OSAKA – Finding Yoshiki Tsuji’s office is straightforward: It’s on the ground floor of the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, down a short hallway past a wall-mounted relief that was sculpted in France, a jamboree of pots, pans and myriad other kitchen utensils.
Students at the cooking school know where Tsuji’s office is. They also know his Gmail address, not standard operating procedure for those in higher education in Japan, who more often than not have no idea where their college president hides out, nor are they likely to even recognize them if they were to ever pass each other on campus.
But Tsuji is different.
At the age of 11, he was shipped off (“kicked out of my family” as he puts it, deadpan) to school in Edinburgh. From there he went to work on Wall Street until, after 15 years away, he returned to Japan in the early ’90s. Then, when his father, Shizuo Tsuji, died in 1993, Yoshiki stepped up and took over the culinary institute. At 29, he was only a few years younger than the school he had inherited.
Both father and son occupy an insider-outsider role in the culinary world. Shizuo was the son of a baker, and studied French literature at Waseda University before working as a journalist for the Yomiuri Shimbun in Osaka.
Through his journalism he became interested in cooking, and then heavily invested in it, first by training to become a chef, transforming his father-in-law’s small cooking school into a juggernaut (renaming it in the process) and then by writing numerous books including the seminal guide to Japanese cuisine, “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” (1980).
Similarly, Yoshiki’s background — a degree in art history followed by working in finance — doesn’t immediately lend itself to running a culinary institute. But, perhaps that was his parents’ plan all along: for Yoshiki to get an outsider’s perspective, before becoming an insider.
Over the course of nearly 60 years, the Tsuji Culinary Institute has turned out 140,000 chefs and patissiers, in the process becoming the largest culinary school in Japan. The main campus is in Osaka, but it also operates in Tokyo and Lyon, France. The majority of the 2,700 students currently enrolled are on a two-year course, divided between culinary and pastry courses.
The Tsuji Culinary Institute is one of the most culturally diverse vocational schools in Japan and each year the school admits around 315 foreign students — they must have high degree of Japanese language proficiency — with many drawn from neighboring Asian countries.
In his office at the school, Tsuji says that since the school’s inception, the teaching methodology has changed drastically.
“When my father set the school up 58 years ago, it was more out of a relationship and love that (he) had for foreign cuisine, particularly for French cuisine,” he says. “We tried to bring over the best (example) of each recipe and copy it, and also tried to realize what was best in France at the time, during the ’60s and ’70s.”
Over time, the emphasis on copying and refining — “which we are very good at” — has given way to getting students to be more analytical and curious when it comes to ingredients, techniques and the biography of each dish.
“In my view, there has to be a more logical understanding and a scientific understanding to the field of gastronomy, to each cuisine rather than just learning or mimicking techniques to achieve a goal,” says Tsuji.
“You don’t need a school for that, for the memorization of a recipe,” Tsuji says, pointing out that YouTube can adequately, and at much less cost, fulfill that role.
Ideally, a Tsuji graduate is a technician as much as a craftsperson. Tsuji admits that this takes time and patience with new recruits. Nearly 80 percent of first year students enroll straight out of high school, coming from a system focused on teaching to the test and rote learning. As Tsuji notes, rote learning can make you smart, but it also makes a machine of you at the same time.
Above all, what Tsuji wants from his students is the ability to read into a recipe. As he says: “Within one single recipe, one piece of paper, there is so much depth and logic.”
Many of the school’s graduates have achieved that goal. Tsuji says that there are currently about 15-20 graduates spread across France working as sous chefs in two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants. Closer to home, another Tsuji Culinary School graduate, Hiroe Higuchi was the head chef at the working dinner of the Group of Seven Ise-Shima Summit in 2016. More recently another graduate, Atsuko Koizumi, returned from France to take over as executive chef at Bistro Marx, the eponymous restaurant of the Michelin-starred French chef and restaurateur Thierry Marx in Ginza, Tokyo.
Although Tsuji professes to not liking public speaking, several times a year he conducts lectures to a few hundred of his students. He gives out his email address at the outset, encouraging students to contact afterwards him with questions.
As a result of the questions he receives, Tsuji convenes regular but informal meetings with those who contact him. These listening sessions, which roll on for a few hours, help him to understand where students are struggling and also help to motivate him as well as the students.
Tsuji might be a maverick in the education system here, but he’s also a role model. His peers could do worse than by mimicking him.