A Japanese chef fulfills his dream of opening his own restaurant in Canada
Japanese food continues to be popular overseas. According to a survey by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the number of Japanese restaurants in the world was approximately 159,000 in 2009.
According to a survey by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the number of Japanese restaurants in the world was about 159,000 as of 2009. I think it is fair to say that Toronto comes in second.
Says Kiyokazu Kashiwabara, a sushi chef and representative of the ZEN Japan Group, which operates Zen Japanese Restaurant and three other Japanese restaurants in Toronto, Canada.
Mr. Kashiwabara came to Canada in 1983 at the age of 25 and worked as a sushi chef in Ottawa for three years before moving to Toronto. After building a career in Japanese restaurants, in 2000 he took over Zen Japanese Restaurant in Toronto’s Scarborough area from a Japanese owner and started his own business.
When I first came to Canada, the only fish available was frozen yellowtail. But as time went by, the distribution industry developed, and seasonal fish from Japan began to arrive in Toronto. I think ZEN was the first to actively purchase and serve this fish.
In 2001, the restaurant welcomed as executive chef Kenshi Sato, who had honed his skills at Nadaman and other restaurants before serving as chef at the Consulate General of Japan in Toronto. In 2003, the restaurant moved to Markham, a suburb of Toronto where many wealthy Chinese people live. In 2003, the restaurant relocated to Markham, a suburb of Toronto where many wealthy Chinese people live, and reopened as an authentic Japanese restaurant offering sushi and kappo cuisine.
Mr. Sato loves cooking from the bottom of his heart and is very serious about it. At the restaurant before we moved, we served chicken and beef teriyaki for Canadians, but Mr. Sato told me, ‘I didn’t come to ZEN to grill meat. So we decided to build a kitchen where he could make the most of his skills and serve kappo and kaiseki dishes at Markham’s restaurant.
As expected, he has been very good at what he does. Thanks to him, ZEN has grown into a full-fledged Japanese restaurant.
In 2010, Mr. Sato left his position as executive chef to start his own restaurant. In 2010, Mr. Sato left his position as executive chef and opened his own restaurant, KAPPO SATO, in Toronto, under the direct management of the ZEN Japan Group.
He said, “From the time I met Mr. Sato, he told me that it was his dream to have his own restaurant abroad. I knew that, and that’s why I hired him as our executive chef. It was around the time he turned 42 that he finally said, ‘I want to open a restaurant. I said, ‘If that’s the case, I’ll help you,’ and I supported him, including the funds to open the restaurant.
Since it is a kappo restaurant, there are only counter seats in the restaurant. It is the first restaurant of that style in Toronto. It is busier than ours. It must be hard work, but I am enjoying it. When I see that, it makes me happy too.
Many of them are owned by Chinese or Koreans whose first priority is to make a profit under the name of Japanese food…
Having his own restaurant abroad – did Mr. Kashiwabara himself come to Canada with such a dream in mind?
After graduating from a culinary school in Yokohama, Kashiwabara-san trained at a local sushi restaurant. Influenced by his father, who was an expatriate in Chicago, he had a vague idea that he wanted to go abroad to make sushi.
I happened to get a call from a friend of my father’s who was starting a sushi restaurant in Ottawa, saying that he was looking for a sushi chef, and I was asked to use him there, so I came to Canada. At first, I planned to work there for about three years and then return to Japan.
But then I began to think that life in Canada was not so bad, where I could take proper vacations and have time for myself. But the salary was really low. I got married in Ottawa and decided to move to the city of Toronto to make more money.
In Toronto, he worked at two Japanese restaurants.
One of these restaurants is an old establishment called “MASA” (already closed). It was a busy restaurant that was always crowded, and I worked there for 10 years because I wanted to know why customers came in.
After I came to Toronto, I started thinking about owning my own restaurant. In fact, I once left MASA after a Chinese manager invited me to ‘open a restaurant. In the end, I had such an experience that I could say I was cheated, and I returned to MASA after one year.”
However, as mentioned above, Mr. Kashiwabara later took over Zen Japanese Restaurant and became independent. The restaurant has now established its brand as a genuine Japanese restaurant by Japanese people in Toronto, Canada’s largest city.
There are about 800 Japanese restaurants in Toronto now, but I think less than 10 percent of them are run by Japanese chefs. Many of them are owned by Chinese or Korean owners whose first priority is to make money under the name of Japanese food.
The ZEN Group wants to preserve the tradition of Japanese food and offer the same authentic cuisine as in Japan. As a mission of those involved in Japanese food, I believe we must create a model for Japanese restaurants.”
When I go to Japan, I am amazed at how they can serve lunch at such a reasonable price.
In 1919, Mr. Kashiwabara opened Zen Sanuki Udon in the Scarborough area, where Zen Japanese Restaurant was located. He uses Japanese flour and natural soup stock to provide Toronto residents with the “authentic taste” of Sanuki Udon.
In addition, they are planning to open a yakitori restaurant as their third directly operated restaurant.
He is now working at our restaurant. He has the intention to become independent, so we are thinking of opening an authentic yakitori restaurant in the same style as in Japan as a directly managed restaurant. We also plan to offer Japanese sweets.”
As is the case with the aforementioned KAPPO SATO, the ZEN Japan Group provides management know-how and financial support to directly operated restaurants. The maximum term of membership in the group is 10 years, after which the stores will become completely independent.
In Japan, I think there are cases where you can open a restaurant with an initial investment of 3 million yen if you are not moving in, but in Canada, the initial cost is 70 to 100 million yen at today’s exchange rate. Since we are also investing that much money in the business, we will carefully assess whether or not the owner is a person who can make it as an independent business owner, as we are providing support. For that reason, we first have them work for ZEN. Support for independence comes only after we have established a mutually trustworthy relationship.
The group is currently looking for Japanese nationals with at least two years of cooking experience to open a yakitori restaurant.
Canada has raised the bar for immigration compared to the past, and about six months ago, we started requiring two years of cooking experience in Japan to get a work visa. So as an employer, for those who really want to work at ZEN, we will support them from obtaining a work visa to traveling to Canada.
While an increasing number of Japanese are leaving “cheap Japan” and using the working holiday system to “go abroad to work,” it is also pointed out that the younger generation is inward-looking, with little interest in taking on challenges overseas.
When our employees talk to their friends about the advantages of working abroad when they return to their hometowns in Japan, they all say they are envious, but they don’t say they want to go to Canada.
Wages are very cheap in Japan now. A person who used to work second shift at a restaurant in Japan is working at our restaurant from this month, and he says that his monthly salary in Japan was 200,000 yen, including tax.
When I go to Japan, I am amazed at how they can serve lunch at this price! I guess the 500 yen lunch is based on the employee’s too cheap salary. That’s why there are no new cooks.
Young people should go abroad and look at Japan from the outside. You will see the difference in salary and working style.
Incidentally, the annual salary of the group’s employees ranges from 4 million yen for a cook with less than five years of experience to 6.5 million yen for a cook with more than five years of experience. In addition, tips of about 160,000 yen per month are distributed.
The difference in wages between Japan and other countries in the food and beverage sector…… is the reality.
The good thing about working in Canada is that it is not limited to money. No matter how busy a restaurant is, you can still have time for yourself.
Above all, I am able to directly convey the excellence of Japanese food to people, and they are impressed by how delicious it is. Nothing could make me happier.
Seiichi Kashiwabara is the president of ZEN Japan Group and a Japanese chef. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Japanese Restaurant Association of Toronto, and has worked to promote Japanese food culture and ingredients by holding the “Japanese Food Festival” in Toronto for two consecutive years in collaboration with Ehime Prefecture.
Interview and text by： Sayuri Saito