What it takes to become a professional Japanese chef

What it takes to become a professional Japanese chef

To become a professional Japanese chef (shokunin), one needs a deep understanding of the Japanese culture coupled with excellent culinary skills. According to Wells, the Japanese culture is broad in that it consists of several permutations of keyelements. Such elements include the language, the seasons of the year and to some extent how to relate to people of different ages. The most importantaspectsof learningare the language and how the tastes and preferences of the people change with seasons. Excellent language skills are neededtoread and interpret characters from menus, which may not use the typical Japanese alphabets. Moreover, efficient communication between the chef and his colleagues as well as clients is essential for a smooth workflow in the kitchen and the eatery area of the restaurant. For the Japanese, each season is characterizedby its food and a particular way of presentation of the food to the customers in a restaurant. Therefore, it is imperative for a prospective chef to learn these concepts in their quest to become a shokunin. The second set of skills that a potentialshokunin must have is the actual culinary skills. These involve understanding how to operate in the kitchen. Activities such as maintaining kitchen cleanliness, inspection of food, handling and preparation of food, the types of food and the different tastes that need to be in the food are some of the basics that the shokunin should be competent in1. In addition, having years of hands-on experience in different sections of the kitchen is essential.




The training of a professional Japanese chef has three critical stages. These comprise learning and understanding of the language, attending culinary school and finally attending apprenticeship in one of the restaurants. David Wells, being an American who was not proficient in the Japaneselanguage had to start his journey by learning the language. The language was significant in that it was the medium used to teach the lectures as well as communicate with tutors, other students,and colleagues at work. Additionally, the menus were inscribed using Japanese and sometimes Chinese characters or even symbols that had no relation to the languages, such as the one used to signify the clan that first grew tubers to represent sweet potatoes. After mastery of the necessaryJapanese language skills, Wells enrolled into a culinary school.

The culinary school marks an essential step in training for a Japanese chef. This is the stage where the students get to learn on the operations in the kitchen. The course in the culinary school is a two-year program. The topics taught in the first year involve cleanliness and basicJapanese culinary skills1. The mode of teaching is two-part, lectures and actual cooking. As part of the addresses, the students are expected to internalize concepts such as cleaning before one starts cooking, cleaning while cooking and cleaning the workstation after cooking. Consequently, the students learn about prevention of contagious diseases and the public health factors. After this, the curriculum involves learning Japanese, Western and Chinese cuisines. The lectures in the first year further delve into hygiene, nutrition,and economics while the practical part of the studies involved the actual cooking2. During the practical lessons, the teacher prepares the menu of the day while the students watch. The students were then grouped in teams of five people, where they were to work together to make a similar menu to the teacher’s in the most precise manner.

The students also had to pass some individual tests that involved assessment of their technical abilities, speed, cleanliness,and presentation3. One of the mainindividual tests involved assessing the students’ ability to handle three basic Japanese knives. The first test required handling of the usuba, a thin-bladed, long and wide vegetable knife employed in cutting a piece of carrot and long white radish. The second knife was the deba that has a triangular blade for fish-filleting. The third knife was the yanagiba, a shashimi knife for slicing tuna blocks. Additionally, the learners had to acquaint themselves with the workflow in the kitchen and the importance of using the right hand for knife operations, especially for left-handed students like Wells.


The second year in culinary school was characterized mostly by cooking. The students had to choose one cuisine to specialize in from the three they learned in the first year. The main concepts involved learning about the four seasons and their associated ingredients and visual presentation1. According to Wells, each season had its own identity. For instance, in the spring as the fish changes its shade to a darker pink hue, the presentation of the food involved placing flowers from blossoming cherry trees that signified the transition of the shade of the fish. In summer, food was presented in porcelain dishware that was lighter in the shade. Additionally, during the winter, cooking pots were placed on burners on guests’ tables.

After graduation from culinary school, the graduate must take part in a two-year apprenticeship in a kaiseki restaurant. This is where the prospective professional chef gets to work in a real-world setting and gain experience in the field2. The apprenticeship comprises working in various departments of the restaurant tounderstand how the departments work autonomously but towards achieving a common aim. The normal working conditions involve twelve-hour workday with a two-hour break for six days a week3. The apprentices work under the guide of senior chefs. They may be stationed as assistants to the hors d’oeuvres chef, in the storehouse or several other sections in the kitchen. In addition, the apprentices may choose to participate in other activities like accompanying the restaurant owner to the fish market in Tsukiji. The apprenticeship also offers foreign learners the chance to hone in on their language skills by deepening their grasp of the Japanese cuisine terminologies and symbols. For Wells, after completion of the apprenticeship, he moved back to New York where he worked in a Japanese restaurant after which he got the chance to further his studies in the prestigious Tsuji School of Cooking. After the six months training there, he worked as a personal chef for a private client and ventured further into ceramic artistry to customize the visual presentation of his food.

The training and subsequent working experience that Wells went through differ slightly from that of young chefs in Jiro Dreams of Sushi in that after culinary school, the young chefs attend apprenticeships for more than two years and work under senior chefs.Jiro’s first son exemplifies the mode of training, where he chose to work in his father’s sushi restaurant under his father’s guide as preparation to take over the leadership of the restaurant in the future.



Becoming a kaiseki chef

I believe a person from my region can become a kaiseki chef,but it is not an easy feat. Learning and pursuing a profession as a kaiseki chef has been made easy by globalization that has popularized the Japanese meal, sushi, in different parts of the globe1. The wide acceptance of sushi has further led to spreading and understanding of Japanese cuisines and culture exemplified by the establishment of restaurants that specialize in the cuisine. However, pursuing the Japanese chef profession is not an easy task and requires someone with special attributes2. Thisis exemplified by Wells’ case, where his admission to the culinary school was stalled for a whole year as the school administration did not believe that a foreigner would be patient and diligent enough to learn and understand the Japanese cuisine. However, Wells proved that through hard work, determination and focusing on the main goal, it is possible to study and work towards becoming a professional Japanese chef. Some of the barriers that may hinder a foreigner from becoming a kaiseki chef include language barrier. The Japanese language has complex elements and especially in the presentation of menus in restaurants where symbols that have no relation to the alphabets may be used1. This may prove to be a difficulty for people who do not speak Japanese as the first language. In addition, the Japanese cuisine is highly dependent on the seasons. A professional chef must learn all the necessary ingredients and visual presentation techniques for the different seasons. This may be a challenge to some peopleas some meals have up to eighty-five ingredients and since they are only preparedfor not more than three months each year, the chef must remember how to prepare a meal after almost nine months of not preparing it.

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