Chef Jack Kwa of Tatsu restaurant at Chijmes earned his stripes under the tutelage of sushi chefs in Kyushu. The 53-year-old Singaporean chef looks back on his days as an apprentice in Japan.
What led you to Japan?
I went to Japan on a student visa in the 1990s. At that time, I think I was the only Singaporean who was in Fukuoka, Kyushu. As I wanted to kill time and learn how to communicate better, I went door-to-door to sushi houses asking if they needed help.
Tell us about your working experience there.
I worked for two years at a restaurant called Sushi Kin. There were only six of us in total and those working with me were all middle-aged men. When I first started, they put me right at the end of the sushi counter because I wasn’t Japanese and didn’t understand the language.
You did not know the Japanese language. Did this cause any problems for you?
Knowing the basics of the language is important. Once, a customer came in and ordered squid in the Kyushu dialect. I didn’t understand what he was saying so I ignored him repeatedly. He got really unhappy and asked for my boss, who told him that I wasn’t Japanese. But he got angrier and accused him of lying. In the end, he stormed out without paying.
What were some of the qualities you noticed about Japanese chefs?
My Japanese colleagues were very disciplined. We could all go out drinking for the whole night, but they would still show up to work on time. They also expect you to hold your bladder in when the restaurant service starts. I once got scolded for going to the toilet and was told that I should go before or after service.
Another thing I noticed is that the chefs tend to learn one thing and make sure they excel in it. For example, the sushi chefs in the restaurant I worked at did not know how to make tempura because they only learnt the art of sushi-making during their entire careers.