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Producing a Multilayered Neighborhood Fusion Cuisine

Hana is a Japanese-style western restaurant that opened twenty-five years ago in Nishiogi. Like Bistro Sate just down the street, it is run by a husband-wife team, Hanada Harumi and Hanada Fumiko, whose love story also began in the restaurant. Hana shows how a local culinary culture develops out of multiple layers of experience and interactions with customers.

 

Chef Harumi, who is a couple of decades older than Fumiko, started the restaurant. Before Hana, he already had a long and colorful career in western-style cuisine. He began cooking nearly half a century ago preparing on-flight meals, back when flying was a novel experience for most Japanese. That was followed in 1974 by a year and a half working in Berlin for a western restaurant. “At that time, there were only forty Japanese living in the city,” he said, “and we were all invited to go to the consulate for a New Year celebration.” It was in Berlin that he learned to make the rich and savory chicken liver stew that he still serves at Hana. After Berlin he returned to Tokyo, and worked at a Benihana steakhouse and then at Pauke, a small but well-known German restaurant in Ichigaya. There he picked up the art of making Eisbein, a German style of cured pork knuckle that still features on Hana’s menu. He recalls that in Pauke, the professional wrestler “Andre the Giant” frequented the restaurant while visiting Tokyo, washing down four Eisbein with a vast quantity of beer in one sitting.

 

After working at Pauke, he worked at a restaurant and bar in Ogikubo where he learned a few Spanish dishes. “This was a live house in Ogikubo. I was working as the sole chef there. Besides me, there was a waitress and a manager. On the stage, there was flamenco and chanson. The place was called Casablanca. It was really busy. It was extremely popular.”

 

Weary of working for others, he decided to start up his own shop. He started Hana in 1992 on Nishiogi’s Otome Street (officially Nishiogi Station South Street); though now a lively restaurant street, at that time it was very quiet. Harumi explains, “Now it’s full of people but twenty-five years ago there were barely any restaurants around here.”

 

According to Harumi, there were only about two or three eateries on Otome when he opened Hana. At the time, the limited menu was about ten dishes written down on a single piece of paper. At first Harumi had imagined running the restaurant by himself but in the second year, he decided to hire part timers. One of them was Fumiko, who ended up marrying Harumi becoming a life-long partner in the restaurant, both serving customers and helping with the cooking.

 

Fumiko helped make the restaurant a more elegant environment by selecting wines and decor. “Things started to gradually change after that. In the beginning the restaurant didn’t have many different types of wine. We had the liquor store choose and bring us the wine. We didn’t care so much about wine at first. But after a while my wife started to study wine and then customers gradually came because they liked the ones we served.”

 

According to Fumiko, when she started working at Hana, most of the wines were French Bordeaux and Burgundy but now they have an eclectic selection. They carry a variety of French, Italian, Portuguese, and German wines with different nuances in order to meet the needs of the customers.

 

Harumi based his initial menu on the dishes he learned at Casablanca but with many other influences. “The dishes we serve here are primarily based on Spanish concepts,” he said. “But we use ingredients like soy sauce to adapt the taste of Western food to please our customers. So, we don’t really use things like olive oil either. A lot of the customers we have are elderly. They say that it doesn't feel like they’re eating Western food. It feels light. They say that it’s nothing like normal Italian restaurants where they pour on a lot of olive oil and the taste is very strong. It’s more suitable for the older clientele. People still tell us that.”

 

Hana’s most iconic dish is a steak flavored with spicy mustard soy sauce paste, served on top of garlic rice. It’s a very Showa-style dish, inspired partly by the rice served at the popular Benihana restaurant chain and partly by a personal encounter.

 

The personal encounter happened when Harumi was still working in Casablanca and met a woman customer, a writer in her fifties.

 

“She said she wanted to have this dish so bad.” But at the time, I was just making normal steak and I told her I couldn’t cook what she wanted to eat. Still, she kept on saying ‘please make it.’ She was describing precisely how she wished to have the steak cooked and flavored too. So, I ended up cooking it for her and she said, ‘I love this. This is exactly how I wanted it to be.’ Some other customers saw her eating it and more and more people requested me to cook this steak for them. It eventually became a part of the menu. A lot of the dishes on our menu were made like that. It’s the same with the omelet. That was my lunch or dinner. I was eating it in the restaurant and a customer said, ‘That looks better than what I’m eating, I want to have that.’ Then, that became one of the most popular dishes. For lunch, I added a salad, some rice and a dessert with it and now that’s what everyone orders.”

 

We did see many customers eating the omelet in a prior visit to Hana. Harumi continued to explain in more detail how he brought Japanese tastes to his dishes, such as the omelet and the accompanying sauce.

 

“Well, for example, we use soy sauce, and soup stock made from tuna. We don’t use bullion like you would abroad. It’s dashi (Japanese style soup stock). That’s why our customers like the taste. I also use green onions. I just chop up the onions and make a rather plain omelet. That goes wonderfully with rice, more than bread. I serve this with a salad dressing based on yuzu-flavored soy sauce. That’s why its taste is so Japanese. It’s a perfect balance, really, between the three ingredients. I add a mustard which I make myself, cayenne pepper, soy sauce, and hot canola oil. Without this sauce, it feels like it has no soul.”

 

Harumi’s eclectic fusion menu thus reflects his long career before opening the restaurant, along with customer feedback, requests, and suggestions. He also relayed how the customers have grown older together with the restaurant.

 

When Harumi first opened Hana, he had problems dealing with the customers at times. Nishiogi is well known for its bars and izakayas and there were times when drunk customers stumbled into the restaurant. However, Harumi had his own way of dealing with customers who might potentially ruin the restaurant’s atmosphere. He simply refused to talk with them. These customers slowly started to disappear while the desirable ones stayed. Harumi noticed how the good customers also invited other well-mannered individuals.

 

There are many families who come to the restaurant. Although people should avoid bringing small infants who will disturb other diners, Harumi said, most of Hana’s customers are families, and he is happy to serve them. Harumi further detailed some of the typical characteristics of the Nishiogi clientele.

 

“I find that a lot of people are very knowledgeable,” he said. “There are many scholars. A lot of them write books. Many famous people too. Surprisingly, many of them are involved in activities like that. And it can be hard to please these customers. From the beginning they would tell us how we should cook the dishes differently. Nevertheless, if I think this is how something should be served, I won’t change a thing. But if there’s something they say that sounds like a good idea, I store that away in the back of my mind. And I use that idea, but customize it in my own way. The customer provides us with hints.”

 

As a couple running a restaurant together, they have also faced the difficulties of childrearing with a very busy daily work schedule.

 

It surely wasn’t easy managing the restaurant while raising a child. Their son was at a nursery during the daytime and at another day care center at night. When he started primary school, the couple organized a small room in the back of the restaurant so he could study there after school.

 

The customers even changed somewhat after the couple had a child, as friends they met through their son’s school or mothers from Kendo practice started frequenting the establishment.

 

Finding family time was also difficult. The only day the couple had off was on Thursdays. However, they usually spent the day resting as they were exhausted from the rest of the week, working. In the past twenty-five years, the longest they took off from the restaurant was three days. The first year in which Harumi opened Hana, he didn’t take a single day off.

 

Harumi discussed some of the pros and cons of running a small restaurant.

 

“A restaurant this size is perfect to manage for the long run. It’s great at first when you make the restaurant bigger, but most of the time it goes out of business. Kokeshiya is the exception. But other than that, all of the big restaurants have closed down. If the place is twice as big as this restaurant, when you’re busy, you’re extremely busy but when the restaurant is empty and there are only, let’s say, two customers, no one is going to want to come in. Then, after a while, it becomes more and more difficult to keep the business going. It’s very difficult to keep operating for a long time compared to a rather large restaurant. Our restaurant is small and we are able to keep the expenses low. Even if we don’t have part-time help we are able to manage by with just the two of us. If we were to have forty or fifty seats, that would definitely not work. When you’re busy it’s fine, but you have these ups and downs. It’s difficult.”

 

Harumi explains that it has been getting more and more difficult to impress his customers. Nowadays, people can easily travel overseas. Even if you do not go overseas, you can experience foreign food here in Japan. That’s why people are not as attracted to his dishes as opposed to before. In addition, he explains that it has been getting more difficult to differentiate his place from and compete with his competitors He feels the restaurant is in a difficult situation now.

 

From our perspective, however, his cuisine is delicious and original with a remarkable layering of accumulated styles. In an era in which fusion cuisine is highly praised, this is a unique form that combines numerous European dishes with tastes inspired by nearly fifty years of kitchen experience and interactions with his loyal Japanese customers (James Farrer, Erika Bulach, Sept. 9, 2017).

(English text by James Farrer and Erika Bulach; interview by James Farrer and Erika Bulach; Japanese transcription and editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by Erika Bulach; copy editing by Jason Bartashius; copyright James Farrer 2017)

Hana Nishi-Ogikubo