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Sustaining French Cuisine in Neighborhood Tokyo

Nishi-Ogikubo is famous for its small owner-operated French bistros. It has even been called a “bistro battleground.” “These restaurants are all very good, but they have their limits,” said Richard Rodot, a French chef who long ran a French restaurant in neighboring Ogikubo. He attributes the rise of small restaurants to the 2008 economic crisis, after which many people were too afraid to start large businesses. Small owner-operated shops can ride out a downturn, he said, but in the long run this model creates its own problems. One is that without staff, there are no young people to bring in new ideas. Restaurants stagnate and their offerings do not change. They grow old with their owners.

The other problem is the effect on the larger industry. “People are lucky to be trained in a bigger place, and then they open their own small place. But, they do not train anybody. Which I think is the mentality in Japan, but in France we are very concerned to train somebody…. So, there are fewer and fewer professional people in Japan now, cooking. Cooks have been hired by big chains … they have training but it is not like real cooking you know. It is not the same. So, we are losing quality in those places. The taste is good but it is always the same everywhere basically.”

Beyond the problems of sustaining a sizable restaurant and of training staff, we now see businesses struggling to even find staff. Across various sectors in Japan, from transportation to the construction and service industries, there is a shortage of workers to perform tough physical labor. This includes the restaurant industry. Many restaurants are troubled by the scarcity of employees and a lack of successors. It seems this is also becoming a problem in Nishiogi.

One restaurant that is coping with all these problems is Bistro Sans Le Sou. With Rodot’s discussion in mind, however, we can also say that they remain an old-fashioned model. So far, they are able not only to find workers, but also still are able to pass on the secrets of their success to a new generation of independent chefs.

Among Nishiogi’s numerous “bistros,” Bistro Sans Le Sou gives the impression of being an upscale restaurant. The chef Kaneko Yoshimitsu and the junior cooks wear clean crisply laundered chef coats. His wife Kaneko Chiemi, who is in charge of the front of the house, is dressed sharply in a black pants suit.

When they first opened their restaurant in 1995 near Tokyo Women’s Christian University on the north side of Nishiogi Station it was considered a popular-style bistro. As the restaurant's name – meaning “penniless” – implies they started out quite modestly. “We were not considered upscale at all when we were up there at the Women’s University,” Mr. Kaneko said. “We were really doing bistro style. After that, a lot of places that were much cheaper came along. We didn’t really change. When we started twenty years ago, French cuisine had a high-class image. A bistro like ours was just something for ordinary people. People were like, ‘Oh, such a casual French place also exists!’ But we didn’t realize that so many cheaper shops were going to pop up. I guess the times are changing.”

After eight years in that location, they moved to the current spot along the JR lines south of Nishiogi Station. Over the years, they have added a kitchen and waiting staff and evolved into the white-table cloth establishment we see today, still serving bistro-style dishes, but in a more elegant style than many smaller restaurants in Nishiogi. The attention to service may be a reason why the restaurant was included in the Michelin Guide to Tokyo for several years (though not this past year).

Like most restaurant owners in Nishiogi, the couple are migrants. Chef Kaneko, is from Fukushima Prefecture. His family owned a restaurant serving traditional Japanese Western-style food (yoshoku). With this background, he was able to find a job in a Western-style restaurant in Tokyo. Mrs. Kaneko is from Shizuoka Prefecture. She moved to Tokyo after graduation and became a “food coordinator.” They met in Tokyo and went to France together to gain experience.

As they talked to us, they frequently finished each other’s sentences, narrating their experiences in an animated fashion.

Mrs. Kaneko said, “I was about 28 when we went to France. But it was too short of a time, about two years. Not enough to completely get into it.”

“I am glad we went,” Mr. Kaneko said. “We were mostly in the rural areas,” added Mrs. Kaneko. “It would have been good to be in Paris, but we would have had to get our own apartment, and we didn’t have money. In the countryside, it was like a stall, but we had a place to stay. At first, we were in the South of France. Then we were in Lille on the north side, and after that, we went to the Loire in the center. In the end, we were in Nante in the west. We were going to go east, but we ran out of money.”

“There were not so many people going to France then,” Mr. Kaneko said. “Not like now. It was hard to get a work visa. It’s hard even now.”

In France, Mr. Kaneko worked at a French restaurant run by a Japanese chef who was introduced to him while he was still in Japan. From this chef, he learned of opportunities in many other places. All of them were French restaurants. Before he went to France, he had already worked in several French restaurants in Tokyo. This was the so-called “Bubble Era” of high economic growth and asset inflation. “We went to France in ’92 and ’93, right when the bubble was bursting,” Mrs. Kaneko explained.

“When I went over there, I was told by my friends, ‘don’t come back,’” said Mr. Kaneko. “It was the bubble, and everything, rent, deposit, all was really expensive. But when I came back, the bubble had burst, and my friends were starting to open up restaurants here and there. I even began to think that it might even be better to wait even longer.”

So it actually became much easier to open a restaurant once the bubble burst.

The old shop they were in near Tokyo Women’s University was only 42 square meters with about 12 seats. When you include the counter seats, it could hold 16 people and would be so packed you couldn’t even walk.

“The current space is about double that size,” Mr. Kaneko said. “With the increase in staff, we have also been able to expand the number of dishes. “With just two people working, there were limits in terms of what we could do. There were many more things we wanted to try, but we were over-extended. We looked for a new location for a long time before we found this one. We originally had planned to move after five years, but we couldn’t find a place. We kept looking while we were working.”

In the current location, which they moved into in 2003, they can seat from 22 to 24 customers every night. With the increase in floor area, they also have increased staff and also broadened their offerings. Many of the surrounding husband-wife bistros in Tokyo have remained small, not hiring any staff, but Bistro Sans Le Sou, now has three full-time staff and, depending on the night, up to three part-time staff. Their working style also changed.

“Oh, it’s completely different. We can’t just suddenly take a day off. In the past, we would shut down for two weeks and go off to France, but now we can’t do that,” Ms. Kaneko said. “If we take a day off now, we have to think how we are going to pay the staff, how we are going to pay bonuses,” Mr. Kaneko continued.

“Yes, we have lost our freedom,” said Mrs. Kaneko. “We have to think about how we are going to support these people.”

When they moved, they were planning to increase the staff. But not to the level they have now, with three full-time staff in the kitchen. “It is better now,” Mrs. Kaneko explained. “There are really limitations when working with just two people,” Mr. Kaneko added. “When you increase the staff, there are things you can do that you cannot do alone. And the number of people who dine has increased as well.”

Although adding staff was a good idea, there are also difficulties, Mrs. Kaneko said. “In this world today, young people are not interested in getting into the food and beverage industry. How should I put it? People these days do not want to do this kind of training. I mean, the people we have here work hard. So, up till now, things are good. But as you may know, there are issues, like [the lack of] social welfare. People who want to own their own restaurant are really quite rare. You may be the ‘lord of your castle’ but it really just means constant hard work. But it seems people would much rather have regular time off, vacations, etc.”

“Even though 200 people enroll in the French cooking course at the Tsuji Culinary Institute every year, at the end of the course only about ten remain, less than one in ten,” Mr. Kaneko claimed. “Many people just stop in the middle or start families, many people go into something completely different. Many go to hotels or go to work in school canteens, places with eight-hour work days and two days off a week.”

“With school canteen work, you get a good salary, and you have days off,” Mrs. Kaneko added. “You have your own time off. So even if you look at the chain restaurants now, the part-time staff are foreigners, not [Japanese university] students. There are many foreign students.”

Now the kitchen staff at Bistro Sans Le Sou are all young men straight out of cooking school. “They really work hard, even for fifteen hours straight, without complaining,” Mrs. Kaneko said. “They start at eight or nine in the morning, and then finish at midnight.” They have six or seven days off a month, including every Monday and the second and fourth Tuesday.

There are now three employees in the kitchen. The newest guy works cooking lunch, baking bread, and serving when the floor is busy. Newbies start working in the front of the house, and work their way into the kitchen, starting with desserts and appetizers, and eventually getting closer to the chef, who still is the man on the stove doing the main dishes. This is training that takes several years to complete. 

The next step may be going off to France to gain more experience.

One of their chefs just left to work in France for a year. He had been working in the restaurant for seven and a half years. He was introduced to a job in a French restaurant with a Japanese chef, and he plans to work there for a year. Then he will come back for one year to work again at Bistro Sans Le Sou. After that, he plans to open his own restaurant.

Before him, they had one other chef who went through this same process and now has a restaurant of his own. He went to France and worked there with a French chef, not a Japanese chef, and that is even better, Mrs. Kaneko said.

“These are really like your own children growing up -- weird kids,” she said laughing. Actually, they have no children of their own. “You cannot do this type of job and have children,” she said.

So, we can see, the chefs gradually go on to become independent, and then they must hire a new chef. “It is becoming more and more difficult. I don’t get so many calls for people looking for jobs, and I don’t get many introductions either,” Mrs. Kaneko complained.

The menu does not change every day. There are seasonal items that will be there every season without fail. And there are items the chef puts on, based on how he feels. “The signature dishes are nearly all bistro classics,” Mr. Kaneko said. “There is duck confit, beef jowl in red wine sauce. These things will always be there, and then there are things that I will put on the menu because these items are available that season.”

As for the customers, there are many who have been coming regularly starting when the shop was located near the Women’s University. People who were in their seventies then, still come now in their nineties. “People like that will come in groups,” Mr. Kaneko said. “What’s interesting is that the old people who come here will all eat meat. They are very healthy, full of energy. And really positive.”

At lunchtime, there are mostly female customers. “Maybe one out of twenty at lunch is a man,” Mrs. Kaneko said.

“In Japan, it is really like this,” Mr. Kaneko said. “French food is something for women. In France, it is normal for a man to be drinking wine, eating steak, and being noisy in a bistro. It’s like the salaryman culture. But it is different in Japan. It is also a question of the neighborhood. This is a residential area, so there are not many men working here.”

At night, however the atmosphere changes. The clientele is mostly couples of all ages, single and married. Small children, however, are a different story. “We don’t accept children,” Mrs. Kaneko said emphatically. “They have to be at least in the later years of elementary school. They have to be at an age when they are able to eat a course all by themselves and not bother the other guests. But still, people complain about it.”

Despite being migrants to Tokyo, the two have become big fans of Nishiogi. “Nishiogi is a nice environment, right? There are none of these strange guys,” Mrs. Kaneko said with her contagious laugh. “People take it easy. It’s peaceful. It’s so peaceful that the customers are also peaceful. When we go downtown to eat you will see these guys, and think ‘what kind of a person is that!’ Like people who think they can slap you on the face with a wad of cash. There are no people like that coming in here.”

“There are no people with bad manners in Nishiogi,” repeated Mr. Kaneko.

“People are well-behaved,” Mrs. Kaneko continued with a laugh. “In Kichijoji (where there are many tourists) it’s different, but here in Nishiogi, we are sandwiched in between. It is the countryside but a really high-class countryside, that kind of good feeling.”

Listening to them talk, they have a rather rosy view of the neighborhood.

The price at Bistro Sans Le Sou is about 8000 yen a person. “It is cheap at this price, considering it includes drinks,” Mrs. Kaneko said. Most of the wine is French wine, but they do have two wines from Nigata. They want to support the Japanese wineries, Mrs. Kaneko said. They use beef from Australia and Kumamoto, and foie gras from Hungary, with supplies changing with the seasons.

Even with the increase in local residents and visitors to Nishiogi, the business environment is not improving. “Business is not easy. Especially, the rise in prices of ingredients is really crazy. Even though the prices go up, we can’t raise the price of the menu items. Customers are sensitive about price”

“It’s not like Roppongi or Azabu,” Mr. Kaneko explained. “In that kind of place, there are people who don’t care about money. There are people who will think the more expensive the better. But those types come out here. The people who come here are more practical and serious.”

“It’s really amazing,” Mrs. Kaneko said. “You might ask how we can do it without raising prices, but we have to manage it somehow. If you even raise the price by ten yen, there will be a riot.”

“It’s tough,” Mrs. Kaneko said. “Another strange thing is that the shipping fees have also gone up. We are always having things sent from many different places, and the shipping fee has gone up like crazy. Wine, ingredients, everything has gone up. With vegetables its really terrible, especially now, but I don’t want to reduce the size of salads.”

We asked about future plans, for instance, expansion….

“Expansion! No way! That would be more work. How should I put it—I would just be burdening myself. We are already doing as much as we can,” Mr. Kaneko replied.

“No, no.” Mrs. Kaneko piled on. “It will be sixteen years here next here. After a while, it would be nice to have weekends. We are thinking about that. But we have to cover the salaries of the employees, take in that amount, so I wonder if we can rest all that much. Oh, and it seems that slowly customers are coming in less and less, then we also have to think what we will do about that. So, now that’s what we two are thinking about. The life the two of us have now is not really a life for human beings. We spend almost 100 percent of our time in the shop. We have no time for ourselves.” Mr. Kaneko ended our discussion with all these thoughts.

A lack of successors, hard work, rising prices, aging in an aging society…. The problems are heavy, even for a restaurant that has prospered over the years. In the food and beverage industry, we can glimpse many of the problems becoming evident throughout Japanese society. Still in this tough environment, Bistro Sans Le Sou is a lovely, lively restaurant that is still able to train a new generation of French restaurant chefs in Tokyo (James Farrer, March 23, 2018).

(English text by James Farrer; interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura; Japanese trancription by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer;  copyright James Farrer 2018)

Hana Nishi-Ogikubo
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