Dessert as Live Performance
Behind the counter in the second-floor open kitchen, Miki Harashima, the owner of Lotus Patisserie expertly produces a Mont Blanc ordered by the customer seated across from her. The corners and diagonals of the white plate are decorated with caramel paste, and four elongated pieces of meringue are placed in a square frame in the center. Rum ice cream is piled up in the frame, then filled in with a sweet chestnut paste. Harashima sprinkles pieces of bright red cassis sorbet on top. To finish, she uses melted sugar to spin a delicate and glittering candy ornament, placing it gently on top. At Lotus in Nishi-Ogikubo, the joy of eating an order-made dessert is doubly compounded by the pleasures of watching the young pâtissier deftly create it in front of you.
Patisserie Lotus opened in 2017 in Nishiogi on South Market Street popularly known as “Young Woman’s Road” (Otome-Dori). It sells takeout cakes, pastries, and baked goods, but most prominently features an eat-in counter where customers enjoy the spectacle of Harashima and her senior staff making desserts in front of them. In late 2021, this eat-in space, formerly on the first floor, was moved to a renovated second floor, and the number of seats was increased. The take-out counter remains on the ground floor.
We conducted our interview in mid-December, one of the busiest times of the year for a patisserie. Harashima and her staff were busy producing Christmas cakes and other seasonal goodies. She also just opened up the upstairs dining room. We interviewed her in the corner of her shop amidst these hectic preparations.
As a child, when Harashima was asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, she would reply, “I want to run a sweet shop.” She continued, “I always wanted a sweet shop. It was like a dream to me.”
Years later, as she graduated from high school, she had to choose a course of education. "When I was leaving high school, I wasn't thinking about going to university,” she said. “I wanted to go to a practical institution where I could get a job and work immediately. So, I went to a vocational school. [Pastry school] was one of the options among several. Until then, I was wondering whether I would choose pastry, a music school, or a beauty school. I chose [pastry] because had a good career path. I used to play various musical instruments as a hobby, but I think it's a little difficult to make a living with music. Realistically, it was still a hobby. Also, the beauty-related jobs like beauty artist, makeup artist, I had an interest in those. But, after all, I had this vague dream about pastry since I was little, so I went in that direction. Also, it was a lot of fun when I participated in a trial enrollment at a pastry school. That's why I thought it might be good for me, so I decided to go there."
Her first job after pastry school was at a large factory-style bakery that sold cakes at shops in major department stores. "After going to an interview, I was accepted and started working there,” she said. “It wasn’t a small individual enterprise. It was very mass-produced, like an assembly line, because the amount was huge. So, I just made this roll cake, or cut the strawberries. It was like being a machine, all the people working that way. We were working with huge quantities. I think it was a good experience. People who have only worked at an independent shop would be shocked. That's why I'm glad I did it."
After a few months at the bakery, she was moved to the retail side. “After the factory, I worked at the Roppongi main store,” she said. “That was a big change from the factory experience. Suddenly it was like being in a private shop. Altogether there were about five people working, one who was the shopfloor manager and four others. All the staff was much older. I was only twenty or twenty-one years old. Working with people in their forties or fifties was really difficult. Also, the work I did, the contents of the work, was completely different. In the factory it was all about getting things done fast; here it was about technique, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything right,” she said with a bitter laugh.
“In that shop, it was a bit like here. I decorated the cakes and lined them up in the showcase. I stocked the mousse in the freezer. I did that kind of preparation. And, of course, I did sales. As for the technique, I learned by doing. If I didn’t know something, I would say, ‘please teach me,’ but they wouldn’t teach me anything. It was like, ‘Why don’t you understand?’”
"It was a little painful. I would look it up in a book, ‘hmm, I wonder if it's like this ..?’ I’d find a basic recipe, but just the basic stuff. I would have liked to have them show me, ‘just once. I don’t really understand it.’ That’s why I am asking you to teach me, but it was like, ‘why don’t you even know that?" So, I was like, ‘what should I do?’ So, I had to study myself."
Her experiences made her want to be a different type of boss herself one day. "So, I thought, if I am on top one day, I thought I'd teach people more patiently. Maybe it is not like that now, but back then it was really tough [for new staff] ..."
Despite the feeling of humiliation, she didn’t give up. "I was very angry,” she said. “Day after day, I hated it, but even though I didn't like it, I always had the feeling that I would be able to put this period behind me. So, I kept on.”
Then in 2011, there was the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the store she worked in closed. Harashima was only twenty-two, and she decided to try life outside Tokyo and outside the patisserie trade. She worked as an assistant manager in a candy store in Nagoya, cleaned hotel rooms, and did other odd jobs. Then when one of her parents fell ill, she returned to Tokyo. Through the government-run employment office, “Hello Work,” she took a course in computer programming. She even found a job in that industry and accepted it.
At this point, a chance encounter with a new style of patisserie brought her back into this business. This was Atelier Kohta. She first found it on the internet. “It looked interesting, then I went to eat there. Then, I saw this style of making a dessert in front of me for the first time. I realized eating a freshly made dessert was completely different from the cake in the showcase. I was impressed because it was my first time. So, when I was looking into Kohta, I realized they were looking for someone. I applied and got it. Had I not applied there, I might have ended my career in pastry. But since I got it, I decided I would give it my best."
This was a career turning point. “I worked at Atelier Kohta for about three and a half years. It was completely different from the cake shops I was used to, and I was deeply interested in it. I decided also wanted to open a place like that."
As Harashima began to think about opening her own place, the chef there acted as her mentor. "The chef at Atelier Kohta told me a lot about how to open a business. He said, ‘if you don't know something, you can ask me, like costs and other things.’ He also introduced vendors for ingredients, making connections for me. I didn’t know anything, so he taught me all that. After that, considering timing, about money, location, all kinds of things, I thought I could start out on my own.”
Looking at broader business conditions, she decided on Nishiogi as a desirable location. "I was looking for a place in Kichijoji, and this is the first station next to it,” she explained. “My friend often came to Nishi-Ogikubo. And, well, Kichijoji is very expensive. There’s a lot of foot traffic but the rents are high. If you just pop a place up, it is really uncertain that it will work out. So, I said to my friend, ‘Nishi-Ogikubo also seems good. Let’s take a walk together.’ The atmosphere was good. So, when I was looking around for a spot, this place was vacant. Well, the store here is now four years old, so it was four years ago."
"When I opened this shop, I knew the selling point would be the desserts I learned when I was at Khota. I planned to serve only desserts I made in front of customers at the counter. That’s all I served. If I can’t do that, I’m finished. I had to have something special. People would come to interview me from time to time, but you can’t just talk. If you don’t have the skills, you can’t plop something in front of people. I wasn’t yet confident in the take-out cake, so I thought the best strategy would be to continue with the counter desserts I learned at Khota. And this didn’t exist yet in Nishiogi. There are quite a lot of shops that make bread recently, but no place that makes something like this in front of you with a live feeling. So, I thought I'd try it out."
It costs about 15 million yen to open a patisserie on this scale. The refrigerators can be leased, but finishing the interior is expensive. When Harashima moved in, the walls and floors were bare concrete, which is often the case in Japan. Then there were also innumerable small items to purchase, such as boxes for cakes, and all the plastic containers for ingredients. "I started from nothing, so it was very difficult to get it all from scratch,” she said. “I bought more and more: equipment, confectionery materials, confectionery supplies, etc. Commercial quality materials are expensive. That all adds up. "
Creating the menu for a new patisserie was not easy. Many of the basic recipes for take-out cakes and counter desserts are adapted from those she learned at Atelier Kohta, though gradually she has added her own touches. "Now I'm getting used to it, so it's okay,” she said. “At first, it was a little difficult. I started with take-out from zero, baked confectionery from zero, and the eat-in menu from zero. At first, I was alone, and then I had one part-time employee. Then I hired a girl as a full-time employee, but she was a new graduate, and she couldn’t make anything. She was from my alma mater; my teacher introduced her. I had to hold it all together on my own. So, when I opened, it was really crazy. Then I got another girl who had worked at a bakery before, and she had experience packing boxes, etc. That was a big help. Altogether, we had four people. Sometimes I asked my sister to come to help me. Yeah, it was really hard."
Though she struggled at first, after four years, Harashima was expanding her business to include a second-floor eat-in space. "There are only five seats here [on the first floor],” she said. “And when takeout and eat-in overlap in one space, it's very busy and uncomfortable. I'm also renting a space in a building nearby, where employees can go during breaks and leave their luggage. But even so, I always thought that all the cardboard boxes behind the counter seating didn’t look good. It’s also narrow in here, and it is pretty tough for the two of us to pass by each other, so I've been wondering what to do. I was thinking about various things, but then the second floor became vacant. Well, it was the same landlord, so we had some trust. "
Now that she is up to eight staff members, we asked how it was managing a team. "It was hard. It was really hard,” she said with a laugh. “However, because the staff has matured now, I can leave a lot of things to one of the boys. It’s such a big thing to have such employees. That's why I can do it. They [employees] are of different ages. There are young ones and grown-ups, so it's a good mix. When serving customers, for example, it’s good to have a grown-up who can talk and recommend things. It’s also good to have young ones who have physical strength. They are all good kids."
Though she is barely thirty, the staff are now her “kids.” It also seems that the development of her staff came at just the right time to add more eat-in space.
The counter desserts made in front of customers remain her calling card. Such fancy counter desserts might look showy, she said, but her goal is to produce something with true flavor, she said. "If it's a strawberry parfait, I want to make it with proper strawberries,” she said. “I hate things that look good on Instagram, but don’t taste as they should."
Certainly, the Mont Blanc we ordered on this day was "Mont Blanc" where you can fully enjoy the taste of chestnuts. The strawberry parfait was also a genuine "strawberry parfait" in which you can enjoy the taste of fresh strawberries.
Creating new desserts is a trial-and-error process in which all the staff participates. "I'll try it. I’ll let the staff eat it and ask what they think. I'm wondering if this should be like this or that. I will always first try making it myself, deciding what it should look like and what to put in, and then fixing it."
After the interview, we watched her create our desserts with the confident relaxed motions of a practiced professional. We asked her if she had any problems due to the pressure of live performance. "At first, yeah. I didn't fail ... but I got nervous,” she said. “I'd get pretty upset. But I’ve gotten used to it. I've had some trouble. Somehow it collapsed. Then I'd try again. You have no choice. Everyone is watching. You just have to fix it."
In a residential neighborhood like Nishi-Ogikubo, local regular customers are essential. "I'm sure the regulars are living close by us,” she said. “Some come as often as twice a week.”
Despite the image of dessert places as a feminine form of consumption, men and women are about fifty-fifty, she said. “Sometimes men come alone. People of different ages. Families come also. There are people who only eat in. Then there are those who eat upstairs and go downstairs and buy something.”
Business is increasing year by year, she said. “It's increasing here [upstairs] in the eat-in counter. Many customers see it for the first time on Tabelog. I started making online reservations for the counter on Tabelog. The effect is pretty big. Many people have found us on Tabelog. "
The larger macroeconomic situation, especially the rising prices of commodities, is also impacting her business, she told us. "I have been purchasing large amounts of ingredients,” she said. "Money keeps flowing out. And the costs have been going up. Without some adjustment to the prices, it is hard to see how we can keep a profit. We will have to see how this goes…. But since I started doing it on the second floor, people have been coming in. On the weekdays there are always customers, and on the weekends, it is always full. That’s very good, though the material costs are still rising steadily now.”
In addition to costs of ingredients, gas and electricity are also rising, she said. “That's something I'm worried about right now. I will have to wait to see how this goes."
With the increase in take-out and in eat-in, daily business is good.
Despite these concerns, Harashima has big plans. "I'm thinking that I want to make it bigger,” she said confidently. “I'm thinking that I want to open another store, but it depends on the timing. If the store is far away, it will be difficult to manage. Now the goal is to make sure the upstairs business does well."
The ambitious Harashima created her own patisserie brand in Nishiogi by making desserts live at the counter. She is expanding and planning for further growth. It is fun to watch her provide delicious food to customers. She is engaging, though not showy. But the main source of her success may be her ability to calmly adjust to market conditions and grow her business. (James Farrer March 10, 2022).
(Interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura December 17, 2021; transcription and translation by James Farrer; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved)