Food & Drink

Tiny Peace Kitchen: Lunch like mom used to make it

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Although Tokyo has one of the best restaurant scenes in the world, sometimes you’d rather eschew the high-end and complex for simple, nourishing dishes, the kind you’ll find at Tiny Peace Kitchen.

After graduating from the University of Tokyo’s Graduate Program in Sustainability Science in 2013, founder Tomoko Arai joined Gaiax, an IT venture company. Working there for a few years, she began to notice a concerning trend.

“People who work, especially in Tokyo, eat while working at their desks, or only eat ramen,” Arai says. “Everyone is constantly working in a high-pressure environment, and I saw that this was taking a toll on people’s hearts and bodies. I wanted to do something to promote a healthier work style.”

Arai knew she wanted to draw on her background studying business supply chains and work with food. But rather than opening a typical restaurant, Arai — who would occasionally invite coworkers, especially those who couldn’t cook themselves, over for meals — wanted to harness the “pure” feeling she associated with home cooking.

Food for a crowd: Staff at Tiny Peace Kitchen prep hefty bowls of that day's side dishes before lunch service. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Food for a crowd: Staff at Tiny Peace Kitchen prep hefty bowls of that day’s side dishes before lunch service. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

In 2015, Arai approached Gaiax, prepared to quit in order to run her own project. However, the company, more supportive than she had anticipated, suggested she test out her concept in-house. Starting that August, Arai began operating the Mainichi Shokudo (Everyday Cafeteria) out of her own kitchen, working from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m. every day except Sundays to cater 50 healthy meals a day for Gaiax staff.

When the company moved from its Gotanda offiices to its current location in Nagatacho, Arai expanded her team and opened Tiny Peace Kitchen — a bright, cafeteria-style restaurant that serves healthy, home-cooked teishoku (set meals) — in February 2017. Its core tenets are simple: serve food that’s homemade, additive-free, sustainable, locally sourced and with zero waste.

Asked about the new name, Arai explains, “More than a simple cafeteria, there’s strong memories associated with kitchens. … To me, a kitchen is where you’re connected to your mom.” “Tiny Peace” is also a play on words: Arai’s family hails from Kodaira, a city in western Tokyo whose name is written with the kanji for “small” and “peace.”

Tiny Peace’s staff has now grown to 14, many of whom — Arai included — have small children. As such, the work environment is flexible, open and collaborative, with staff covering for each other as necessary. Arai has also formed partnerships with local businesses, including Corot, an organic farm in Saitama Prefecture that supplies Tiny Peace with vegetables, and Wataru Yoshida of Coffee Elementary School, who provides coffee beans and staff training.

No solo seats here: Tiny Peace Kitchen's open floorplan has communal tables and even a small tatami mat dining area. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
No solo seats here: Tiny Peace Kitchen’s open floorplan has communal tables and even a small tatami mat dining area. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Tiny Peace Kitchen’s menu is simple: either curry or the set meal of the day, both of which include multigrain purple rice from local purveyor Funakubo Shoten and three small side dishes. If you eat in, the meal also comes with a bowl of soup. Rice is self-serve, not only to feel more familial, but because Arai asserts it’s “not natural” to serve everyone the same amount of food.

Staff collaborate with Corot’s Yutaka Minegishi to develop the menu of curries and set meals a month in advance. After a preliminary menu is formulated, everyone gathers to evaluate the balance of flavors, tweaking and ultimately finalizing meals a week in advance based on which vegetables are available.

One day’s set meal might be fried saba (mackerel) with lemony greens and sides of cold pickles, omelette and tofu; another day might be karaage (fried chicken) with broccoli salad, pickled beets and simmered konnyaku (devil’s tongue). Regardless, there’s always plenty of vegetables.

“It’s simple, Japanese home-cooked food,” Arai says. “It’s not flashy or colorful and Instagram-y. But it’s difficult to find places that serve food like your mom would make, and that’s the sort of unpretentious food we want to continue to serve.”

Lunch boxes (takeaway) from ¥800, set meals from ¥1,000; English menu; some English spoken