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The Wandering Restaurateur



Mashiko Yuuki is an unconventional restaurateur, a wanderer with dry humor and restless creative energy. Mashiko is owner-chef at Pic Nic Tokyo, a restaurant 240 meters North of Nishi-Ogikubo Station. He likes to surprise people, whether it is delighting a customer with a creative deconstruction of a favorite dish, or shocking two visiting Nishiogiologist by poking at some some of the usual stereotypes of our favorite neighborhood. Is running a restaurant in Nishiogi really fun? Is Nishiogi really a great neighborhood to set up a restaurant? Mashiko might lead you to doubt it. But he also shows a confidence in his own cuisine and a keen business sense that belies his self-deprecating humor.


When asked about the catalyst for becoming a chef, Mashiko mentions that entering the culinary world was not initially part of his life plan. However, he reveals that he always enjoyed working with his hands since childhood, and it seems to have had an impact on his career. “When I was little, I didn't have any childhood friends,” Mashiko said. “So, I had no choice but to play alone. I belong to the Famicom generation, but I never got into it at all. What I found interesting and played with on my own were plastic models, sewing machines, and knives. So, I would take my parents' old clothes, cut off sleeves or other parts, and reconnect them to create different clothes. For example, I would cut something in half and turn it into a completely different garment. I've been doing that since elementary school. I had my own knife for cooking, so I started making my own meals. I guess that's how I started playing with those things, and that's all I could do. It's like, I could only do what I had been doing since then, and that's what I can still do at my age.”

Before becoming a chef, he built a successful career as a hair stylist, but upon achieving his goals in that field, he stepped back from styling work. “I attended a fashion school, in Shinjuku, the Bunka Fashion College. I had been sewing since I was little, so my grades were quite good, and I ended up at the top. Once I became the top, I got bored. That's when I shifted my interest from sewing to things like coordination. So, I became a stylist. There was a goal that I had decided to quit once I achieved it. It was doing a magazine cover, and I did it twice, so I thought I should quit. That's when I decided to fly to France.”


A Wanderer Becomes a Chef

Mashiko quit his job as a stylist and traveled alone to France. It seems he was more focused on self-exploration rather than cooking. However, by chance, the opportunity that came his way in the local setting happened to be cooking. “At first, I was in Nice, and then Marseille,” he explained. “It's not like I went to France with the intention of cooking, not at all. It was an escape, just an escape. I was tired of being a stylist.... But I didn't have money, so I had to work somehow. And well, various things happened…and there was a French person looking for a Japanese who could make sushi. Although I had never done it before, I decided to take a look. When people at this job asked, 'Can you do it?' I said, Sure, I can.' Then they said, 'Okay, come to the kitchen for a bit,' and asked me to watch how they operate. When I saw the French person was making sushi, I thought, 'I can do this too.' So, I snuck into the sushi kitchen.”


“That job was focused on catering. Catering work involved not only sushi chefs but also French, Italian, Turkish, and various other chefs. There were pastry chefs as well. Most of us were rotating in the same team, even if we worked for different companies. Since doing the same thing for everyone was boring, everyone was like, 'Teach me your dish,' within the kitchen. It was not really allowed, but when I was doing Italian, there were times when an Italian person was doing sushi, and many others. Even though becoming a pastry chef was a bit too much, we learnt different dishes from each other.... I mean, I can't speak the language, but I've been handling knives since I was little, so I could do something. I think I have always been good with my hands.”

Mashiko thus made his own pathway into cuisine, leveraging the catering job he stumbled upon in France, allowing him to learn various styles of cuisine, including French and Italian. His ability to absorb and adapt, along with his flexibility, also reflects a native creativity. He said that he was able to create the dishes “relatively effortlessly, similar to clothing.”


“You know how there are people who can study without really going to school? I’m like that.” He explained with a laugh. “But I can’t study [in a traditional school setting] at all. If there were 500 people in the grade, I'd be around 498th. So, with cooking, I didn't undergo any particularly specialized training or anything like that.... As for communication, it was kind of like using gestures. I had a vague understanding of English and a vague understanding of French.”


In the end, Mashiko did not obtain a work visa, so he returned to Japan after a little over a year. However, he did not immediately pursue a career in cooking. It was with the encouragement of the woman he was dating at the time that he gained some experience in kitchen jobs for the sake of making a living. “Upon returning, I wonder what I was doing,” he said. “I hadn't done much for a while. Occasionally, I would take part-time jobs through temp agencies. Since I didn't have much money, I was hanging out at my girlfriend's place at that time. But she told me, 'Get a job already.' So, I asked, 'What should I do?' and she said, 'Go for an interview here.' It turned out to be a restaurant, a bistro in Asagaya.”


“But various things happened there, and the restaurant caught fire. Well, they continued the operation after the fire, but ultimately, I quit because of various issues and a lack of trust after the fire.... Then, I found myself at my girlfriend's place again, and once more, she said, 'Get a job already.' So, I asked, 'What should I do?' That's when she suggested a restaurant in Akasaka. I was earning quite well there and saved up some money...”


“After that, I kind of wandered around Europe. I went to various places in Europe. It was like a 'which country should I live in next?' kind of thing. But as I visited different countries, it started to feel like a hassle. So, I came back to Japan. Since I hadn't really explored Japan much, I thought I might as well try traveling in Japan. Around that time, people at a clothing store that I had been acquainted with during my days as a stylist were planning to open a shop in Kyoto for about a year, like a pop-up shop. They asked me, 'If you're just wandering around, why not help out?' I said, 'Sure, why not.’”


The Chef Becomes a Wandering Restaurateur

Thus, after burning through his savings wandering around Europe and Japan, Mashiko found himself helping out at a pop-up clothing shop in Kyoto. There, he had the opportunity to showcase his skills as a chef. “The place was like a traditional Kyoto machiya (townhouse) or an old Japanese folk house,” he said. “At that time, I was kind of in a situation where I may or may not have a place to live, so I thought, 'I can live here.' I didn't particularly have an interest in Kyoto, but I decided to go and help out at the clothing store in Kyoto. Since it was live-in, I cooked for them. Then, they told customers that I had worked as a chef, and the customers would say, 'Make something for us,' and so on. After about a month, the store was quite spacious, so we started having parties every Saturday or Sunday.”

“While I was cooking at the pop-up store, it was going to close eventually, right? Since I didn't have a home either, I thought I should work a bit. My cooking was well-received, so I thought about working in a restaurant. But when I started working, it turned out I was doing the same things as in Tokyo, but the salary was only about a third. Rent in Kyoto isn't that cheap. So, I thought, 'I can't live like this.' I didn't have aspirations like wanting to own a restaurant or really wanting to cook; it was more about being in a situation where I had to do something to survive.”


Due to the unfavorable financial conditions, Mashiko decided to take matters into his own hands and open a restaurant. Mashiko told us about Cuisine Bar Cafe Pic Nic the restaurant he opened in Kyoto with his former girlfriend, who is still his business partner. “At first, I didn't have any money, so my then-girlfriend helped me out,” he said. “We borrowed 10 million yen through various means. To borrow that amount, we needed a property, but the initial place I wanted didn't work out for some reason, so I had to abandon the idea. I started searching from scratch, and while having a beer at Asahi Beer's beer hall nearby, I received a call from a real estate agent saying, 'A property just became available.' I didn't have any documents, only a handwritten address. But I went there with just that, asking my girlfriend, who didn't know much about Kyoto, 'If this were Tokyo, where would it be?' Well, she hadn't lived in Tokyo, so she couldn’t compare, but she said, 'I don't know, but it's a good location.' So, I thought, 'Okay,' and rented it. That's how I didn't even know where my own restaurant was initially. The result was a place like Ginza in Tokyo. This was ten years ago.”


The style of the restaurant was French, though recently his partner (and ex-girlfriend) has experimented with Chinese dishes she learned while living in China. It was the success of that Kyoto restaurant, which he still owns with his ex-girlfriend, that led to his opening a second restaurant in Nishi-Ogikubo. The decision to try his hand in Tokyo was partly financial. “Honestly, I had thought about opening another shop in Kyoto, but at that time, before the pandemic, there was a significant economic bubble effects from [a flood of tourism revenue from] China. I couldn't afford the rent and other expenses. There was a dining place about four doors down from our Kyoto restaurant, and that space became available. Yet, it was like, 'We can't pay rent.’ It was a furnished shop, not a rental property, but it was for sale. When I asked, 'How much?' they said, '300 million yen.' I thought, 'That's impossible.' So, I decided to look for a place in Tokyo.”

Mashiko now commutes back and forth between Tokyo and Kyoto, though he spends more of his time in the Eastern capital. He told us there was no particularly strong motivation for choosing Nishiogi to set up the second restaurant. In fact, he mentioned that he didn't find the neighborhood particularly appealing. “So, I looked for a rental property, and it's not like I particularly like Nishiogi (laughs). But well, the rent is cheap, so why not.... Before, I had worked in Asagaya, and Asagaya might be better. Nakasugi Street [a broad avenue lined with tall cedars] feels nice (laughs). Probably I like places like that better. I used to live in Kita-Senju, and there's Arakawa, so I could ride my bike all the way along it. I could ride my bike to places like Kasai Seaside Park. I like those kinds of comfortable places. So, Zenpukuji Park here in Nishi-Ogikubo is nice. There's nothing like that right here [a narrow alley leading north from Nishi-Ogikubo station]. That's why Kyoto is good; I still have a house there, and I can ride my bike along the Kamogawa River all the way to work. It's under the cherry blossoms in spring. I like those kinds of places. So, there's nothing like that here (in Nishi-Ogikubo). Not like the Meguro River where the wind blows through.”


French-Style Izakaya Fare Packed with Surprising Flavors

Pic Nic Tokyo is most easily described as a bistro where you can enjoy various creative dishes along with wine. However, Mashiko mentions that the style of the cuisine is evolving to be more like French-inspired izakaya dishes. “Here, the [rental] contract says 'only operating as a French restaurant' initially, but I think it's okay now. At first, I was telling people it's a French restaurant, and I was doing quite authentic French cuisine. But it's time-consuming, and I'm working alone. In France, they have a division of labor, like someone makes soup, someone grills meat, someone grills fish. Doing all of that alone is quite challenging. So, gradually, it became a bit more like an izakaya. The current menu has some bistro-like items, but it's more like presenting izakaya dishes in a bistro style. For example, the 'cucumber and steamed chicken salad' or 'pork shabu.' I think these are dishes you might find in an izakaya, in a way. So, I try to present izakaya-style dishes in a bistro-like way, like the 'pork shabu' with prune sauce.”

Despite his disclaimers, many of the deconstructed izakaya dishes have a distinctive fine-dining flair. One of the standout dishes at Pic Nic Tokyo is the “potato salad,” which is a multilayered dish of thinly sliced potatoes in a visually striking mille-feuille style. “Potato salad is also an izakaya menu item,” he said with a laugh. “Things like that just come to me. I don't actively think about them, and I don't read books, but sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I get ideas like, 'What if I tried something like this?' The way to make it probably comes from something similar I did in the past, and the recipe just pops into my head automatically. It's similar to how musicians walk, and lyrics come to them. I think it's like, 'What if I tried this? It might turn out like this,' and sometimes it fails. So, rather than actively reading books or asking people, it's more like, 'What if I tried something like this? It might lead to something like that.'”

Pic Nic Tokyo also offers a distinctive curry, which has gained significant popularity to the point of earning acclaim from gourmet enthusiasts. “Curry is a side gig,” he said with a laugh.” Curry is popular, though. There's this publishing company called Kodansha, they have something like Michelin, and I got stars for that curry. In the Kanto region, in the year I got the stars, there are only two places that are not curry shops but got stars. So, when I got the stars, a lot of Instagrammers came, but I got tired of it and stopped making curry once. I posted on Instagram, 'I was making curry as a side gig, but I'll stop now.' I got a bit criticized for that (laughs). So now, I'm like, if everyone likes curry that much, maybe I should open a curry shop.”

A flavor-packed "duck and fig pate" is also a staple menu item at the restaurant, according to Mashiko. "I put quite a bit of thought into that,” he said. “I like fruits, and I like combining fruits with something else. Also, I like pate. So, I combined duck and fig to make it. I first thought about it seriously around the second year of the Kyoto restaurant, did some trial and error, but at that time, it didn't go well at all. I made it about three times, but in the end, I had leftovers, and I threw them all away. I hadn't made it for a long time. Then, when I opened the shop in Tokyo, I thought it might work in Tokyo, so after a few years, I made it again, and it worked.”


Interestingly it seems that this surprisingly sweet and savory appetizer didn't resonate well with Kyoto diners. According to Mashiko, there seem to be differences in thinking about food between Kanto and Kansai regions. “There's a completely different feel between Kanto and Kansai customers. In places like Osaka, known for its food culture, and Kyoto with its traditional Japanese cuisine, there's a preference for 'what's already there.' So, for example, at the Kyoto branch, you'd have dishes like steak or sausages, things that people have been eating for a long time are well-received. But when it comes to pate, the hurdle suddenly goes up, and the number of people interested in it drops significantly. That's because people especially in Osaka are the most conservative when it comes to food.”

“For example, in Kyoto, you might have dishes with ingredients like conger eel, but if you replace it with something like kinmedai (alfonsino), it might not be well-received. It's that kind of feeling. Recently, even if you introduce something new, they might accept it a bit more, but Osaka is still somewhat conservative. So, things like spice curry have become a standard there, but that's because it originated in Osaka. When you think of curry in Tokyo, places like Jimbocho come to mind, but Kyoto and Osaka are not trying to create a new curry boom there. In Kansai, something that's already present is what becomes popular. For something not easily understandable for customers, it needs to be associated with someone famous or someone who has won many awards. So, people who go to such innovative places are often chefs or staff working in the industry.”

In bar-hopping Nishiogi, drinking has to be a central part of the dining experience. At Pic Nic Tokyo, there are three sets called “Nomisetto” (drinking set) that combine wine and dishes for ¥1,300. It seems there are customers who come every day seeking these sets. “The 'Choi Nomisetto' is like creating an entry point for people who come in,” Mashiko explained. “Some people have three glasses and go home, but some people, after having three glasses, want more. The three glasses have the same wine, so if someone wants different wines, there are more options, but they are more expensive because they are different.”


COVID has changed the patterns of drinking in the neighborhood. “Before COVID, people used to casually drink until around 2 a.m. due to work, but once that habit disappeared, everyone became used to their new habit. Many people didn’t go out for drinks anymore. So even if they do go out, maybe they visit one or two places, like going to a bar near their workplace and then stopping by here or going to a place in Nishiogi before heading home.”

The People of Pic Nic

Pic Nic Tokyo employs several part-time staff members, including individuals with primary occupations as models or students attending art universities. The staff are not only part-time employees but also friends and partners of Mashiko. They inspire and support him, and sometimes develop the menu together. For example, the black risotto on the menu was developed when one of the staff members, affectionately referred to as “Ryu-chan” by Mashiko, suggested, “Make a fashionable risotto.” This collaborative effort resulted in the creation of the dish.

Regarding the customers, like other restaurants in the area, many of the customers at Pic Nic Tokyo are residents of Nishiogi. The customer base seems to be evenly split between regulars and newcomers, with a conspicuous presence of female patrons. “At our place, there are overwhelmingly more women, probably around 80 percent,” Mashiko explained. “It's inevitable since I'm a guy. But, you know, it can't be helped. So, at our Kyoto branch, my female partner manages it, and there are more middle-aged men. In Kyoto, when it's managed by some guy a little younger than me, there are more women. The best scenario is when there's a balance, with both men and women on staff; it feels right, you know, a good balance.”


Always the Wanderer

Through the conversation, we strongly sensed the creative qualities of Mashiko. When we pointed these out, he replied with a laugh, “I've been told that for 25 years now.”


We asked him if he plans to continue running his successful restaurant in Nishiogi. He averred. “No, not really. It doesn't matter where. I'm not good at staying put, you know,” he said with a shrug. “It's true that I've been in the food and beverage industry for ten years now, but that's okay. I don't like to settle down. I love traveling and always crave new experiences, going to places I haven't been before.”


Mashiko can be both self-deprecating and a bit showy. His food is also a mix of familiar bistro fare with dishes that surprise the diner with an unconventional taste or structure. It is a place that in many ways is typical of Nishiogi, with its reputation as a “bistro battleground.” But it is also a bit apart from the Nishiogi mainstream, as is Mashiko himself. Mashiko started out in Kyoto and even likes to poke fun at the localism of Nishiogi diners and their stingy spending habits. At the same time, these picky Nishiogi eaters prove to have a very cosmopolitan palate that welcomes the experimentalism Mashiko brings to bistro dining. The wandering restaurateur has created a spot for the wandering gourmets of Nishiogi (James Farrer and Nagiko Shimooka Jan. 2, 2024).


(Interview by James Farrer and Nagiko Shimooka Sept. 4, 2023; transcription and translation by Nagiko Shimooka; Japanese editing by Kimura Fumiko; copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved)



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