near my husband’s shop for holding food-related events, such as the farmers market. I have also started a grocery store across the street from his for selling products made using ingredients from local farmers.

A Chef Who Chose to Open His Restaurant in Kobe

— Chef Tsuge, why did you choose to open a French restaurant in Kobe?

Tsuge

I had originally been training at a high-end Japanese restaurant in Tokyo. I always liked Europe, and when I went on a trip to France, I felt things click into place. Since that time, I have been cooking French food.

I was born in Tokyo, but my father got transferred often, so we lived in many places all over Japan. Kobe is one of the places I lived in for 2 or 3 years. When I started to think about having my own restaurant, I thought I could choose Tokyo, where I was living at that time. Although I had a lot to gain in Tokyo, it was quite hard to balance working and living there. Kobe’s pace and surroundings were more congenial to me. I felt good living here.

Moreover, my in-laws’ house is in Kasai City, within an hour’s drive from Kobe, which is fairly close. They have a farm, so we go there to grow vegetables on our days off. It has been 10 years since we opened our restaurant and settled in a place just a 3-minute walk from the restaurant.

Until I Opened a Roaster in Kobe

— Mr. Kimura, have you always wanted to open a coffee roaster?

Kimura

I have always loved coffee ever since I was a college student. Coffee became my passion, and I explored and worked part-time at coffee shops. I thought I would get a coffee-related job, so first, I got a job at a company that did a wide range of coffee businesses, from buying unroasted beans to roasting them and even operating restaurants. But it did not feel right, so I left the company after a year and a half. Around that time, I heard of a new trend of coffee culture emerging in LA and the Bay Area. If I look back now, it was the beginning of what is now called the “Third Wave”*. I just intuitively withdrew all of my savings and hopped on a plane to the US.

*The Third Wave: Coffee shops in Seattle became extremely popular with their espresso-based drinks like cafe lattes, which used deep-roasted beans. These shops were part of the Second Wave movement of coffee. Relatively small shops that strictly used selected beans directly sourced from farms, then lightly roasted the beans to take out the innate sweetness and acidity to brew coffee, are part of the Third Wave.

I heard of a person called Michael who was in LA and at the center of the Third Wave culture. I located his contact information and sent him an e-mail. He replied and agreed to meet me, a guy from nowhere. When I got to the address I was told, it was in a rough-looking warehouse area in downtown LA. He was preparing to open a new coffee shop called Handsome Coffee. He had to have been extremely busy, but he put me in the passenger seat of his car and took me to his friends’ coffee shops. We did tastings together, and he took very good care of me. I was also able to visit a coffee roaster in another city thanks to an introduction from him. It was a life-changing trip that gave me so much stimuli.

I returned to Japan with the determination to start my own shop handling coffee, but I didn’t have start-up capital. As for the location, I felt Kobe had potential as there was no other coffee roaster of my generation here. I was familiar with the area, as I had lived in Kobe since my college days. I had no money, so first I needed to make money. I saw an ad saying, “No experience needed! Overseas business trips!” I applied and became a quality controller at a major electrical appliance manufacturer.

— Was there any connection with coffee?

Kimura

During the one and a half years I spent at the company, I was out of Japan all the time so much that I needed to reprint my passport. The week after I joined, I was suddenly in China. The destinations were basically towns in coastal areas, including a rural town in the UK five hours away from London by train and bus, one along the Suez Canal in Egypt, and so on. There were some rough places, but I set a goal to visit a local coffee shop on my day off in each and every town I went. It was actually very good, since I was able to experience regional characteristics as a result. I got a chance to stay in Denmark, a leading country in terms of coffee. I was also able to reunite with Michael during a US trip. Overall it was a good incubation period. In the meantime, I was able to save money to start up my business.