Husband and Wife Collaboration in a Neighborhood Bistro

One of the outstanding features of Japanese neighborhood gastronomy is the frequent close collaboration of husband and wife teams in small restaurants, an intimate partnership that defies the stereotypes of separate gendered spheres in contemporary Japanese urban life, while at the same time creating its own distinct gender roles. Behind the choreography of practiced culinary work, we can catch a glimpse of the everyday frictions, and sometimes even the intimate lives of the working couples. There are many examples of these family-run restaurants in Nishiogi (including Fève, Upim, and Hana). One of the longest running examples is Bistro Sate.


About a seven minutes walk directly south of Nishiogi Station, along Nishi-Ogikubo Station South Street (also known as Otome Street), Sate has been in business thirty-four years. As in many restaurants we observed, the husband, Naoki Manaka, cooks, while the wife, Hikari Manaka, serves the customers. Sate offers traditional Japanese-style western food (yoshoku) and classic French cuisine. Though many assume the name “Sate” is European, in fact it comes from the Japanese locution, for “okay” as in what: “okay, what are we going to eat tonight?” It could be translated, Bistro “Okay?”

 

The small dining room at Sate barely accommodates twenty customers. The chef Naoki works alone busily behind the counter decorated with photographs shot by Hikaru, of foods, customers and even their goldfish. Hikaru and a part-time staff take orders and deliver the dishes. He is the stereotypical dour craftsman, while the gregarious Hikaru enlivens the space with conversation and chatter, creating a social atmosphere in which customers can enjoy delicious foods and wines.

 

Naoki came from Saitama, wanting to open a restaurant in a quiet residential place. “I really had no connection to Nishiogi,” he said. “It felt right, and it was much quieter than now.”

Now, Otome Street is full of eating and drinking establishments, and we asked the chef how it looked over three decades before. “It was completely different compared to now,” he replied. “The banker came over to take a look at the place. Nowadays a banker wouldn’t want to deal with such a small business. But back then, they did business with me. He told me, ‘If you can make it in this location for five years, you can make it anywhere.’ The location was that bad.”

 

“There was a soba shop and a sushiya on this street, but there were few eating and drinking places, but now these have increased a lot. It was an old shopping area, quite old. Over there was a grocery store, and there was an umbrella shop, and a shop for making seals [for stamping documents]. There are no longer such places. That place directly over there was a bank.”

 

The shop itself was also empty when he rented it, and except for the counter, which was made by a carpenter, he constructed the entire interior himself, from the floor to the ceilings. Only the finish was applied by a professional. “I just want to do it myself,” he explained. “I have not really learned [carpentry] anywhere. I just learned by doing. It took me three months to do the interior”

 

When they first opened, the place had more of the atmosphere of a drinking place, than of a restaurant, with many customers sitting at the counter. “In those days, many people drank bourbon. And many kept a bottle here. Now no one does that [referring to the practice of keeping a bottle with their name on it behind the bar]. It is wine or beer. Back in those days there was not so much wine. Today we have many varieties.”

 

“Now there are not so many people at the counter,” Naoki said.  “And there are not so many people coming every day.”

 

“Recently,” Hikaru added, “the children are coming back who came with their parents [when they were little], and they are even bringing a third generation. And some of the old regulars from those days also still come. It’s just that many have gotten older. Some moved to other cities. But when they come back here, they will drop by.”

 

In the old days when they were primarily a drinking place, the popular dishes were hamburger steak and meat-filled cabbage rolls. All of this is still on the menu. Slowly Naoki increased both the number and quality of the offerings. “I was not really all that ambitious then,” he said. “I had to do everything myself, and I was young.”

 

As usual in this back-and-forth conversation, Hikaru, cheerfully added some more positive details. “Now what is more popular are the beef cheeks in red wine sauce, the duck confit, the lamb and the homemade sausage.”

 

“I’ve always had the sausage,” Naoki said. “What has changed most is the way I make it. Now I am using sliced fatback. At first, I wasn’t doing that. At first, I made it according to the cookbook. But it was a bit dry and crumbly and I wanted it to be firmer. So, I tried different things, like changing the proportion of beef and pork. Now I use eight parts pork and two parts beef. But I also tried six parts to four parts. In the beginning, it was called Hungarian style sausage. Now you could call it Sate style. I also tried chopping the fatback in big pieces and in small pieces. So I have them a bit larger. I chop it, not grinding it. I chopped it and increased the amount, and that makes it juicy. I feel I have gotten it right.”

 

Naoki said he mostly learned to cook from books, but his experiences with cooking began when he was working in a mountaineering hut in the Northern Japanese Alps during his student years forty years ago. “Rather than really cooking, all I learned was knife work. Mostly what I did was chop cabbage. On a busy day, I would chop fifty heads of cabbage. In a mountain hut, everyone eats the same thing, even if there were several hundred people.”

 

At the time, he did not really think of becoming a cook. But after he started working at a company he recalled that experience at the mountain shack, and he started thinking he wanted to be a western food chef.

 

Even for an old restaurant like Sate, customer feedback on social media has become important. “I think it was Facebook. This kind of media started, and a lot of personal opinions came up. I think someone wrote, ‘the hamburger was good, but small.’ I really was bothered by that. So, I made it considerably bigger. Your reputation can really go down. It is not just about taste.”


“I think [this comment] was also because there was only a very simple salad accompaniment,” Hikaru added. “We greatly increased the vegetables.” Now there are plenty of colorful vegetables accompanying the main dish, an example of Hikaru’s influence on the plating as well as the atmosphere of the restaurant. She also does all the photography and publicity on Facebook and Instagram, as well as a booklet celebrating their thirty-fourth years as a restaurant.

 

For Naoki, the most difficult time for the restaurant was about ten years after opening. The young single, and mostly male, regulars who came every night to drink began to get married, have children or move away. Naoki, had to shift to create a more restaurant-like atmosphere with more sophisticated dishes and menu, in order to survive. “But the mood is completely different from the former atmosphere – the feeling that everyone got to be friends as soon as they sat down together each other – that’s gone. Now it's not really like that. Customers don’t easily become friends like they used to.”

 

In the past, it was a bar-style simple eatery. Now it has become a place to savor different tasty dishes. The couple spoke passionately about the changing patterns of customers, including some long-term ones. “Now there are more couples, especially on the weekends,” Naoki said. “At lunch it’s mostly women, probably housewives…. At night, it is couples. Some bring their families. There are many people who come for special occasions, like birthdays or anniversaries.”

 

“Some people had their first date here,” Hikaru waxed. “Others celebrated a birthday together here for the first time. One couple filled out their marriage registration forms here. One couple has celebrated their anniversary here for more than twenty years. There were no children in the beginning, but now they have a child in high school. In the past they lived near here, but now they are in Meguro."

“There are many people who always come on a fixed day,” Naoki said with his more matter-of-fact tone.

“A proposal at night and so on,” Hikaru added.

“Maybe there is such an atmosphere” Naoki cut in with an air of doubt.

“I’d like to see people come more on ordinary days, just because they are in the neighborhood, to meet up on that day,” Hikaru said.

“I do not want people to make it so very special, though,” Naoki said with a laugh.

“The people who filled out their marriage registration form here had us sign as witnesses,” Hikaru added.

“We’ve been doing this a long time, that's what that means,” Naoki added.

 

Some customers come not only because of the foods, of course, but also because of the couple. They are one of many husband and wife teams in Nishiogi gastronomy, following the pattern, of the husband cooking while the wife serves the customers and makes the locale cozy. In their case, however, they actually met here in Sate. Hikaru was a former customer, then worked here part-time, and then they got married. This year, however, they will be together twenty years.

 

In Japan, ordinary salaried working couples work separately in the daytime. With their long hours on the job, they often are only together from the late evening to the early morning. At Sate, as in the other couple-managed restaurants, they are together nearly all hours of the day.

When asked about that point, Hikaru talked about this.

 

“It's tough because he is really very strict. When he goes into the shop he becomes a different person. When the work is over, he’s completely okay. It’s all because of the work. The most important thing is that he can’t be bothered while working. If something is not right, he is strict about it, whether it is the food, the cleaning of the dishes, the plating, everything.”

Even though they are a married couple, the work roles are rigid.

 

After the interview Hikaru followed us out and said, “Naoki-san is a stern person. Quite a stern person. If he hadn't been he wouldn't have been able to survive more than thirty years.  He has had to do everything himself. He is an artisan.” 

 

The residents of Nishiogi are attracted by the seriousness of the chef and the skill he applies to the food. It is Hikaru, however, who brings the warmth, style, and friendliness to this veteran neighborhood restaurant (James Farrer, Sept. 5, 2017).

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

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