QUATTRO CASTELLA, ITALY – Kei Kitagawa works from 10 a.m. to the small hours of the night in a northern Italian restaurant, often not even taking his single day off of the week.
But the long hours have in no way put the 25-year-old off. “I’m happy just to be touching the pasta dough with my hands,” he says. “I like everything (about Italian food), including the texture and smell of pasta.”
Kitagawa is part of a long line of novice Japanese cooks who have ventured across language and cultural barriers into Italy over the years. Their hope is to get the hang of Italian cooking in its home country and burnish their resume as a path to becoming a chef back in Japan.
After graduating from high school in Higashiomi, Shiga Prefecture, Kitagawa worked in a celebrated Italian restaurant in Tokyo for a few years. In 2010, he moved to Milan because he wanted to hone his culinary skills in Italy before turning 30.
Looking for a kitchen staff job, Kitagawa set his sights on Cracco, a restaurant with two Michelin stars he had learned about from a magazine. Walking into the restaurant without an appointment, he asked to be employed, to no avail. After making repeated visits to the same restaurant and meeting rejection after rejection, he was eventually hired as an apprentice.
During the six months of his apprenticeship, he worked long hours — starting at 8 a.m. and finishing at 1 a.m. the next day — for no pay six days a week. After completing the apprenticeship, Kitagawa was assigned to prepare hors d’oeuvres.
Since the late 1980s, Italy has been a magnet for would-be chefs from Japan as Italian food gained popularity among Japanese people, according to Keiichi Sawaguchi, a professor at Taisho University who is knowledgeable about the trend of young Japanese cooks going abroad for training.
Several cooking schools were opened in Italy to offer training courses for Japanese cooks and to serve as a go-between to secure apprenticeships in restaurants across the country. So far, such schools have introduced more than 2,000 Japanese cooks to Italian restaurants.
There are also many people like Kitagawa who manage to squeeze into a restaurant kitchen job on their own.
Because it is difficult for such people to obtain a work visa, they often officially identify themselves as a student doing an odd job. In a sense, young Japanese cooks willing to work hard with negligible pay are a bonanza for restaurants.
Some Japanese cooks return home early after failing to overcome the language and cultural barriers, while others succumb to disillusionment with the drab jobs to which they are relegated.
Last December, Kitagawa quit the job at Cracco and moved to Ca’Matilde, a one-star restaurant in Quattro Castella in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, which is known as the heartland of pasta making.
Andrea Incerti Vezzani, Ca’Matilde’s chef, praises the virtues he has found in Japanese workers, including the meticulousness and efficiency. And Kitagawa, he said, has a “strong will and passion.”
Kitagawa, who dreams of opening a restaurant of his own back in Japan, says: “In Italy, I have grown up as a man as well.”