Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
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Buckwheat noodle shop (Musashi-kosugi, Kawasaki)
Kawasaki – The megacity which is located next-door to Tokyo. Especially the area called “Musashi-Kosugi” is evolving at a rapid pace thanks to its convenient transportation system. There used to be many factories in that area, but now many high-rise condominiums replaced them and have changed the face of a former factory center.
But there is a shop which has been in the rapidly changing town for 16 years. It’s a buckwheat noodle (soba) shop called “Kabura-an (蕪庵)”, which is run by an Algerian man.
“Recently Japanese people eat ramen so they don’t eat soba noodles. It improves the blood flow, so I eat them every day.”
Belouazani Lakhdar, the owner of Kabura-an, says with a smile. Some people thought that his soba noodles must be distasteful because a man from Algeria made a typical Japanese food.
(Left) “Kamo-seiro”, chilled soba noodle with slices of roasted duck.
(Right) “Karami-mochi”, chilled soba noodle with baked rice cakes.
(Interview with Belouazani Lakhdar, shop owner)
When did you open this shop?
16 years ago, 1992.
What did you do before that?
Before I opened my own shop, I was working at a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo.
My boss owned four restaurants. A tea-ceremony dishes restaurant, Japanese-style restaurant, soba & udon (うどん: thick white noodles) restaurant and kishimen (きしめん: flat wheat noodles) restaurant. I worked at all those restaurants because I had to acquire knowledge of many, different Japanese dishes.
But those restaurants have closed. So I started to work for another Japanese restaurant called “Mugi-toro”. I worked there for four and a half years.
I had to go there because a chef of Mugi-toro quit there suddenly. Moreover when he left, other cooks also quit. Mugi-toro was a restaurant with almost 70 years at that time so the owner asked my boss to take over. They knew each other and my boss suggested helping it stay in business because if nothing were done it would close down soon.
It was in the middle of the night but Mugi-toro had to open the next morning. So we had no choice but going there. There was no knife but we decided what to cook for mainly course meals. Other cooks also helped and it opened at 9:30 AM as usual.
I had no idea how long I would be there. But my co-workers were the same as before so I didn’t feel odd at all. I worked there for more than four years.
I made my rise to a restaurant manager, but I wanted to see how far I could go in Japan and not end here. I didn’t want to be an employee forever. I wanted to do something by myself someday. My brothers have their own businesses and my parents are also running gas stations, used car dealerships and cafe restaurants in both France and Algeria. So I wanted to start my business here in Japan.
I’m the third boy of seven brothers. I was concerned that my parents would wonder if I was working out just fine outside our country. So I wanted to achieve a satisfactory level of performance in Japan. Actually my parents-in-laws, senior staff and my bosses helped me a lot so I really wanted to start my own business.
Then one day I told the owner of Mugi-toro that I would leave work. “Now it’s time to open my own restaurant, so let me do it!”
That was 16 years ago. You’ve been making soba for 20 years in total.
I have been making noodles since I came to Japan. So I cook mainly soba here. Also I clean fish for course meals. I go to a fish market and bring fish with seawater.
Did you learn how to clean fish at your first restaurant in Tokyo?
Yes, I learned it there. But before coming to Japan, I worked at a Japanese restaurant in France for seven and a half years.
The company which I worked for had five or six restaurants in France. It owned a duty-free shop, grocery store, yakiniku (焼肉: beef barbeque) restaurant and yakitori (焼き鳥: skewered grilled chiken) restaurant. My neighbor was a Japanese guy and he was working at that company. Then one day he asked me to help his company.
He brought me to his company and I met its president. It was in France but they were hiring a non-Japanese employee for the first time. There were more than 40 workers and I was the only non-Japanese guy. It was totally the different world. I was in my country but I didn’t feel at home (*Lakhdar was born in Algeria but it was a French colony at that time. Moreover he was educated in high school and university in France).
About 50 workers had lunch all together. I had difficulty in eating because I didn’t understand what they were talking to each other. I was the only person who couldn’t understand what they were talking about. So I was just looking at the dishes in front of me.
Once I got out, it was France, my home. So I wondered why I had to have stress there. My Japanese friend told me that I would get used to the Japanese language because I was young. He helped me a lot. Thanks to him, I could keep working there.
Was it your first experience of Japan?
That’s right. Before that, I didn’t know anything about Japan at all. I entered that company as a part-time worker, but seven years later, I became an old identity. Cooks’ visa is valid only for two or three years and they had to go home. Every time they went back to Japan, our executive managing director asked me to fill vacant posts.
While I worked there, I mastered all of the Japanese culinary arts. Then ex-coworkers who went back to Japan recommended me to come here. I was dating a Japanese woman (*now she is his wife) at that time and she said that she loved France. I didn’t care wherever I stayed, in France or left there.
Then I entered Japan on a tourist visa. But I totally got bored because I’m a kind of hard worker. So I said to her that I wanted to go back to my country. Her mother was working, her younger brother was working and she also started to work as soon as we came here. I had no friends at all and had nothing to do but go to a local shopping area.
Her mother hooked me up with a liquor shop in central Tokyo later and I started to work there as a part-time worker. I was going to get married to her so her mother told me to work at any company as a full-time staff in order to do that. Her mother was working at a company and I joined them. That’s my first restaurant in Tokyo.
After that, my life became much easier. I started from dishwashing at that restaurant. I had many obstacles there and my boss said that I would be able to start my own business. Then I opened my own shop.
Did you start from dishwashing?
I mastered all of the cooking methods of Japanese cuisine in France. But at a restaurant in Japan, I was a new man. Even though I had a background of Japanese restaurants and I was older than the other staff, it didn’t matter. You entered this shop today so you’re the new man. They said, “Now you have to put aside your experiences at other restaurants and learn our manners like beginners.”
I thought they were totally right. Because if you don’t accept that way, you will go in circles. If you want to stand on your feet or you want to open your shop, you shouldn’t be close-minded. You will need guardian angels. Also if you stick to your own ideas, you will have a communication problem. If you are told how to cut the vegetables and you say you already know how to, they would say that you don’t need to join them because you have already known it.
As for me, I rebooted my mind one month after I opened this shop. Before that, I worked at a restaurant in Asakusa as a manager and it turned over a lot. I thought that my shop would also turn over if I applied its method to it.
But the first month was terrible. I had to move on and create a totally brand new image of Kabura-an, this shop. People who came to eat were totally different between this shop and the restaurant in Asakusa. How to interact with customers, how to cook meals… everything was different. So I was troubled. I wondered what I had learned until then.
I had to start from scratch, create a distinctive atmosphere, own business policy and attract customers. If I couldn’t do those things, I would be aborted.
In the first month, customers of the restaurant in Asakusa came to my shop. So I thought I would go well. But to them, it was a kind of celebration of the opening of my shop. My mother-in-law asked me to change my mind.
Besides, my appearance is as you see so some people said that they didn’t want to eat my soba noodles because I’m a foreigner. I wondered why.
Could you tell me a little more about the story of the opening of this shop?
When I was at my first Japanese restaurant in Tokyo, a distributor of dried bonito fish introduced me to a shopkeeper of a soba noodle shop called “Seigetsu”. I went there and we agreed with each other. He also came to a shop I worked at and we talked about noodles and I struck up a relationship with him. I told him that I wanted to start my own business someday. He asked me to tell him when the time came.
After that, I went to Asakusa. Coworkers who stayed at that restaurant moved to another soba noodle shop after my first restaurant closed. He (Lakhdar calls him “Oyaji” – it means “master” ) introduced them to that shop. I also went to that shop once or twice a month.
One of my senior employees told me that he would help me if I would open my shop. I said OK and told him that I wanted to start my business with him.
Citrus flavored chilled soba noodle is perfect for the hot summer!
But he quarreled with Oyaji when I started my business. Oyaji told me my business would be going under if I did it with him. Because he was really selfish.
But I started it with him. When I was working at my first restaurant in Tokyo, he was a manager and well experienced. But this shop is my own shop. He took care of me a lot at that time but I had to protect my family’s livelihood. Also my mother-in-law financed my business.
However he often went out and hung around for two hours even if it was opening hour. We argued everyday. That went on for six months. I told him, “We are working together. Do you know what I mean?” I knew he took care of me a lot, but I didn’t want him to destroy my business.
I told Oyaji about him. Oyaji suggested I learn a little more about soba because I didn’t know about it perfectly. On the other hand, that guy, my former coworker at this shop, was a skilled soba noodle chef and he had much more experience in making it than I did. So I went to Oyaji‘s soba noodle shop everyday and mastered things.
Two or three months later, I asked that guy to quit. He said, “You, a foreigner, shouldn’t be able to carry on a soba noodle shop! I will quit here but this shop will close within one month. When that time comes, I will be back here and say that serves you right.”
I really felt frustrated. I decided that I would keep carrying on this shop. When I told Oyajiabout this, he said that things would go well. Every Japanese is not like my former coworker. I met a bad Japanese, but not all Japanese people have been bad. Some good Japanese people have certainly helped me.
His existence turned into a plus for you.
I had no time to feel frustrated after that. But if I closed this shop, he would come here and say something. Moreover if I closed this shop, I wouldn’t be able to pay the bills and I would have to leave here. I thought it would get better someday so there was no way but working diligently.
So I really appreciate my customers, Oyaji and people who give me their cooperation. I’ve worked hard. I worked as if my life depended on it and 16 years have past. I learned from that kind of trouble. I was young so I could endure it. If I have such a kind of obstacle now, it would be really tough for me.
I will face many walls from now on, but I will break them down. I have to develop my skills more and more.
I really want to thank the Japanese people. They didn’t treat me as a foreigner. When I metOyaji for the first time, he told me. “I hate the word ‘gaijin’ (foreigner). I won’t treat you as a foreigner. I want to come face-to-face with you.” So he was really affable to me. He told me that I was benignant for him. He wanted to know my ideas and my culture. To me, his house is like my house so I feel really comfortable there.
He is like my Japanese father, not only my master. He really treat me as a human being. I’m happy that there is a person like him in Japan.
He laid the groundwork for my business and he said that I would have to build a house on it. “If guns blow, a house will collapse. You are my apprentice. Don’t forget that.” I feel a lot of pressure.
That’s a wonderful story.
I could reach this level thanks to a good environment. I don’t know how long I will make soba noodles but I will appreciate people taking care of me including my customers.
This shop has appeared in a book. It was written about first-class soba noodle shops in the region. Seigetsu, Oyaji’s shop, also has been printed in it. He said that my shop and his shop finally appeared in the same book. I didn’t imagine that at all! When I read that book and I found his photo, I was really surprised. I still think I need ten more years of experience beforeOyaji and I appear in the same book. But he was happy with that. So I’m glad I’ve been making soba noodles for a long time.
Some people have said that they didn’t want to eat my soba because I’m a foreigner. A guy said that my shop would close down soon. But when I experienced good things like that, I washed away the bad things. I’m glad I’ve been managing this shop for 16 years. Thanks to everybody, I could keep making soba noodles here.
I’m glad to have come to Japan. I’m glad to be a soba chef.
*Photos by Ryuta Hayashi, Isao Tokuhashi
What are soba noodles to you?
They are like my children.
Soba noodles are profound. I’ve made them for 16 years but I still have to learn much more about them. They are responsive to shift in the weather. So I have to treat them like my children.
I will never think that I’ve become a full-fledged chef. If I become bigheaded,
I will cause trouble to Oyaji. I want to make noodles with a fresh mind. I haven’t entered even the first grade yet. I’m nobody. I will think in this manner like
I have done so far and I will strive to create better things.
If I think that I can do everything, I’ll be all washed-up as a chef. Because there’s always somebody above me. So I will never stop growing as a soba noodle chef.
485-10 Imai-minamicho, Nakahara-ku, Kawasaki-shi, Kanagawa
Phone: (from overseas) +81-44-711-1147
(From other areas in Japan) 044-711-1147
Open hours: 11:30AM – 3PM, 5PM – 10:30PM
(Regular closing day: The first & third Tuesday every month)
*Interview with Belouazani Lakhdar…Click here!