Explore New Territory!
A pro always puts himself in sticky situations.
It’s pure chance that anyone meets anyone.
Having to make even a temporary connection with someone who’s rude is like a traffic accident, it’s a misfortune that one can only resign oneself to.
Such are my thoughts concerning my meeting with Shigeo Endo.
Shigeo Endo was the kitchen manager at Marronier.  The restaurant’s parent company was developing restaurants all across the country, but for some reason, they hadn’t taken any steps toward Nagoya City yet, or so I’d heard. But finally they got everybody on board. This was the result, Marronier.
It felt like we were reclaiming the west. It was the first time I’d been to this city.
So at the interview, I said to Endo, quite frankly:
“I’m interested in exploring new territory.”
Endo peered right into my eyes.
“Izzat right,” he said, in a terse tone.
Criticizing other people’s looks isn’t really a hobby of mine, but I would like to say a bit about him in particular.
His eyes seemed like they could see right through me, straight to the bone. Whenever I did something dumb, his forehead and temples would turn red all at once.
To be honest, I had another motive, too, besides my interest in “exploring new territory.” To use the fashionable phrase, I was “searching for myself.”
Those words make me want to really dig into it, like, is there really even a “self” to go searching for? but there certainly was a bit of that motive there.
I’ve never worked for one place for very long.
I graduated from a food prep school and set out to look for work. Until this incident, I’d just sort of tumbled through whatever posts came across my path. The worst didn’t even last ten days. My longest successful run wasn’t more that two months. There always seemed to be this wall.
I even gave other stuff a try, figuring maybe I wasn’t suited for kitchen work. The results were always the same.
I wondered if it was really okay to keep up like that forever. I did a lot of reflection, and I started to search for myself.
But, this research experiment was apparently to be accompanied by certain costs.
That’s what my instincts told me, the instant I saw the gleam in Shigeo Endo’s eyes at that interview.
Endo had been dispatched from distant lands as a kitchen manager specifically for the opening of this shop. Actually, he was a man of legendary valor, and everyone knew him. If this had been a western, he’d be a never-miss gunman with the kind of rep that made people say, “You’ve heard the rumors about him, ain’tcha. Nothing but gravestones where he’s walked.” Who knew how many young bucks he’d worked to exhaustion in his kitchens.
That’s what I heard, anyway, at the celebration later. I’d ended up as part of something I hadn’t expected.
The Great Kitchen Manager Shigeo Endo had received a command from on high:
“Establish a Marronier in Nagoya in three months!”
So he set out, like some kind of wandering gunman. We were just the rank and file soldiers assembled under him.
In other words, plying the people of this town with the shop’s favors, and raising a successor to those flavors from this very shop, was Shigeo Endo’s mission. Marronier was a casual restaurant with an Italian base.
Three months after the interview.
That sure went fast.
It feels like it’s all been a dream, but at the same time I remember every inch of every corner of those days as if it’s been only maybe three days.
This town has a lot of pedestrian traffic, doesn’t it, I thought today, peddling my bike. I travel this street every day, but today it feels like I’m discovering it for the first time.
Now that I think about it, outside of this route that I bike to work on everyday, I haven’t really gone anywhere in three months. In other words, it’s been a season of nothing but round trips between my house and the shop.
Every day has been just like being in the center of a tornado.
Even now, I really don’t know which parts I was awake for and which parts I slept through.
But this path is going to come to an end soon, too.
My contract term expires next week Tuesday. I wasn’t a Nagoya City resident to begin with, so it was set up this way from the very start. The other staff members are all Nagoya City people.
My term was restricted to three months.
I learned about it after I’d been put to use in the shop, after I’d spent my two week trial period here.
Huh, that so…
I didn’t think much of it. As I said before, historically speaking, my longest run had only been two months. So when I was told of the three month limit, I only thought:
Am I even going to last that long?
But before I knew it, my record for longest run had to be updated. The fact that I wasn’t even aware of the development could only be because these three months really had been a tornado after all.
And now, today, we’ve come to the end of my term.
What the heck do you call this feeling? I thought, still riding my bike.
Actually, whatever it is, it’s lodged itself in my head or my chest or wherever for the past two whole weeks.
A sense of liberation?
That must be it. I’ve wondered seriously if I’ll ever have another day without that special murderous beam that radiates from Endo’s glaring eyes. Just the sensation of that stare and it feels like I’m going to faint. It feels like I’m walking barefoot on a blade. I’m constantly tense.
After all that, it’s a sense of liberation.
Ah, I’ve been saved.
It’s a feeling like I’m earnestly grateful for god’s divine protection on the battlefield, having barely escaped with my life.
Plus, because this isn’t the type of farewell that comes from my own decision not to continue, that sense of liberation is free of any feelings of guilt.
Having said all that…
Actually, there are some other feelings mixed in, too.
A reluctance to leave?
I asked myself that last night, and the night before that, too.
It couldn’t be anything like that.
I answered myself clearly last night, and the night before that, too. Shouldn’t I be thinking that I needed to take my entire body out for a makeover? I shouldn’t have any reluctance about leaving.
So what is it, this misty feeling?
This morning, too, while I was reading the newspaper before I left, I was staring into space, thinking about what this feeling really is, and not folllowing the printed words at all.
Yesterday, just before I went home, Endo said to me, “Satoru (that’s me), come talk to me tomorrow.”
“Okay,” I answered. I didn’t ask what it was about because I’d been meeting with Endo for three months to study.
What, why, how.
It was not Endo’s practice to give answers to those sorts of questions. Think whatever you want, was probably his attitude.
He often said stuff like that was the mark of a true artist, and usually sounded like he meant it as praise. But whenever he said it to me, it was just him being high-handed.
As a matter of course, Endo was not a polite tutor.
I’d only done dishwashing up till then, so I hadn’t expected it.
“Make a dressing,” he told me only a few days after I’d started working.
I didn’t know what kind I should make, so I waited for instructions from the glaring Endo.
After a while, he came up to me. I got ready, like, ah, some directions finally, but what he asked me was, “Done?”
“Hurry up.” He tossed the words at me and left. What the heck, I thought, am I just supposed to make whatever I want? So I made a dressing with olive oil, salt, and pepper – the simplest kind, I’d made it all through food prep school. I had a least a little bit of faith in myself.
I carried the dressing over to Endo. He took one lick and tossed it out without ever changing his expression.
That same scene repeated itself four, no five or six times. After the third time, I started crying without really meaning to. These weren’t tears of frustration or sorrow. It was closer to powerlessness, or exhaustion. All the strength left my body, and so all the strength went out of my tear ducts, too, and the tears just came out one after the other.
Well, that was what it meant to be attached to Shigeo Endo.
So when I was told, “Satoru, come talk to me tomorrow,” my answer was only, “Okay.” That was last night, but it wasn’t until I arrived at my apartment that I tried to guess precisely what the topic of this “talk” would be. It was probably this:
The appointed three months ended next week. The day after my trial period ended, the area manager had said to me, “If you want to stay on after three months, come talk to me and we can discuss a transfer to another store.”
Last night before I fell asleep, I got lost in my own thoughts, spellbound by a certain scene.
“Thanks for all your help,” is how Endo greets me in this scene. Then he abruptly turns his back on me. That’s it, that was really all it was, but imaging it held my rapt attention.
This morning, while flipping through the morning paper, I just stared into space, my eyes not following the type at all, but I wasn’t continuing that daydream.
I couldn’t see what was at the core of my own feelings. It was quite vexing.
I continue riding my bike through early morning Nagoya City.
I’ve been looking back at those two weeks, and all my days since then, but even now I still think:
Even so, Endo…
I say, “even so,” because he never bothered to teach me anything about cooking. But even so, he critiqued my cleaning in minute detail. How many times did I have to clean the same thing in a single day? And every time:
“Wash your hands.”
He said it so much my ears were sore from it. I couldn’t stomach it, either. My so-called training was all cleaning. It was like all the evils of the apprentice system.
The cleaning was a package deal with the simulations.
Before the shop opened, we’d run simulations that repeated just like baseball’s so-called thousand bat knock.  Certain dishes were ordered. Stop watches were pressed. From the galley, dishes were passed into the hands of the floor staff, and Endo let the timer keep going until the dish made it to the table.
“Three minutes twenty-six seconds over.”
He would read off the time in those moments with no expression, like a machine.
He would start to investigate the breakdown of those three minutes twenty-six seconds in excrutiating detail.
For instance, you missed something just here and that cost you eight seconds. He would clean out the causes in every corner just like that. He acted like it was so intolerable.
I even got hurt, too.
One time, I cut my finger with the kitchen knife.
I was showing off a little. I rubbed some salt into the wound to sterilize it, and said, “Wounds are like medals to a chef.”
It felt like a little joke more than showing off.
I assumed his retort would be, “You’re ten years too early.” Instead, there was a sudden lightning strike in the galley immediately following my remark.
“Satoru! Go home!”
Endo’s voice was a whump that made the window glass shiver.
“Don’t soil the galley with your blood!”
I felt myself go pale. Am I bleeding so much I’m anemic, I wondered just at the edge of my thoughts.
“I’m sorry, I’ll just go then, I’m going.”
I suddenly felt very antagonistic. But before I knew what I was doing, I was earnestly apologizing.
Why he was so angry, I hadn’t the slightest clue.
Endo was also an extremely self-confident person.
“My flavors won’t lose to anyone.”
I can’t even imagine being so self-possesed as to think that without any misgivings. But he would announce it clearly to the entire staff on a daily basis.
Every time I heard it, I felt fed up.
If you counted them up, it’d never end.
Still on my bike, I turn my mind again to “Shigeo Endo’s Problematic Points,” something I’ve thought a lot about these past two weeks.
I brake as the light at the intersection in front of me turns yellow. As my bike comes to a lazy stop, I think:
It’s the other day, that’s why. I seriously didn’t expect that.
It was three days ago.
It was after the staff lunch breaks were over, and I realized that someone had shown up in Marronier. They were obviously not a customer.
I couldn’t see their face. But still, how can I put it, there was an aura, maybe, a sense of a peculiar existence.
I asked my coworkers quietly, but everyone shrugged their shoulders.
If Endo was a wandering gunman, this guy was a famous sherriff. He had that kind of air about him. Every hooligan starts shaking.
There was an intermission before the evening rush.
Endo and this person sat down at the shop’s innermost table and had a friendly chat.
I’ve always thought this, but the difference between what the shop looks like during business hours, and what it looks like during the lulls is amazing. What’s it called, Fixed Point Photography, where you compare a photo taken in spring with a photo taken in the same spot in fall? It has exactly that kind of impact. Marronier’s interior, once bursting with the luxurious scenery of spring, becomes filled with a sense of deep autumn. That is intermission.
In the midst of that quiet, the two of them continued their chat. It looked from the outside like they were really close, but I recognized Endo’s expressions of respect.
He must be someone from the company. And someone important, too.
I had a hunch.
For a while, I used my elastic knees and stretchy ears, but only Endo’s voice reached me, and only intermittently, maybe because his tone was unusually high.
“… … But still … … That’s true, but … … In three months, that’s impossible … …”
I heard something like that, anyway, and there was that low tone again, and they both laughed. And then:
“You haven’t finished yet, say it clearly.”
I heard those words with such clarity I was surprised.
They were on the other side of the wall, so naturally I couldn’t see Endo, but the reddening of his face and rush of blood to his head were obvious enough. I didn’t need to see him to know that.
The other person didn’t show any signs of agitation. He didn’t even raise his voice. A scene played out in my mind with Endo supporting himself on both elbows and leaning in as the other person responded with dignity.
“You know, leaving now wouldn’t be…” He left off there.
“No one’s leaving.” Endo’s tone rose sharply. “These guys are eager.”
I’d been stretching every muscle to its limit, but listening in was getting awkward, so I figured I’d better stop while I was ahead, and left. So I never learned of later developments.
But with the night rush approaching, I did learn from the hall chief that the person who’d come in earlier was the general manager.
Ah, is that so.
I fell into a bit of a fog imagining the topic of their conversation.
“These guys are eager.”
That one phrase remained frightfully strong in my ear. Wow, that Shigeo Endo, I thought. Unexpectedly for me, my chest felt full.
The yellow light turned red.
I guess it’s always been like this, but this light is long.
I got off my bike and took a single big, deep breath, staring at the rooftops of the buildings.
Just then, I was a bit foggy from thinking constantly for these past two weeks, but I had a certain hunch, and gradually things were coming into focus.
Endo’s special declaration, “My flavors won’t lose to anyone,” wasn’t necessarily a greasy statement of his excessive self-confidence.
It’s a refusal to back down.
I was sure of it.
You often hear that modesty is a virtue.
“I’ve still got a lot to learn.”
That might be thought of as refreshingly reserved, but never professional. Whenever I made something that turned out sub-par, he’d only ever given me evasive answers. It was a pre-emptive defense. It was pretty cunning, when I thought about it.
Endo was constantly asking each one of us on the staff how our flavor excelled, and to prove his point, merely meeting the standards wasn’t enough. In order to say, “I’m the best,” you couldn’t just preserve the status quo, you had to constantly impose new trials on yourself. And then, thanks to that experience, you’d never end up with unexpected flavors.
Shigeo Endo’s “self-praise” is really a self-admonition, so that he won’t run away from his own declared high standards, I thought clearly.
The discoveries followed in quick succession from that. It was just like turning Othello game pieces from black to white.
I’d always been dissatified that he’d never taught me any cooking techniques, but when I thought about it, wasn’t that deliberate, to soak it into my head not to steal with my eyes and hands?
And then, all that stuff about cleaning.
It’s Endo’s conviction that hygeine is the foundation of everything. Attractive dishes will never come from a disordered galley.
It’s the same with injuries.
My talking about the honor of wounds was such an amateur move. When a pianist goes out, he never forgets his gloves. For a chef, too, his fingers are the tools of his trade.
Endo got angry and turned so red because I’d been playing around, and lost my focus, and had ended up injuring myself. And that injury had only made the galley that much more unsanitary.
The light still hasn’t changed.
It was like that then, too, and that time, too.
The discoveries continued. That simulation where he measured our times with a stop watch, and going over each second to find the cause, when we were slower than the alloted time.
The image of a beehive suddenly floated through my mind.
A honeycomb’s rooms are each finished in a regular hexagon. If they were round, you’d end up with a subtle gap between the rooms. That gap is a waste. A small waste, yes, but if you consider the entire beehive, it would add up to quite a lot of space.
When Endo made us run those simulations, surely that’s what he was getting at.
Discovering a little waste in all four corners, and cleaning out each one like I was prying it out with the tip of a toothpick meant that I was buried in detailed manual labor.
But a group of people who are like a beehive, with its collection of perfectly regular hexagonal rooms, is a beautiful sight to behold. And it’s not just an attractive sight, but there’s a quiet and gentle strength that won’t just crumble away once the job’s complete.
Endo was creating that kind of environment.
The truth is, the number of mistakes we were making had dramatically decreased by the third month. That’s proof that the Marronier work enviroment is remarkably close to a regular hexagon.
Finally the light turned green. I took off on my bike.
What we call a “pro…”
A strange metaphor had occurred to me.
Maybe what we call a “pro” is someone who lives like they’re always plunging into the intersection on a yellow light.
Someone who puts themselves in a tight spot, not just living peacefully in the green or the red, but always behaving as if they were being chased.
It’s only because they do things in that way that things get finished just in the nick of time. That’s the business person we call a “pro.” Just like a top, they can’t stand up unless they’re spinning.
I stepped hard on the pedals.
I could see Marronier about seventy meters ahead. Looking at it from a distance, a wave rose from it like a heat shimmer, but only in the area around the shop. It was the zeal that had taken root there, no doubt about it. I thought, Is this what you call a shop that’s on the right track?
My talk with Endo happened during my break time, after lunch was over.
“Sit down, Satoru.”
He offered me a seat at the table closest to the window. He brought me a coffee.
“It’s been decided that I’m leaving before too much longer,” Endo said.
“I’m quitting this shop pretty soon.”
“Huh, oh, is that right.”
The results of that talk with the general manager three days ago, I finally realized.
Endo, though, didn’t say anything else. Instead, he looked through the window and up at the sky.
“The clouds look like they just float along, nice and fluffy, but when you get close to one, it swirls around you with a thunderous noise, and it’s like being in the middle of a waterfall. That’s what they were saying on the radio the other day,” he said, or something like that.
I didn’t know how I was supposed to respond to that, so I stayed quiet.
“How about it, Satoru?” Endo said.
“How about what?”
It felt like Endo was scolding me, but all the things I’d been trying to say rushed out of my mouth.
“If it’s about work, I think it’s about expression. Self-expression,” I said, and then ducked my head, but Endo was unexpectedly silent.
All he said, after a little bit, was, “And?”
“Would it really be impossible to let me do that here?” I said.
Endo stared at the clouds outside the window again, and then said, “Is that right.”
Maybe I’ll end up regretting this decision later, but that’ll be then. That’s what I thought.
One thing I do know. I called it “searching for myself,” but maybe what I was doing wasn’t “searching for,” but rather, “building.”
[1 – “Horse Chestnut”]
[2 – you keep hitting balls out to the outfielders until they drop, to give them practice catching]