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Akiko Katayama: Making the leap from business to food in NYC

by

Contributing Writer

One night in October 2002 at home in her tiny studio in Midtown, Manhattan, Akiko Katayama made a deal with herself: She was not going to bed until she had devised an action plan of what she wanted to do with her career — what she really wanted to do. And so she burned the midnight oil — spurred on by “anger and frustration” — right through until daybreak arrived and she had concocted a business plan.

At the time she couldn’t have foreseen that in executing her career-altering master plan, it would take her away from the humdrum world of cubicles and meetings and land her on TV as a judge on “Iron Chef America” and to hosting her own radio show — “Japan Eats!” — from a cabin in the garden of a pizzeria in Brooklyn.

But to go back to that fateful night in New York, Katayama recalls being so angry with herself for not being able to change her career or not doing enough to make it happen.

“What came to mind,” she says, “was that question that all kids get asked: ‘What’s your dream?'”

The answer she arrived at that night was the same as when she was 6 years old: a writer. But in 2002 she had updated it. She wanted to write about food in one of the foodiest cities in the world.

For that to happen Katayama realized she needed a “business plan,” and these she was good at.

After graduating from Tsuda University in Tokyo she worked for Japan External Trade Organization, became interested in Japanese management, enrolled in a postgraduate in industrial relations at London School of Economics, which eventually led to a job in the now-defunct accounting firm Arthur Andersen in London.

A couple of years in, Katayama was ready to ask for a transfer back to Tokyo, when a position opened up in New York, a city she had long wanted to live in, so she jumped at the job offer.

“The moment I landed there I knew I would never leave,” Katayama says of New York.

So in 1996 she was in the right place, but in the wrong job. She decided to change career — from accounting to business — and went back to school, this time completing an MBA from the Stern School of Business at New York University.

For a short time she worked at a start-up during the first dot-com boom, and then for a subsidiary of Recruit, a Japanese human resources company. All the while, however, her career was slipping away from her.

That is, until that night in October. In order to get out of the business world, she fell back on her business skills.

“I came up with a really detailed proposal. I wanted to utilize my bilingual skills. I wanted to write monthly columns for magazines so I came up with 12 topics. I had goals and analysis in there — everything I had learned in business school.”

It took two weeks to put together, including interviewing a chef in New York, to showcase her writing, and when it was ready she sent her pitch to four magazines in Japan.

Three of the magazines responded positively with a caveat that many novice writers will have experienced: Please contact us again once you’ve been published.

But one of them, Senmon Ryori, a respected trade magazine — “My dream magazine,” Katayama says — had just lost their New York writer at the same time as Katayama sent in her pitch. As all writers will tell you, luck plays an outsize roll.

That was the break and the vote of confidence Katayama needed to break into a career in writing about food, restaurants and chefs.

There was one other major impetus for making a career switch: New York had suffered its deadliest ever terrorist attack when two planes plowed into the World Trade Center the previous year.

“Part of the reason I really made a (career) move was thinking ‘I may be dead tomorrow,'” she recalls. “That kind of feeling was very strong.”

It took a few years for Katayama to become fully independent and established — she credits her business background for her efficient writing style.

It’s also helped that Japanese food is on a roll — not just sushi and ramen, but as she expounds on her weekly radio show, pretty much every aspect of Japanese food culture.

This boom indirectly lead to “Japan Eats!,” a weekly podcast that runs on Heritage Radio Network, a nonprofit food-focused radio station based in New York.

The show requires a huge amount of work, and bar running the sound, Katayama takes care of nearly every aspect, from booking guests to researching topics and conducting the interviews.

Katayama says there’s a huge global appetite to learn more about Japanese food culture, from professional chefs to home cooks to the curious listeners. Her show has listeners from more than 170 countries and, whatever the topic, listeners always get in touch after each show.

Katayama was, in a way, the black sheep in her family, always more interested in the West, whether it was books, fashion, movies or just getting over there, to explore it.

But more than two decades of living abroad, mostly in the U.S., she’s journeyed back to her roots.

“I was not interested in Japanese culture or Japanese food at all back then,” Katayama says reflecting on growing up in Japan.

“But if you live outside Japan, especially in a place such as New York where everyone needs to have a certain solid identity so that you can assure yourself what kind of person you are, being Japanese becomes more important.”

If anything the physical distance from Japan has made her a champion of Japanese culture — especially food.

“I am so proud of it. Perhaps, I would not think too much about supporting Japanese cultural tradition, if I lived in Japan. So I am glad I have spent half of my life outside Japan to rediscover how wonderful it is.”Name: Akiko Katayama

Profession: Food writer, food consultant

Hometown: Tokyo

Key moments in career:

1993 — Graduates from London School of Economics and starts working in London

1996 — Moves to New York

1999 — Completes an MBA from Stern School of Business at New York University

2005 — Judges “Iron Chef America”

2015 — Starts hosting her radio show “Japan Eats!”

Things I miss about Japan: “Food, of course, and the super-clean, efficient subway.”

Best advice I ever got: “Follow your heart.”

Best meal I ever ate: “An al fresco dinner of suckling pig roasted and covered with myrtle leaves in the countryside of Sardinia, Italy.”● 片山晶子

職業:フードライター、フードコンサルタント

出身地:東京

転機:

1993年 ロンドン・スクール・オブ・エコノミ クスを卒業後、ロンドンで働く

1996年 ニューヨークに引っ越す

1999年 NYUを卒業

2005年 アメリカ版「料理の鉄人」の審査員 を務める

2015年 ラジオ番組 Japan Eats! を始める

長年ビジネス畑でキャリアを積んだ片山晶子氏は、2002年10月のある夜、自分に対する怒りとフラストレーションに苛まれ、考えた。「私の夢は何? 本当にしたいことは何?」。徹夜で自問自答した結果、6歳の時からの、物書きになるという夢にたどり着いた。大学卒業後、日本貿易振興機構 (JETRO) に勤務、その後ロンドン・スクール・オブ・エコノミクスの大学院に進み、ロンドンの会計事務所勤務。数年後、暮らしてみたいと思っていたニューヨークに転勤。ニューヨーク大学でビジネスを学び直し、会社勤務を経て、転機を迎えた。ニューヨークを拠点に料理専門の物書きになると決め、まずは詳細なビジネスプランを立てた。ビジネスプランを立てるのはお手の物だった。2週間でまとめた企画案を日本の雑誌社4社に送ると、一社がチャンスをくれた。現地の最新食事情についてつづる一方、自身のラジオ番組 Japan Eats! で日本食の情報を発信している。ニューヨークにいるからこそ、日本人としてのアイデンティティーを意識し、日本の食文化の伝統を守りたいと改めて思うようになった。