Takashi Ochiai shows me into his brightly lit and immaculately clean kitchen, where a group of apprentice chefs, all women as it happens, are preparing mochi (sticky rice cakes). As we approach, they smile and make space for him without breaking their conversation, and he seamlessly joins in with the work. There is no jolt of the-boss-is-here tension, yet you can sense the respect they have for him.
An energetic 66, Ochiai is small and wiry with a warm smile that lights up the room. He radiates a quiet pride as he talks of his awards — best artisan butter croissant in Spain in 2013 (awarded by the School of The Pastry Guild in Barcelona) followed by best pastry chef in 2014 — and he scoffs at any suggestion of retirement: “What for?” he asks, incredulous, “I still have plans.”
Much of Ochiai’s life takes place within one block of the L’Eixample district in Barcelona, Spain. His patisserie sits on the corner, there’s a new cafeteria and training space next door, and his home is upstairs. His Catalan wife, Carme, manages the business, while Ochiai is in charge of product: Japanese sweets, which make up around 20 percent of sales, alongside French and Catalan-style pastries.
When asked if there is a secret to a happy marriage when working together every day, he begins to reply, “When it comes to Carme’s responsibilities, I just …”
As he trails off, his eyes sparkle and he draws his thumb and forefinger across his lips in the universal “zip-it” sign. “And she does the same for me,” he continues, smiling.
Ochiai, who hails from a family of rice farmers in Japan, grew up in a village near the city of Niigata that he says is so small, even the taxi drivers at Niigata Station haven’t heard of it. He was an unsettled, impatient child, always shifting from one thing to another, and at 15 he announced to his parents that he was fed up with studying and was going to move to Tokyo. They asked him what he planned to do.
“I said I didn’t know, maybe manage a business,” he says shaking his head, laughing. “I was crazy.”
Once in the metropolis, he found a job in a pastry shop and soon decided cooking was the path he wanted to follow. Years of working and studying followed. He did a stint in a Nissan factory to pay for a year of formal pastry chef training, and washed dishes in restaurants by night. Eventually, he started working for a chef who had connections in Europe, and he began to wonder if there could be more to life than just marrying and settling down in Japan. “In Japan, you can’t have an opinion,” he says. “Everyone has to think the same.”
Feeling restless and constrained, he took an opportunity arranged by his boss: a position halfway round the world, in Brussels.
“I only had a one-way ticket because I couldn’t afford the return flight,” he recalls, explaining that in the end, he stayed a year and a half in Brussels before moving on to London.
It was in an English class at Westminster College (now Westminster Kingsway College) in London’s Soho district that Ochiai’s eyes met those of fellow student Carme Marti from Barcelona. Love blossomed quickly and soon the two were married, and their first daughter was born in London. He remembers the time as among the happiest days of his life. “I was very poor,” he says, “but I was so happy. I had so many dreams.”
When he moved to Barcelona with his young family in 1982, the contrast with London came as something of a shock.
“London was an international city, so was Brussels, but Barcelona was like a village,” he says, going on to describe how he had to get used to being referred to as “el Chino.”
He quickly realized that locals also preferred traditional Catalan panellets marzipan sweets and ensaimada sweet pastries to the French-style pastries that he was used to creating, so he spent a year and a half learning the local styles. Then in August 1983 he was ready to open his first patisserie. “People said, ‘Why is a Chinese guy opening a patisserie?’ It was really hard,” he says with a sigh.
Undeterred, he gradually began introducing some traditional Japanese wagashi sweets to his repertoire: First those he thought would appeal to local tastes, such as dorayaki (pancakes filled with sweet adzuki bean paste), then eventually more adventurous ones, including daifuku (mochi stuffed with bean paste) and chamanjū (thick bean paste-filled steamed cakes).
Today, in his sleek and modern patisserie, you will find unique blends of Japanese and Catalan flavors, such as mochi filled with crema catalana (local custard) and a coca de Sant Joan (Saint John’s cake) filled with a luminous green tea cream.
With time, Ochiai’s reputation grew, and with the years having moderated his youthful impatience, he now passes on his philosophy and technical skills to the apprentice pastry chefs who actively seek him out to do their training.
“When it comes to baking, there’s no secret to it — just use the best ingredients and repeat the process over and over,” he says. “But I see a lot of young people who can’t stick to one thing. They’re always changing their minds from this to that. You can change, but it has to be a development, a process, always moving forward and building on what you have already learned.”
For Ochiai, raising three children within two cultures and with three languages wasn’t as complicated as it might have been. At home, everyone speaks Catalan except Ochiai, who speaks Spanish. When the children were growing up, the family would go Niigata each summer, but he thinks his three children are Catalans at heart. Nevertheless, he says each one chose to spend some time in Japan as a young adult to learn the language and culture.
His next adventure will be a new shop exclusively for Japanese wagashi — but not until he’s paid off his current mortgage, he says.
His son Ken, who is studying to be a pastry chef in Tokyo, will eventually take over the original patisserie, he explains, beaming with pride.
After more than 35 years in Barcelona, Ochiai has become so accustomed to local ways and such a part of the community that he now sometimes feels out of step in Japan. When he visits, he confesses that he takes pleasure in shocking people by occasionally crossing the street on a red light — his inner rebel perhaps not entirely tamed.
Recently, when out in Tokyo for dinner with his son, he says he found himself being scolded for not getting into the queue. “Papa, we’re not in Barcelona now!” his son had said, mortified. He laughs mischievously at this.
“When you’re young it’s not so bad,” he says. “But at my age people expect me to know the rules.”
As we finish chatting, I ask how he disconnects to relax when his two businesses and private life are so closely allied.
“I am always connected — how can I disconnect? Even when I’m sleeping I’m thinking,” he says, before pausing.
“Perhaps,” he continues, “I am quite Japanese after all.”
Name: Takashi Ochiai
Profession: Pastry chef
Key moments in life:
1976 — Leaves Japan for Brussels
1982 — Moves to Barcelona
1983 — Opens his first patisserie in Barcelona
2008 — Refurbishes original store to new modern patisserie
2013 — Wins best artisan butter croissant in Spain along with his pastry chef Jordi Morello
2014 — Awarded best pastry chef in Spain
Words to live by: “Choose one thing and learn to do it very well.”
What I miss about Japan: “Not much — in Japan you can’t have an opinion, everyone has to think the same.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5