While economic growth remains slow, many restaurants are feeling the pinch, as customers choose to stay home and cook in order to save money.
Ironically, this is good news for operators of cooking classes — and for one chain, business has never been better.
“We literally started off with just one gas range 30 years ago, but we grew by word of mouth,” says Emi Sato, spokeswoman for ABC Cooking Studio, a chain of casual cooking schools that teaches everything from how to chop vegetables to how to bake your own bread.
“There was a time in which food guides and magazines were doing very well, but since the Lehman Shock and the March 11 (2011) earthquake and tsunami, people these days are now spending more time at home with their friends or loved ones,” she adds.
Cooking at home does not have to mean eating boring meals, and the appeal of schools such as ABC is that they enable anyone to create something fantastic.
Stepping inside one of the schools unleashes an assault on the senses. The scent of bread fresh out of the oven and the crackling of vegetables and meat hitting the pan fill the air. The schools are located in easily accessible areas such as department stores, and are brightly lit and have large windows in order to attract new customers and showcase the students’ creations — many of which look tasty enough to be served at a bakery or a restaurant.
The classes may seem pricey at first glance. A set of 12 beginner lessons, which expire after 18 months, will set you back ¥59,850, or roughly ¥5,000 per lesson. More advanced courses cost ¥92,610 for 12 lessons, though one-off lessons and even kids’ classes are available.
As Sato explains, budding household chefs are willing to dish out that much money if they feel that the investment is worth it.
“Cooking is considered a type of naraigoto (a hobby for which one takes lessons during free time), an investment for oneself. The way people spend their money has changed since the collapse of the bubble economy. Now people want to spend their money on something that will enrich themselves,” says Sato.
In addition, naraigoto hobbies have also been gaining popularity as a stress-busting escape from Japan’s hectic work life.
“Since changing my job I have more time for myself, so I want to invest it wisely here,” says Kana Nagai, a 26-year-old flight attendant. “Registering with ABC means I can go to any of the studios in Japan, which fits well with my schedule since I have to travel around a lot.”
For Nagai, who is in one part of Japan one day and in another part the next, ABC Cooking Studio is an ideal solution if she finds herself with a bit of extra free time in an unfamiliar city. With around 128 studios all over Japan from Hokkaido to Kagoshima and others in overseas cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, ABC allows members to attend classes at any school they wish. The 25 locations in Tokyo include Kichijoji, Shibuya and Marunouchi.
Classes tend to be small, with one instructor for every two to four students. Even those who have yet to master the art of boiling water have nothing to fear, since the school allows students to choose an instructor to stand patiently by their side.
“Sometimes I fall behind in a lesson,” says Mutsumi Yahagi, a co-worker of Nagai’s, “but since I have the instructor right next to me, I can ask her questions easily.”
The company also offers English-language lessons at its Plus International studio in Roppongi Midtown (2F Garden Terrace, Tokyo Midtown, 9-7-4 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5413-3476) for expats and tourists who want to learn the basics of Japanese cooking.
Recently, the company has upgraded its studios in order to better keep up with the influx of students. One such studio is located in Shibuya (2F Shibuya Chikatetsu Bldg., 1-16-14 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-5468-5121), and now boasts a corner where students can try their hand at concocting their own alcoholic cocktails. There’s also another corner that displays over 80 different cards and sheets of wrapping paper for students who want to give their culinary creations to a special someone as a gift. Both services come with no extra charge. To celebrate its refurbishment, new members who join by March 31 will not have to pay the ¥12,600 admission fee, and the first 200 people to join will also receive free cooking utensils. You can register online or call 03-5468-5121.
And although cooking is traditionally considered a female pursuit, the interior of the Shibuya studio has been subdued to make it less intimidating for the growing number of men who are signing up for cooking classes. As of April, all schools in the chain will allow male customers, with some classes targeted specifically toward them.
More delicious lessons
ABC isn’t the only cooking studio in town. If you’re craving Thai food, check out Herb & Spice Asian Cooking Studio in Takadanobaba (305 Plage Takadanobaba, 1-5-14 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo); 03-5155-6528; www.asian-road.net) to learn from a native. Basic courses cost ¥5,500 per class. For Italian food lovers, Aprile in Kichijoji (3F Kyoritsu Bldg., 1-12-5 Kichijoji Honcho, Musashino-shi, Tokyo; 0422-20-2337; www.aprile.jp) teaches how to make favorite pasta dishes for ¥10,000 for two lessons. Antine Cooking Studio (048-474-7756; www.antine.jp) near Shiki Station in Saitama also offers bridal courses for ladies who need to learn a few kitchen tips fast.
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