After 21 years in Japan and for most of that time working 15 hours a day, Calabrian restaurateur Elio Ermanno Orsara has achieved a certain measure of success.
The foyer of his restaurant, Elio Locanda Italiana, in Tokyo’s Kojimachi district, is a gallery of framed awards, commendations, testimonials, as well as copies of Italian newspaper articles with photographs showing Orsara shaking hands with Italian presidents. Framed and also on display are signed snapshots of famous customers such as fashion designer Giorgio Armani and soccer players Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti. Still only 45 years young, he’s been knighted twice for merit and service to his country — once by the Italian royal family and once by the Italian government.
Besides his restaurant, Orsara has a direct-import, online shopping website, and operates a successful catering operation serving private parties, the Italian Embassy and, once, even the Imperial family.
Yet such success can be fleeting.
The end of March last year, following the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and the start of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant crisis, Orsara faced a tough and confusing situation. “I thought Japan for me was over because I thought I had lost everything,” he explained while sitting at a linen-draped table in a private dining room of his restaurant.
“When the earthquake came, we worked the next day, but I then made a decision,” he says. “Because of the danger of radiation, we decided to close the restaurant for a week.”
He had his company pay for train fares and accommodations for all the wives and children of his staff who wanted to move away from Tokyo.
Orsara himself took his wife and two sons to Kobe. But later, when he saw on TV helicopters dropping water on the ruined reactors at the Fukushima facility, he decided to move to Italy with his family.
However, he returned to Tokyo on March 27 to find no customers, no catering orders, no certain future. A few days later, Orsara was in the devastated city of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, delivering supplies to local residents.
“I had this guilty feeling,” he says. “This country has been so good to me. It’s made me famous. I had to do something.
“Giving money has no feeling. I wanted to do something manual. I am a simple person. I wanted to feel the thing.”
Throughout Japan, Italian residents were quickly forming “associations” such as Italians for Tohoku. “I’ve never been so proud of the Italian people. Each time there is a huge emergency, when everything looks over — we Italians do something. Everyone gets together and gives the best of themselves. This is the ‘Miracolo Italiano,’ ” he says.
Orsara himself put together his own loosely knit group of local Calabrians, his staff and friends in Japan.
“We chose Rikuzentakata because, frankly, it was farthest away from Fukushima and the radiation,” Orsara confides. “Besides, I have a responsibility to others. And I am not a hero.
“Also, Rikuzentakata was the most damaged. The tsunami wiped out everything,” he says. “My wife is from Sendai and we have relatives around there. So, Rikuzentakata was the right city to adopt, somehow.”
The first time he went to Rikuzentakata, Orsara didn’t know exactly what was needed or how he could help. His group brought T-shirts, rain boots, gasoline and bread.
“It was like a war zone,” he recalls. “We had to be escorted in by the military (the Self-Defense Forces) with a special clearance. The Italian Embassy really supported us, especially Ambassador Vincenzo Petrone.”
The pain of the Rikuzentakaka residents was so high that they “did not really want to accept anything from us,” he says. “We just contributed to give them a little less pain.”
At first it was difficult to get residents to open up to an outsider, a foreigner. “If I asked them what they wanted, people would answer they didn’t want anything. They have their pride, you know.”
The key to successfully helping, he says, was making contact with a woman whose hillside house survived the tsunami. They used her house as a central contact point.
“She was vital,” he recalls. “She’d call residents and make a list of their needs — things like Pampers for old men — you never think about such things.”
But because he was in the food business, Orsara wanted to do what he does best — feed people. He asked the residents if he should bring something like miso soup next time. ” ‘No way!’ they said, ‘You’re Italian!’ ” he recounts with a smile. “They wanted minestrone!”
By the third trip, his 15-member crew was serving five-course lunches. Everything was carefully packed into one large truck: tents, buffet tables, portable burners with gas canisters, water and plenty of food.
One lunch at Rikuzentakata’s Hirota Elementary School in early June last year featured minestrone, eggplant caponata, penne with Bolognese sauce, rosemary-roasted chicken with potatoes, freshly baked breads, and a dessert selection of oranges, watermelon, musk melon and red grapes snipped into small handfuls, all artfully arranged on plastic platters on crisp white linen-draped tables.
Many hours of precooking and vacuum-packing had already taken place in Orsara’s restaurant before the seven-hour drive to Tohoku. Upon arrival, a makeshift kitchen was quickly set up for the final cooking with Orsara tasting and making comments such as, “Good, but add a little salt,” or “The sauce is still a little thin, add some Parmigiano cheese.” He estimates they served 300 lunches that afternoon.
Besides food, Orsara would bring along whatever he could to meet the requests of the Rikuzentakata residents — bicycles, sunglasses, electric fans, children’s toys, shoes, slippers and clothing of all sorts. All of which were donated by Orsara’s friends and customers. In all, he and his crew made five trips to Rikuzentakata.
Orsara grew up around his grandmother’s locanda, an inn with a restaurant, in the village of Cetraro in the Calabria region of southern Italy. “My grandmother never talked about business,” he recalls. “She took the responsibility to feed, to give love to people like they were her own children, her own family.”
In 1991, while working in a restaurant in Como in northern Italy, he met a Japanese man who asked him to come work in Japan. At that time, Japan for him meant only Sony and Panasonic, but he had grown up watching “Tiger Man” (the Italian title of the “Tiger Mask”) and Antonio Inoki cartoons. “Inoki was my childhood hero,” says Orsara. “Japan was another planet, but I said, ‘OK, I’ll go there for six months.’ “
His first job in Japan was in Kobe. “I was very proud of Italian food, and of the Italian way of serving.”
One day he visited Kyoto to eat in an elegant Japanese kaiseki restaurant. “When an old woman in kimono brought me the food, I thought it was art, not food! It was like a painting by Giotto or Leonardo da Vinci! I could not believe the presentation!” he recalls.
“You must understand, I was born in a family of food business. I love the food business. But for me to see for the first time how Japanese present food, I said ‘Oh, my God!’ I can learn something from these people! Me — who came to Japan to teach about food!” he says. “Honestly, seeing that kaiseki food was better than sex,” he adds with laughter.
He opened his locanda in Kojimachi in 1996 and, like his grandmother, he doesn’t treat it like a business. “This restaurant is my home — when I see you, I see a friend, not a customer. If I say you are a customer, I cannot work here 15 hours a day.
“What I love about Tokyo is you can create your own village with your own people,” he says. “I opened a locanda in an area that is not easy to access, but Elio’s has become a meeting place at night for people.
“You have to understand 98 percent of my customers are repeat customers — not since yesterday, but since I came to Japan,” he adds. “So I have a responsibility. I see kids who grew up and now bring their own kids here.”
When Inoki finally visited Elio Locanda, it was an emotional moment. “He was huge!” Orsara says showing his open hand. “His hand was three times bigger than mine! I really didn’t know he was a human being. I only saw his cartoons!”
Orsara leans forward, putting his hands together. “To be honest, I feel ashamed I left Japan. But sometimes you must make a decision.
“My dream now is to give back something to Japan in the food business,” he says. He intends to make artisanal food products here: organic breads and his own sausages. “Japanese people are getting old and eat too much poor food with chemicals. I want to make a culture of artisanal food here.”
In early June at a ceremony at the Italian Embassy in Tokyo, Rikuzentakata was presented with a new mobile library bus to replace the old one lost in the tsunami. Tens of millions of yen were raised for the tsunami survivors last year by a charity effort throughout Italy. Orsara was in charge of Calabria, arranging TV and radio spots there asking people to donate.
At the presentation ceremony, the Italian ambassador asked Orsara to make the toast. “It was quite embarrassing for me,” he says. “I didn’t expect that. I was honored.”
The new library bus, decorated with pictures painted by Italian children and elderly people, was delivered to Rikuzentakata on July 1.
“The biggest reward for going to Tohoku was when I looked into people’s eyes there and saw the respect they had for us,” he says. “There are things in life that you must feel. You can’t describe in words.”