Mitsuharu Tsumura had a problem.
Well, “problem” may have been too strong a word. Call it a conundrum.
Just 28 years old at the time, the young Peruvian Nikkei, a member of Peru’s sizeable Japanese diaspora, was being offered a job as the General Manager of the Sheraton Lima.
He had spent the last three years at the Sheraton, well known for its excellent Peruvian cuisine, working his way up from sous chef to Food & Beverage Manager.
If he accepted this latest job offer, he’d become the youngest hotel General Manager in the world, a prestigious post irresistible to the vast majority of the hospitality industry’s young, ambitious talents.
But... Mitsuharu had a vision.
Cut to seven years earlier. At the tender age of 21, having freshly graduated from chef school at Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales University, the young Mitsuharu returned to Peru intent on opening his own steak and sushi restaurant.
To you and I this may sound like a natural next step for a young, ambitious chef of Japanese heritage. But to Mitsuharu’s father, a Japanese national, it made no sense at all.
“How are you going to prepare sushi if you have never been to Japan?” he asked his son.
Unable to answer, Mitsuharu booked a plane ticket.
Starting From the Bottom
In Peru, Mitsuharu was an up and coming young chef with a fancy degree from America. In Japan, he was an unknown entity with no local experience to speak of.
But if nothing else – and there was, truly, nothing else – he had a connection. His grandparents, who still lived in Japan, introduced him to a man named Mr. Hirai, the owner of a well known restaurant called Seto Sushi.
After watching him filet fish, Mr. Hirai agreed to give Mitsuharu a job. The pay was nonexistent and the work gruelling. It was a start.
For four months Mitsuharu showed up everyday to wash dishes, never so much as touching a knife. After establishing himself as a competent dishwasher, he was elevated to the post of knife sharpener. Eventually he became proficient enough to sharpen knives for every chef in the restaurant, a huge honour by the standards of Japanese restaurants.
Though he was still miles away from being able to prepare food for the restaurant, in Japan everything has a purpose. While he wasn’t yet making sushi, he was watching, observing the masters, and learning patience and discipline. It was a quintessentially Japanese apprenticeship.
Working his way up
Around this time, he started practicing his own knife skills. To master the fine art of sushi making he would practice on rice and gherkins, preparing thousands of them to hone his skills.He continued to work his way up the adder at Seto, taking over responsibility for receiving and cleaning seafood. This eventually led to filleting and preparing fish, cooking rice for the staff’s meals and working behind the bar, until one day, two years after arriving in Japan, he had finally earned his keep.
He stayed in Japan for eight more months perfecting his craft until one day Mitsuharu felt the pull of his native Peru beckoning him back home.
The Sheraton Lima, where he had interned years ago, invited him to return as a member of their chef team, where he began his journey up the hotel’s ranks.
And now here he was, three years after returning to Peru and on the precipice of the hotel’s highest position, feeling conflicted.
Again he turned to his father for advice and again his father was stern and resolute – but this time, he had very different advice for his son.
“Son, you have proved to be a good worker and I am going to invest in you,” he said. “Open your restaurant, I will support you.”
Today that restaurant is Maido, where Mitsuhara draws from his experience and heritage to prepare Japanese and Peruvian dishes, telling a story with each plate he serves.
He’s come a long way since that conundrum.
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