American restaurateur Charles Roche, 62, credits his love of feting others to having grown up in the warm and noisy embrace of an extended Italian-American family in the Bronx. As part of a food-loving clan he jokingly refers to as “the Sopranos without the crime,” he remembers splitting chestnuts and grating cheese in the kitchen while his Aunt Tess prepared homemade pasta for 50.
“The rule was three days of shopping, two days of cooking for major occasions. I never studied cooking formally, but it was always around me, so I intuitively picked it up,” he said.
That background has stood him in good stead as the owner of Papa Jon’s, a chain of three cafe-restaurants in Kyoto specializing in New York-style cheesecake and other American desserts and dishes.
Affable, with a neatly trimmed white beard and open features, Roche resembles a hipper, New York cousin of Colonel Sanders. As a young man he was interested in woodworking and music, but after graduating from high school Roche decided to hop on a ship bound for Morocco. The year was 1968, when nomadic Western backpackers began trailblazing travel routes through Asia and North Africa.
“A hippie on the ship convinced me that Nepal was a cool destination, so after disembarking in Tangiers I traveled overland across North Africa to Tunis, then to Sicily and across Europe to Western Asia, down through Afghanistan and Iraq and finally to India, where I stayed for three months,” he said.
This was the start of a voyage that would last four years. Roche said that the trip took on a life of its own: “After a while I stopped comparing places to my own culture. Every day was an adventure.”
His travels eventually brought him to Japan, where he worked odd jobs and stayed for nearly two years. He also met a Japanese girl in Kyoto, Mieko, whom he later married.
On the trip, he experienced a few cultural mishaps, such as when he nearly came to blows after he awkwardly refused a traveler’s proffered sesame seeds on a train in Turkey, which convinced him of the merits of observing the locals and learning culturally appropriate behavior.
By October 1972, Roche was back in New York, this time with his wife and, in January 1973, a newborn daughter. “I started practicing woodworking; one of my first products was my daughter’s cradle. In 1975 we moved to California and I began producing wooden planters and other craft items,” he said. “A year later we relocated to Kentucky, where I fashioned wooden furniture, but in 1978 I decided to formally study woodworking in Japan, the land of meticulous workmanship.
“I had heard of Tatsuaki Kuroda, a Kyoto-based national treasure who crafted lacquered wooden boxes and furniture. I ended up studying with his eldest son, Kenkichi, three times a week, while teaching English.”
At this time there was a colony of young Westerners studying traditional arts in Kyoto. Roche explained, “I began to feel that, unlike earlier generations of Christian missionaries (and unlike the many talented foreign artists who would later migrate to Kyoto), people like me had everything to learn and nothing to offer the local community, which didn’t seem right to me.”
Roche tried to compensate for his tenuous guest status by being more Japanese than the Japanese, a doomed attempt to fit in that he described as “the road to heartbreak.”
“It wasn’t authentic. I felt that I was betraying my true nature,” he said.
He then took the opposite approach and vowed to establish a thoroughly American-style coffee shop that would allow him to showcase his hosting and culinary acumen. Upon the advice of a Japanese businessman that he offer more than desserts, in 1985 he opened Knuckles, a deli-style eatery featuring Reuben, clubhouse and other American sandwiches.
Roche soon learned why Japanese say that if you can do business in Kyoto, you can succeed anywhere. Local business is typically conducted via personal introductions and long-standing relationships, and businesses prefer to pay with tegata (promissory notes), rather than cash, complicating cash flows.
Many suppliers refused to work with Roche at first or quoted prices for their goods that were higher than retail, and he found bank loans to be completely out of reach.
Picture a foreigner with a poor command of Japanese, no connections or culinary training attempting to sell Western sandwiches and desserts in the land of kaiseki (traditional Japanese multicourse dinners): He must have seemed delusional to local Japanese at the time. Indeed, Roche said he often felt like Paul Newman’s character in the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” winning at poker with a worthless hand and a lot of bluffing.
“Just learning how to prepare enough food for 100 customers a day was difficult — and what to do with it if they don’t show up (hint: You take it home). I lost 10 kg from stress in the first few months. But I found that being a foreigner helped to attract attention and customers, even though we operated mainly by word of mouth.”
Roche also learned that Kyoto’s conservatism is a double-edged sword: Once you’ve shown yourself to be trustworthy and maintain consistent quality over time, Kyoto suppliers and merchants will show you great consideration, he said. Today he still deals with some of the same suppliers from his Knuckles days, or with their sons.
Five years later, tired of long hours in the kitchen but eager to continue promoting American tastes and hospitality, Roche elected to sell Knuckles and launch a cafe specializing in cheesecakes. This time bankers and suppliers were supportive and, in 1990, he opened the first Papa Jon’s, named for his father and featuring a picture of his grandfather as part of the logo. The restaurant, just north of Imadegawa Street and the main campus of Doshisha University in Kamigyo Ward, was a hit from the start.
In Japan’s traditional workaholic culture, squandering time in a coffee shop was frowned upon, Roche explained, so coffee shops used to be smoky, poorly lit places with tinted windows where customers could hole up with dog-eared manga when they were supposed to be working.
By contrast, Papa Jon’s was bright and cheerful — a place to see and be seen — featuring art by local artists on the walls and the only cappuccino then to be found in Kyoto. It was also, he said, one of the first local coffee shops to adopt a no-smoking policy, with staff explaining to customers that smoking distorted the flavors of the food.
His wife originally prepared the New York cheesecakes that have become the most popular dessert at Papa Jon’s. Also on the menu are chocolate, blueberry and other cheesecakes, offering dense and rich American-style flavor but marginally less sugar, in deference to Japanese preferences.
Today 30 Japanese employees, including several graduates of local baking schools, prepare and serve his cheesecakes, cakes, quiches and bagel sandwiches at three cafes and a kitchen outlet. Papa Jon’s desserts can also be purchased and delivered nationwide through its online site, www.papajons.net.
Papa Jon’s is now so well-established it has become a reference point on many Kyoto tourist maps, but hosting customers has never grown old for Roche. Moments like the one he experienced the previous day are rewarding, he said: “I was drinking wine and talking with customers and there was energy flowing throughout the shop, with this perfect harmony — it just felt right,” he recollected.
Although he first regarded them as a threat, Roche now credits ubiquitous Western coffee shops like Starbucks and Tulley’s with acclimatizing Japanese to Western-style “coffee culture.” Yet he feels that Papa Jon’s can offer customers a more personalized experience. “Now that coffee shops are a part of Japanese life, people have the tools to relax in a place like mine,” he said.
Roche is now looking to generate some new buzz in more Kyoto-style surroundings, perhaps a renovated machiya (traditional town house) where New York cheesecake can coexist harmoniously with Japanese ceramics, tatami flooring and green tea. “I’m not going to save the world, but if I can create a few nice moments for people, it’s all worth it,” he said.