The Three Principles of the Smoked Food Artisan
Food films such as Giro Dreams of Sushi have created an image of Japan’s culinary artisans as unapproachable perfectionists shaped by years of apprenticeship and appreciated by fastidious customers. In reality, large numbers of very small-scale artisanal restaurants are indeed a feature of Tokyo’s urban foodscape, though many are financially precarious and much more modest and less glamorous affairs than the Michelin-starred sushiya featured in Giro Dreams of Sushi. However, as the case of Nishiogi’s Mitsushi shows, they are indeed a special type of social space in which the lone “master” is simultaneously proprietor, manager, chef, waiter, dish washer, and, most importantly, dining companion. These restaurants are also windows into the lives and careers of Tokyo artisanal owner-chefs and the social relations that make their tiny restaurants a type of community space.
Heading down the arcade South of the station, passing under Nishiogi’s famous pink elephant, straight for a couple of hundred meters, then right into a small alleyway, one can find a number of eateries. On the one side of the alley, there is the elegant restaurant Re:gendo in an old wooden Japanese house, on the other side, a low modern structure housing three small shops, the famous Sawyer Café and Stand Shimpo, and now the Smoked Food Bistro Mitsushi, which has only been in operation for one year.
The owner of Mitsushi, Mr. Aihara, does everything himself, from purchasing items, to smoking the foods, to preparation and service.
Aihara has been involved in gastronomic work for almost 30 years before opening Mitsushi. He first started as a French cook in Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku Island before moving to Fukuoka where he also worked as a French chef. It was in Fukuoka that he was offered a chance to come to Tokyo to work in the department store food business. There he did product development and planning for 15 years.
"I was not working in a department store direct, but I was contracting with a few companies that do business in department stores from Hokkaido to Kyushu. We were placing goods in department stores and planning and developing products to be cooked in department stores. The products were classified by area, by brand, by nationality and so on. It was deli food, western food, curry and so on .... "
Aihara picked up the art of smoking food while working in the French restaurant in Kagawa Prefecture, smoking many foods from vegetables, to meat, lamb, and fish
“There was a boss who had come back from France…. Now, there is a lot of information on the internet, and kits are sold, but at the time there was no information, I did not know where to buy the tools, I was given a smoked recipe book written in French, and told ‘do this!’ I wasn’t taught anything and I didn’t know French. I started by translating that. It was not easy, and I failed many times.”
He was laughing as he reminisced about this job, but it was clear that he worked hard under the head chef, and made to work long hours overtime. “Now you can’t do that, but back then it was okay. That was 27 years ago, I was in my twenties.”
The company lifestyle was stable, he said, and he thought of working through to retirement. But in the end, he decided upon the more uncertain path of opening his own shop in which he would work face-to-face with his customers. "I had a plan of starting before age fifty, and it opened at the very last moment in 2015, when I was forty-nine."
Having worked in the provinces for years, he decided to head to the big city. Like many others we have interviewed, he chose Nishiogi because there were many small and unusual shops opening up in the area. “With the idea of managing a store of less than ten seats by myself, there were various concepts about what to sell. I wanted to take advantage of the smoked things that I had worked with during my apprentice days but I been able to fully utilize in Fukuoka restaurants and department food basements. So, I thought that I would make a smoked food shop by myself, and I figured that this would make for a small and unique restaurant.”
Even then, it was very difficult to find an open shop space in Nishiogi. Every time he applied for a rental space, there were multiple competitors. Finally, after six months when he thought there was no chance, an opening appeared in a place that was once a sushi shop. Looking around at Mitsushi today, you can clearly see it was designed as a sushi bar. Aihara doesn’t do any advertising, and most of the customers are drop-ins who were visiting the nearby favorites such as Re:gendo or Stand Shimpo and decide to try out the new place.
According to Aihara, the name “Mitsushi” represents three principles: locally sourced ingredients, the technique of smoking, and a one-man operation. Vegetables are mostly grown very locally in Suginami. Some of them he even picks himself, riding over to the fields on his bicycle. “The farmers often eat these themselves, so they do not use pesticides.”
The pork is from olive-fed pigs from Shodoshima in Kagawa Prefecture, accessed through networks created when he was working for department stores. Fish is sent directly from Sagami Bay. Beyond sourcing, the foods require extensive preparation before opening hours. “It is not just about cutting up smoked foods and arranging them on a plate,” he said, “but really taking my time.”
Aihara showed us his smoking materials and equipment, all small-scale canisters and pots that can fit into his narrow kitchen. "Today I smoked it with light chips such as apple wood, cherry, hickory, or peat, although everything looks the same," he said with a laugh. “I heat the chips, and they burn to a limited extent. Then I weaken the flame for smoking. If you have the flame too high, they will burn.”
Actualizing his long-term vision has been rewarding but also more stressful and uncertain than company life. "Even though your lifestyle is more enjoyable, if you do not do things properly, it will not bring results, and you cannot make a living. It's hard. Even if you work for a company, every single day is a win or a loss. But, if you work for a company, you get a salary even if you are absent, while I take in nothing when I take a rest. I had to take a rest due to back pain last April, but my income was zero."
It’s also a long work day. Aihara comes to the shop around one in the afternoon and returns usually around two in the morning, though it can be even later on weekdays. Given the drinking and dining culture of Nishiogi, the business is also more centered on alcohol, especially wine, than he imagined.
“I started out thinking of this primarily as a smoked food bistro,” he said. “The focus was not on drinking. However, practically speaking, in this kind of neighborhood, the first round of customers may be eating here, but the second or third round may be eating elsewhere and coming here for drinks and a snack. This a ‘ladder drinking’ (bar hopping) culture. There are customers who will come in with one person for the first round and by the fifth round have come back with someone else. On the first round, he may be a gentleman, but by the fifth round has turned into a different person.”
Many of the customers are in their forties because the prices are perhaps too high for people in their twenties. "Before I opened,” Aihara said, “I was imagining targeting men in their 40s to 60s. It is maybe because I like men, and I thought it would be easy to converse with other adult men. That was the image I had, and I had the idea that I wanted to actively talk with customers."
However, when he opened the doors, to his surprise half the customers were female, and it has remained so. Many come alone. “Yesterday every customer here was a woman eating alone. They were either people from Nishiogi, or living nearby. About half of the customers come alone, others come as pairs. There are many types of customers. Some want to talk, others don't. Almost all of them are used to drinking alone, and I feel many of them are used to chatting with the shop owner. And they talk to other customers. ‘This place is tasty, or that place is tasty,’ that sort of thing.”
At the end of our first interview, we asked the owner what he recommended for a meal. For starters, he suggested the mixed platter of smoked foods and fish potage. This could be followed by the sautéed olive-fed pork. People who are more hungry should try the smoked egg sandwich or smoked mackerel sandwiches. Finally, at the end of the meal, or following a night of ladder drinking, everyone should try the caramel ice cream. This is made with smoked almonds, and is more of an adult taste, suitable for wine. With its bitterness, it can even be paired with a dry red wine, he said.
A small restaurant also creates connections to the larger community. Although Aihara doesn’t participate in the formal business association of the street, he does participate in other community activities. He opened a takeout shop at the monthly Morning Market run by the Higashi Ginza Merchants Association on Shinmei Road and purchases the vegetable boxes sold by a group of local farmers.
Moreover, the restaurant itself is becoming a community spot. Back in October, we stopped by, and happened upon a celebration of Mitsushi’s first year anniversary party. This was organized by a regular customer, who is a manager at a national restaurant chain. He prepared a cake and brought some of his young female employees along with him. There was also a Taiwanese-Japanese woman who represents a family-owned Shaoxing rice wine company. Mitsushi also serves her product. Shaoxing rice wine goes well with smoked food, we discovered, though it is not yet very popular. Another regular who attended is the owner of a major restaurant enterprise in Kichijoji. The boisterous conversations ranged from politics to flirting to planning for future outings. Always we returned to the common topic of food. It was a lively and very intimate evening, as some regulars arrived and others left. (James Farrer, Dec. 31, 2016)