We learn that you used to play baseball but went into the cooking business after sustaining injuries. Can you tell us more about this?
When I was young, I had two dreams. One was to be a baseball player. My hometown has a team called Hiroshima Carp. I was pretty good in high school and got drafted into the team. When I suffered injuries, I had to give it all up. I mean, I could play but I wouldn’t be very successful. My other dream was to be a sushi chef. Why? My parents were very busy. We weren’t rich and we went out for dinner only twice a year, and we’d go to a coffee shop and a sushi restaurant. In the latter, the chef looked really cool with his clean jacket and hat.
You were pretty successful in Hiroshima. Why then did you decide to go to America?
I trained as a sushi chef for seven years. I got married and opened my own restaurant in Hiroshima. Back then, I had four jobs and worked from 8 until 2 in the morning. Then I had a choice between opening another restaurant and buying a house or coming to America. I wanted to experience a different country, culture and cuisine. So, in 1984, I decided to go to Los Angeles during the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sell the restaurant in time so I had to buy an open ticket instead and travel around the world for a year. My final stop was New York. I still have the open ticket back to Japan—I never used it.
Why New York?
I like the energy of the place. Seeing lots of people. Women walking fast on pumps. I needed the excitement.
How would you describe your cuisine?
I don’t have the answer yet. But having no rule is my rule.
You’ve opened up a restaurant in Bangkok. Why here and is the Bangkok branch any different from other branches?
I think it’s time and I really like the people here. My menu comes from my heart so all the restaurants are the same yet I also have to cater to the local palate. New York is only 160 kilometers away from Philadelphia but the dining culture is totally different in each city. Bangkok is so much further away and I have to figure out the tastes of Thais.
So how would you describe the Thai palate?
Almost the same as the Japanese, which is probably why I can eat Thai food everyday [laughs]. It’s easy and fun to create dishes for Bangkok.
Do you have a favorite?
Making food is like having children—you can’t identify your favorite kid. They are all my children and they all come from my heart.
You’ve introduced a knife collection, and wine, beer and sake brands. What’s next for you?
I did all these because I like myself and I want my name to be on everything [laughs]. Well, at the end of this year I will open two more restaurants. Last year, I only spent 63 nights sleeping in my own bed. The rest of the year I spent in hotels. Is that considered travel? I will also have a pop-up restaurant at the US Open, will throw the first pitch in the Yankee Stadium and come out with a new cookbook this November called Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking. I want to make a book that can teach people to cook at home using ingredients you can buy everywhere. Busy is my life [laughs].
So what do you normally cook in your free time for yourself and your family?
Unfortunately, I don’t have free time. I have new restaurants and projects. A lot of people call me a celebrity chef. I don’t know what celebrity means. I just want to be a chef. But I don’t have much time. But If I did have free time, I would like to spend more time in kitchen, wielding a knife in my hand—and maybe go skydiving.
So you like adventure?
I think so. I used to be a sportsman. In my head, I’m 18 to 20 years old, but my body is already 61. It’s a big gap. My wife always says I’m not that young anymore, saying “no, no, no.” So, I reply, “ok, ok.” [laughs].