Chef Shingo Sonobe

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Chef Shingo Sonobe 園部晋吾 is the 21st generation owner of Yamabana Heihachi-Jaya 山ばな平八茶屋, established in 1576. Dedicated to promoting education about the traditions of Kyoto cuisine, he is a prominent teacher at the Japanese Culinary Academy and is currently the director of the Kyoto Ryori Mebaekae Kai. In 2006, Chef Sonobe received the prize for excellence among young artisans from Kyoto City. Here are Chef’s Sonobe’s thoughts on his role as a chef committed to continuing such a prestigious lineage.

Smoothly and steadfastly continuing the culinary lineage of Yamabana Heihachi-Jaya

Since he was a young child, the restaurant employees and the tradesmen they dealt with always referred to him as the “young master,” and in elementary school he remembers writing, “when I grow up I’m going to be a chef.” “So perhaps there was always a bit of brainwashing going on even then,” says the 21st generation owner-chef of Yamabana Heihachi-Jaya, Shingo Sonobe, with a wry smile.

Ever since childhood, Chef Sonobe believed that he would continue the tradition as the restaurant’s head chef. However, as he prepared to graduate from university, he began to have doubts and thought he might like to go out into the world instead. So he started looking for work with management consultancies and think tank institutes.

However, in a sudden moment of realisation it struck him that “inevitably I would have to take over the family business and that it would take considerable training to become a chef, so I’d better start sooner rather than later.” And so with firm resolution, Chef Sonobe resolved to push on and thenceforth committed himself to the process of becoming a chef, to which his parents gave a tacit nod of approval.

“At that time, our relationship was a little strained,” says Chef Sonobe. However, he also thought that perhaps because his father too had at one time left home and considered not taking over from the family business, he might understand what his son was going through.

In order to commence his chef’s training, he began working at a high class traditional restaurant (ryōtei) in Osaka, called Kagairō 花外楼. Given that he had a somewhat slow start in his chef’s training, it was quite tough to begin with. His fellow workers, who were senior to him in experience, were in fact at least ten years younger than Sonobe-san. “Even though you’re so much older, you can’t do anything!” they would jokingly say. Nonetheless, because of the irregular hours and difficult working conditions, everyone who started with him eventually quit. “To be honest, it was pretty tough, but I didn’t even consider quitting. In the end, the training was really a lot of fun,” he reminisces.

In spite of the harsh regimen, Sonobe-san was determined to make it through, and even though his coworkers were somewhat skeptical and taunted him, saying, “You really don’t know anything, do you!”, he made light of it all by replying, “You’re right, I don’t, so please teach me what to do!” So he just got on with the job and after a year he heard no more such talk. In fact, he made such remarkable progress and matured to such a degree that it felt as if he’d been raised by the master chef of Kagairō. Sonobe-san recalls that “later, I found out that my father had not been angry with me at all, it was just in my own mind!”

And so, on completion of his training, after twelve years away, he finally returned home to Yamabana Heihachi-jaya. In an effort to be seen as reformists in their culinary approach, the Sonobe family had made a few changes. First of all, they refined their dashi, which is the foundation of all their cuisine, by paying particular attention to the finer details such as water temperature and cooking time. Furthermore, they changed the type of rice they used in their signature dish, mugimeshi-tororojiru 麦飯とろろ汁 (grated yam soup with barley and rice). Instead of using koshihikari コシヒカリ米 rice, they now use asahi 朝日米 rice. It isn’t the case that after more than 400 years they now want to change the taste of the dish, but rather, they want to build on and improve on that tradition.

Chef Sonobe says, “Whilst our signature dishes now are the tororojiru and our special tilefish dish, I’m hoping that during my lifetime I will be able to add a new signature dish to our menu.” Although 430 years of tradition may seem a heavy responsibility, Chef Sonobe bears this burden lightly, and in his reliable hands that tradition appears to be set to continue and be developed and built upon.

Translated by Cate Pearce from 京都の料理職人達

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