In sleepless Tokyo where people are always on the go, gathering around a table to share a meal and reflect on the day may seem like a dying tradition.
But it’s time to slow down and make the dining table the hub of family life again, says Shima Tassin, a woman dubbed the “housekeeping legend” for her famous exploits as an in-demand, in-home personal chef. Her advice: start eating like the French.
“It’s the French who taught me the importance of family meals,” says Tassin, a Yamaguchi Prefecture native who lives with her French husband and 14-month-old son in Tokyo.
“If you gave yourself an hour a day every day to enjoy a laid-back meal, I promise it would change your life,” she says.
The 39-year-old Tassin gained celebrity status overnight when she was first featured on a TV program in February 2017, a life-changing opportunity that led to publishing deals and more media appearances.
Tassin’s professional housekeeping duties once included cleaning and tidying, but she is now so well-regarded that she is only asked to grocery shop and cook.
Shima-san, as she is fondly known, is renowned for her ability to prepare more than 15 freezer-friendly dishes in three hours. Her popularity with housewives and working moms has made it impossible for new customers to secure her services.
Before she registered with an employment agency as a housekeeper, she worked for 15 years as a chef at a top-rated French restaurant. Not only did she fall in love with French cuisine but also with French culture, and especially their eating habits.
“Most chefs are only interested in food but I loved everything about France and wanted to learn a lot of things — language, culture, literature, entertainment and more,” says Tassin.
“For everyone around me the ultimate goal was to open their own restaurant, but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted. What I really wanted to learn was French home cooking. But I couldn’t tell anyone about my little secret.”
Eventually, she quit her job in a professional kitchen, got married and got pregnant. Soon enough she needed to look for a job that would allow her to be a mom but also keep her culinary career on track. That is when she decided to try her luck in a stranger’s kitchen.
Still, Tassin kept quiet about her new endeavor, but this time for a different reason.
“Back then, I believed I was a failure if I didn’t own my own restaurant. People asked me why a hopeful chef would lower herself to being a housekeeper,” Tassin says.
“A housekeeper is seen as a low-status profession, so when I was first called the legendary housekeeper on TV I hated it. Me? A housekeeper? I didn’t want anyone to watch the show. But then I realized that’s what I do and it’s silly to be ashamed of a job,” she says.
Her honesty paid off. With consumers in Japan willing to pay more for convenience, and companies even providing housekeeping, child care and food service as employee benefits, Tassin succeeded in turning her passion into profit.
The key to success is having a fulfilling home life, she says.
Her clients are mostly double-income families, and it makes her sad to hear of kids eating dinners at child-care centers while their parents work late, saying it’s neither nourishing to the belly nor soul.
“I love it when (clients tell me) they were able to have a peaceful family meal,” Tassin says.
“I used to be a professional chef, so my dishes should taste good. It’s not when people compliment my food, but when people thank me for the family time made possible by my service that makes me happy.”
According to figures released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in March, the French on average spend 2 hours, 11 minutes on eating and drinking each day (topping the list of 30 countries) compared to 1 hour, 35 minutes for the Japanese.
Americans spend the least time on meals at just 1 hour and 1 minute.
Studies worldwide have shown the physical and mental health benefits associated with eating meals as a family.
The Japan Dietetic Association provides dietary guidelines, one of which says to “enjoy communication at the table with your family.”
Tassin says the French attitude toward food, ironically, reminded her of her childhood, when there was unspoken dining etiquette. She admits, though, that the monotony was a turn-off for a little girl.
“We were a big family and we lived with my great-grandma,” she recalls. “We always sat down for dinner together. We had to wait until grandpa finished drinking sake to start eating. As a kid, it wasn’t always fun, but the dinner table was a great place for communication.
“Modern-day France and Japan in the olden days have a lot in common. Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to French culture.”
Cooking services are not common in France, says Tassin, despite just as many French as Japanese mothers working. The difference is that they don’t believe in the supermom myth.
“Seeing how hectic mothers’ lives are, I wonder when our country became this way,” says Tassin.
“Some people pay for my service but actually feel guilty about it. I know of people who don’t tell their parents they hire a housekeeper, or of wives whose husbands are against outsourcing household tasks. Quite a lot of them, actually,” she says.
Tassin says that Japanese women are too self-critical. They feel that cooking needs to be complicated and time-consuming, unlike French women who seem to have no issue with slapping together a simple meal.
“French mothers are more easygoing. They make comfort food with humble ingredients. They approach their food differently,” Tassin says.
“Who cares if it’s overcooked or a little burnt? Eating together is what matters.”
With four books to date and a fifth one coming out in the fall, how does Tassin manage to keep her own family organized and on schedule?
“My husband and I talk more than ever,” she says. “I take every Wednesday off and I only visit one or two homes a day now. We make sure to switch off work mode on holidays and eat together.”
She says she now spends no more than 30 minutes preparing dinner on an average workday, compared to the 19-hour shifts she did in the restaurant kitchen.
Most clients want her to prepare a week’s worth of meals, but she often faces having to pump out dishes from understocked kitchens.
Tassin says this unique challenge has helped her become a more flexible and happy-go-lucky cook.
“I stopped being picky. The only thing I think about is making something that tastes good,” says Tassin, who used to carry thyme and laurel leaves — must-have spices in French cuisine — in her bag but can now do without them.
“I want to cook to suit any family’s needs. In a restaurant, you have the best recipes and the best ingredients, and you have access to quality tools. Working in a home and not a restaurant, I know now I’m where I want to be.”
For Tassin, there is no dilemma over the choice between family or career — she’ll take both.
“The life I’m living now is one I’d never imagined. Being on TV, writing books, all of it,” Tassin says. “Cooking isn’t about measuring, weighing and following instructions. It’s more about having fun. That’s what I want to teach. We need to adopt the French mindset and be happy eaters.”