• Kyodo

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The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a major shift away from restaurant dining, leaving many chefs in Japan out of work and looking to devise ways to stay in business with their normal clientele reluctant to venture out.

Adding to the already booming food delivery business, the hiring of chefs to cook high-quality dishes in home kitchens has become increasingly popular as a way for people to conveniently access restaurant-quality meals while staying at home, safe from the coronavirus.

“It’s been a great help because we can’t really eat out now and I’m pretty occupied with raising my child,” said a doctor in her 30s, who has recently returned to work from maternity leave.

“Unlike food delivery services, we can discuss what meals we desire (with the chef), and I really like that,” she said at her residence in Tokyo.

The family regularly uses a subscription service in which the chef prepares meals for three to four nights for a fee of ¥7,480 (about $72), not including food costs, per visit.

“I get a little nervous when I use someone else’s kitchen, but it’s a very good learning experience,” said Reki Uchiyama, the 47-year-old chef who cooks meals and is registered with Sharedine Co., a company that dispatches chefs to its customers’ homes.

At the doctor’s home, where she lives with her husband and infant, Uchiyama prepared some 10 dishes in approximately three hours. Upon request, Sharedine can match individual “personal chefs” with their regular customers to make the accommodation of nutritional preferences easier.

Online reviews from customers have been generally positive, and the lifeline Sharedine has provided to out of work chefs has been a godsend during the pandemic.

Custom cuisine: Reki Uchiyama, a chef who was dispatched to a customer's home to prepare meals, cooks in the kitchen at the residence in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward. | KYODO
Custom cuisine: Reki Uchiyama, a chef who was dispatched to a customer’s home to prepare meals, cooks in the kitchen at the residence in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward. | KYODO

The number of bankruptcies in the food service industry, in which companies have debt of ¥10 million or more, hit a record high of 842 in Japan last year as people stayed home to curb infections and the government imposed a nationwide state of emergency, surpassing the previous high from 2011 when a massive earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan, according to Tokyo Shoko Research.

With restaurants and bars in some parts of the country asked to curtail their business hours again when the government reinstated a state of emergency in Tokyo and adjacent prefectures in early January, which was later expanded to prefectures outside the capital region, that figure is likely to rise.

Uchiyama, a former head chef of a popular restaurant, lost his job during the pandemic and registered with Sharedine last September.

“Feedback from customers encourages me a lot,” said Uchiyama, who also is a carer to his sick mother, adding that the flexible working hours are a bonus in his situation.

“I try my best to accommodate each household’s various requirements, such as making specially prepared meals for people receiving nursing care with special dietary restrictions,” he said.

Demand for outsourcing meal preparation services existed before the emergence of the novel coronavirus, but the health crisis has accelerated the trend.

Established in May 2017, Sharedine provides support programs for out-of-work chefs through which they can exchange information and receive training for countermeasures against virus infections, among other things.

The number of chefs registered with the company has reached about 900, including some who still work at restaurants but want to spread their culinary wings by engaging in home visit cooking at the same time.

Some suggested meal preparation outside the traditional restaurant setting offers a solid professional career path for chefs who have recently acquired cooking qualifications.

“The completion of hiring by hotels and eateries in anticipation of the Olympics coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. We must urgently develop career paths for new graduates,” said Yukio Hattori, chairman of the All Japan Culinary School Association.

With customer numbers dropping off at traditional eateries, leading to a series of temporary closures and bankruptcies, meal delivery services such as Uber Eats have proliferated.

And some chefs are taking advantage of their hard-won reputations to start businesses that only require operating a kitchen without a front-of-house area — dubbed “cloud kitchens” or “ghost restaurants,” where different chefs can share facilities to prepare dishes for delivery.

At one such business, called Shokunomori, opened last fall in Osaka, western Japan, up to 10 food service operations share a kitchen, each delivering their respective offerings such as fried chicken, pizza, rice bowls and beverages to customers.

Compared with stand-alone restaurants, the business allows startup operators to establish themselves at a lower cost with no need for wait staff and a significantly smaller initial capital investment.

“We need a place to support chefs who are contending with this adverse situation,” said Junji Arisako, 41, head of Shokunomori.

Taking the pandemic as his cue, Yasushi Kubo, 48, left his previous job to fulfill a long-held dream of running a food service business and launched his onigiri rice ball shop at Shokunomori, using the cloud kitchen model.

“We hope it allows us to exchange ideas with other professionals specialized in different types of cuisine to increase the popularity of our stores,” Kubo said.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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