|“Sharing Japanese food culture to the world.” The series of interviews feature the vision of Pocket Concierge. We interview the chefs of the leading restaurants in Japan and introduce their thoughts on the restaurant and their way of thinking as a “top” chef.|
“Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara” Mr. Kentaro Nakahara
“Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara”, popular not only locally but famous among visitors from overseas, is notable for its quality of beef, serving them at the best condition possible. The owner, Mr. Nakahara, is the first and real craftsman of Yakiniku industry. Craftsmanship has always been the word in Sushi or other authentic Japanese cuisine, where art is thought to be expressed in each dish. Mr. Nakahara talks about the art of Yakiniku, and the evolving yakiniku industry.
Changing “how it’s done traditionally” – how his way of purchasing meat has metamorphosed the financially difficult Yakiniku restaurant to the popular one in town
– What made you go into the Yakiniku business?
It started about 15 years ago, I succeeded a yakiniku restaurant “Sumibiyaki Shichirin”, owned by my wife’s parents. “Shichirin” happened to be one of the restaurants that I used to go often when I was a student. They were doing pretty well back then, but when I actually became the owner, mad cow disease was at the top of the news and the whole of yakiniku industry was suffering. “Shichirin” was no exception, we didn’t have many customers, we saw a lot of empty seats.
– What were the first things you did in reforming the business?
I must say, the main change was purchasing of the meat. In terms of working in restaurants, I only had experiences in part-time jobs at pubs and bars, and no real professional experience. So I had think and to try everything on my own, repeating trial and error.When buying meat, traditionally it was done by a single phone call to suppliers. We sliced and served whatever that was delivered by them. It came to my mind that I should see what I was actually buying and went to the meat market in Shibaura. You know, just like how sushi craftsman going to the fish market in Tsukiji.So I went to Shibaura, not knowing that they would not let any outsiders in the market. Only butchers, dealers, suppliers, and other related professionals, but no restaurant owners. There they mainly slaughter cows, classifying them by meat parts and cutting out meat blocks.
– Did you also change the serving style in your restaurant?
Yes. First of all, I had to think how to serve the meat at the best condition. When I succeeded “Shichirin”, since we did not have many customers, we could not use up a whole block of meat in one day, which meant we couldn’t slice each time we took an order. They had to be frozen in some way, but not in a big block, as I they shouldn’t be thawed and refrozen every time I cut what I needed. So the first step was to determine whether to cut out by myself and freeze in smaller blocks, or to order the smaller blocks to the supplier.At the beginning, we only had Calbi (boneless short rib), Rosu (loin), Harami (outside skirt), and Tongue. Yakiniku lovers today have so much knowledge, but back then there generally weren’t much information to public, and also I was at a learning stage myself, so I did not classify too much on the menu. Instead, I orally explained the dish every time I served. The restaurant gradually started to do better, and my meat supplier recommended me to purchase beef in whole head. This actually made it easier to obtain highly selected beef and scarce meat parts. My customers were starting to request “chef recommended dish”, and that evolved to “chef recommended course” in my menu today. By then we grew to be a well known popular restaurant.In regards to the presentation on the plate, typical way was to simply layer the similarly sliced pieces, and that style was thought to be appealing. But it was no way appetizing to me. I layered on the plate but with some curve. That’s a popular serving layout today in Yakiniku industry but I think I was the one who started.
Fostering meat professionals to revolutinaize the Yakiniku industry
– What were your main discoveries at Shibaura market?
I found out that the beef at the market looked unquestionably more fresh and appetizing than the ones I served at my restaurant. That is to say, beef, brought to me by my suppliers were being degraded due to the restaurant kitchen. Since the first day of Shibaura, I have never seen any other restaurant owners coming to the market to study what they should. Authentic Japanese chefs and sushi chefs go to Tsukiji market to select their ingredients, cut fish by themselves, and serve food as fresh as possible. But no one in yakiniku industry had such idea. That is such laziness, a culture that needed to change.
– What is your idea in changing the Yakiniku industry?
Yakiniku restaurants definitely need craftsman. Just like sushi craftsman in sushi restaurants. Many people still consider yakiniku restaurants as izakaya (casual bar). Of course there should be casual yakiniku restaurants, just like there are conveyor belt sushi restaurants. On the other hand, just like the authentic high quality sushi restaurants, there should be more high-class yakiniku restaurants serving good quality beef.
If those high-class yakiniku restaurants are actually serving good quality beef, they need craftsman, who has a sufficient knowledge of beef. We need to watch each customer from beginning to end, to check the dining pace of each table to prepare the next dish at the guest’s best timing, estimating time when to slice and flavor.In addition, I wish the yakiniku craftsmen should be respected and admired just like French or Italian chefs and sushi craftsmen. You hear of chefs starting his or her own restaurants, after studying at such and such high-class restaurants. We don’t hear that in yakiniku. Yakiniku restaurants have never been somewhere that you would want to train or study technique at. I believe my mission is to upgrade the notion of yakiniku craftsmen – so we would be regarded as true maestros. I train my staff bearing that in mind, and my target is to have the public see yakiniku restaurants as “restaurants”, not “bars”.Speaking of craftsmen, I highly respect craftsman Keiji Nakazawa of “Sushi Sho”. Many craftsmen learned at “Sushi Sho” and opened their own restaurants, but they all still call him “Oyakata” (*meaning “master” or “teacher”. “Oya” literally means parent).
Sushi industry has its own tradition where they have a genealogy-like relationship, almost like families. I admire such sushi industry culture, and wish to have that in yakiniku industry, too. My staff call me Oyakata as well, and my wish is to have a good relation with them even after they leave to open their own restaurant.
– Craftsmen skill must be necessary to utilize the meat scraps, especially if you purchase beef in whole head.
Exactly. When buying the whole head, there are parts that cannot be eaten in yakiniku style. Shank meat for example. Shank is hard and streaky but it’s edible and should be utilized. I asked many hamburger chefs about the best ingredient for patty, and they all say shank, without exception. That motivated me to make simple but delicious hamburgers. I opened “Henry’s Burger” in Daikanyama area last year.I have come up with a best burger too. I wanted to focus on the beef’s flavor itself, so I don’t use any binder. Wagyu is famous for the marbling meat, but that frosting makes it difficult to stick the patty together without binder. I mince the beef at a perfect state for the burger, and my other tips are in the griddle temperature and the smasher pressure. I now have an exquisite patty. I worked on my buns with bakery “Baba Flat”. It took us half year to develop the decent bun.
Wagyu selected and hand sliced by Nakahara himself, challenging the best of best Yakiniku
– Tell us about your passion on serving good quality beef.
Well I definitely use knife, not slicers. Customers would certainly prefer hand sliced meat as well. I currently hand slice beef every time. I studied the best temperature to slice the meat exactly the way I want to, always challenge my own limit on serving the best state of beef. If the sliced meat has any streaks or anything that could change the texture, I would take it out. I want all my customers to enjoy the same quality in each dish.
That’s right. My policy of not always pursuing cost rate of 30%, has not changed since the beginning.
In restaurant business, cost rate is generally 30%. That means you would purchase a block of beef at 300 yen (USD/JPY 110 in April, 2017) and sell it at 1,000 yen. That’s 700 yen profit. However, even if I purchase a same sized beef at 30,000 yen, I don’t necessarily always sell it at 100,000 yen. I would sell at 30,700 yen. But you’ll need sufficient technique to handle such meat, otherwise you can’t even sell it at 30,700 yen. In addition, I try to minimize loss. So the more customers I have, I would use more of the good quality beef. That actually reduces loss. Today my cost rate is 70%. Amount of cash I earn has not changed. I also need my customers to accept the price I offer.
– What do you think is necessary to be a popular yakiniku restaurant?
Balance of 3 materials. Heat source, sauce, and meat. Heat source could be charcoal or gas. The balance of the given 3 is essential to be the popular restaurant. At Sumibiyakiniku Nakaraha, we use charcoal. Sauce is made from pork broth, with highly selected soy sauce and other ingredients, and with no artificial flavoring. Beef, I select the ones with light fat, and those that could be cut in relatively large dimension for parts like sirloin.
Nevertheless, I simply do not stop to think how I could make my beef even more delicious. Becoming a popular restaurant is not the ultimate goal. There is always room for improvement.
– What are your ideas in introducing the Japanese yakiniku culture to the world?
Wagyu has become the world famous brand of beef now. If there any restaurants that are not properly handling or serving the Wagyu beef as they should be, my mission is to correct it and educate the chefs.There are 2 methods I have in mind. Firstly, I wish the visitors from overseas to have the real Yakiniku, and announce to local friends that you could enjoy the real yakiniku in Japan.Secondly, I’d like to promote to the world what real yakiniku is. I am actually going to be at an event in Thailand in November, which advertises what Japanese craftsmen do. I am going with Yoshiteru Ikegawa of “Torishiki” (*Yakitori restaurant).
– Finally please tell us your future prospects.
I’d like to support a high-class Wagyu producers. Many Wagyu cattle raisers are leaving their business. They do for various reasons, one being the auction.For example, 2 wagyu go for an auction, one is Tajima cattle, original cost is 1,000,000 yen, the other is a non-brand wagyu originally 300,000 yen. Both cattle cost 1,000,000 yen to feed. That’s 2,000,000 yen worth cattle and the other is 1,300,000 yen. At today’s market, the 2,000,000 cattle beef would start offer around 4000 yen /kg but no one would buy, so the price would go down to 3,900, 3,800… and then someone would bid. The 130,000 beef would start around 2,600 yen /kg. That’s so cheap for wagyu, and there would be many bidders. Price would go up, 2,700, or 2,800. How could that motivate the producer of the high-class cattle, when he could only sell at below his initial offer? Even though he or she took the time and effort to raise the cattle, but it’s not worth it.
So I continue to buy the high-class beef, those raised with time and effort. And I pursue to unveil the best essence of such good beef, serving them without any hint of fading their original quality.
<A greeting from the chef>
15 years have passed since I started a yakiniku business. I thank all who visited my restaurant. One of my staff is opening his own restaurant this spring, and I am very happy to be the Oyakata who raises yakiniku craftsmen. I’d like to continue to be such Oyakata, and the restaurant to be the admired one where rookies would want to learn the technique.
<Access to “Sumibiyakiniku Nahahara”>
- 2 minute-walk from Ichigaya station, Chuo line
- 2 minute-walk from Ichigaya station, Toei Shinjuku line
- 4 minute-walk from Ichigaya station, Tokyo Metro Yurakucho line Namboku line
- 5 minute-walk from Kojimachi station, Tokyo metro Yurakucho line
The restaurant interior, designed to look over the whole floor from the kitchen. This is so Nakahara can see the dining speed of each table and estimate the best timing to cut and serve, for the beef to be enjoyed at its best condition.
Street view looking over towards Kojimachi station from the Ichigaya station side. Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara is on the 9th floor of the building on the right.
|Restaurant name：||Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara|
|Address：||4-3 Rokubancho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo GEMS Ichigaya 9F|
|Open hours：||17: 00 ~ 23: 00 (L.O. 22: 30)|