“A restaurant that values its knives can make delicious things.”

As the number of restaurants that are particular about their ingredients increases, chefs too are becoming more selective about their kitchen knives to bring the most out of those ingredients. Restaurants that carefully choose their knives and take care of them can make truly delicious food.

Like all our issues of “Connecting with Taste: Chef Interviews”, we introduce restaurants that we believe create amazing cuisine through the charms of their chefs, that review site ratings alone cannot give justice to.

In the ninth installment of "Meet the Chef" we introduce "Utsubo-gaku," located near Utsubo Park in Nishi Ward, Osaka.

Utsubo-gaku is a renowned, traditional Japanese restaurant beloved by Osaka's food enthusiasts, having been featured in the Michelin Guide for 10 consecutive years!

Where Utsubo-gaku differs from traditional Japanese restaurants is that they offer late-night options (and have even attempted morning options too), takeout, and an extensive wine list.

While managing the restaurant with a very small team, Chef Imagawa actively participates in events in and with other industries while continuing various other activities. Chef Imagawa tells us about his unique career in this blog.

I entered the world of cooking at the age of 24

While I occasionally cooked, I didn't have a clear vision for my future. I dropped out of a school related to architecture that I had attended for six years and worked part-time at Italian restaurants and fish markets for about a year. Due to dropping out, I had no formal education or qualifications. Reflecting on this time, I might say that my early twenties were a dark period in my life.

Mother's presence and Kigawa's predecessor

My mom has been teaching cooking classes for a long time. She used to take me to various restaurants for research.

One day, she took me to a restaurant opened by the predecessor of Kigawa (a pioneering traditional Japanese restaurant in Osaka). I remember eating a dish with grilled bamboo shoots, so it must have been around springtime.

The predecessor of Kigawa said, "We don't need extra staff here, but Kigawa might be short-staffed right now," and he took us directly to Kigawa in a taxi and introduced us. At that time, I had no idea what kind of restaurant Kigawa was.

The environment we encountered by chance

The Japanese culinary industry was very tough at the time, so the chef at the French restaurant where my mother often took me to said the following:

"You've chosen a tough but great path. Most people enter this world around the age of 18. By your age, they can already be a full-fledged chef." However, he also added, "You might feel a large difference (from other chefs/staff), but if you work diligently for ten years, that gap will close significantly."

Kigawa was a highly renowned restaurant in Osaka, and I heard that in my generation, heirs of other famous restaurants often went to train there. Fortunately for me, at the time I joined, there was a shortage of younger staff.

"Do everything in a way that customers can see them"

Thanks to this lack of young staff, from my very first day, I was not only in the dishwashing area but also working on the cooking line, receiving instructions from the chef right next to customers.

Although Kigawa's kitchen ideally required about seven people, there were only about five of us. Under the precise guidance of the head chef, I gained experience by doing tasks like preparing ingredients and placing dishes where they were supposed to go.

I heard from others around me that when there are many young chefs available, it's challenging to get work. So, I consider myself lucky.

Kigawa had a lot of interactions with regular customers from Osaka. The counter was designed at the same height as the customers' eye level, and it had a glass-like structure, so everything was visible.

For example, even if there was a counter or table behind me, my predecessor told me, "If you're seen working in the back, it might appear as if you're doing something shady. Make sure to do your work in a way that's visible to the customers. Don't do anything that you'd be ashamed of being seen doing."

Perhaps due to the local culture in Osaka or Kigawa's particular style, there were many diverse customer requests. Even though I hadn't filleted fish much before, I would be asked during service to fillet a fish on the spot! Even while filleting, I'd hear comments like, "The fish will catch fire with that technique (You're raising the temperature)."

At first, my chopsticks trembled as I served the fish, but it gave me courage.

Unexpected Experiences as Service Staff

After gaining a reasonable level of proficiency in traditional Japanese cooking, I moved on from Kigawa.

Originally, Osaka's culinary culture was very diverse. As part of this, Kigawa's head chef had trained at a famous French restaurant. To expand my knowledge, I had the opportunity to join "Le Nou Papillon," a restaurant that has knowledge of cutting-edge charcuterie (a term encompassing various meat products like ham, sausages, pâtés, terrines, etc.).

At the time, I was already 35 to 36 years old, and I was quite clear that I aimed to become independent in 2-3 years. It was extremely gratifying that the owner-sommelier chose to hire me, even though I only had experience in Japanese cuisine.

Initially, I had planned to work in the kitchen since I was a chef, but there was a severe shortage of service staff at the time. I thought of it as gaining valuable experience and agreed to temporarily work as service staff.

However, when the three-month period was up, there was still no sign of additional staff being hired. The owner told me, "If you want, you can join the kitchen." but I responded, "I can't enter the kitchen when the restaurant's service isn't running smoothly." So, I ended up transitioning to a managerial role.

Looking back, I realize that I learned about restaurant management, finances, and operations during that time. While the role was somewhat reluctantly accepted at the time and I effectively had no choice, it turned out to be a significant and important learning experience for me.

Horizontal Connections Supporting opening the business

What was shocking to me was the wealth of connections and relationships of French and Italian culinary professionals I came across, even though I had only experienced Japanese cuisine.

In the world of Japanese cuisine, at least to my knowledge, it's relatively rare to form close relationships with professionals from other restaurants, unless you happen to have classmates from culinary school. However, in the world of French and Italian cuisine, it seemed like everyone knew everyone! Through these connections, I was able to study wine and gain knowledge related to opening a restaurant.

Even though I only worked at two restaurants, "Kigawa" helped me develop skills and courage in Japanese cuisine and restaurant operation, while "Le Nou Papillon" allowed me to learn about managing a restaurant and the knowledge required for opening one. Each place contributed different aspects to my growth, and I'm grateful for both of those experiences.

The unease behind first opening

I quickly noticed through conversations with various people and through actual visits to other establishments that a restaurant needs more than just great food to succeed.

I shared my contact information with many people, and even asked friends and acquaintances to visit my restaurant multiple times. Some of them continue to support me to this day.

We opened in April, but by around July of the same year I felt completely stuck. It was tough, and I had a feeling that if things continued this way, it might become impossible and I wouldn’t be able to do this any longer.

At that challenging moment, I received a call from Michelin. They had awarded me a star.

I truly believe that was a turning point. Looking back, it might have coincided with the busy year-end holiday season. As I also figured, a great many customers said that they came because they had seen our restaurant from Michelin.

We've maintained that Michelin star for 10 consecutive years now, and I think it continues to be a great opportunity because even visitors from overseas often use Michelin as a reference.

Although it's a difficult challenge to increase the number of Michelin stars a restaurant has, we're still experimenting and striving to improve.

Ichimonji knives are hard and hold their blades well

Knives are considered consumables, right? I made it a habit to use and sharpen them daily, which led to them wearing out quickly.

However, I soon realized that good knives don't actually require frequent sharpening. Through daily use, you develop the skills to use them without damaging the knife’s edge.

So, by using them properly and maintaining them at the appropriate times, knives actually last longer than sharpening them every day.

When you're younger, you might be more focused on comparing your culinary skills. For example, like how neatly you can fillet a fish or how thinly you can peel vegetables. At that time, there was a tendency to want to sharpen your knives to perfection for these tasks.

However, as time goes on, you come to understand that while keeping your knives sharp is essential, what really matters is the delicious dishes you create from your skills and equipment.

In particular, Ichimonji knives are known for their hardness and excellent edge retention. Even though the shape may change over time, they are less likely to chip or break. I purchased them at their store after receiving detailed advice from the staff.

I like doing new things such as having an oden event on a midsummer's day.

When I was younger, there was a sense of competition about, comparing my newly opened restaurant with others around the same time. Sometimes customers who were culinary connoisseurs would talk about other restaurants in conversation, reinforcing my competitive spirit.

However, at a certain point, I decided to pursue what I really wanted to do, and that's when I threw myself into various other endeavors, events and ideas.

For instance, when I wanted to offer oden on a hot summer day and organized an event, it turned out to be a great success, even though I wasn't prepared for such a turnout which took its own toll during the event.

From that point on, whenever I came up with an idea, I would put it into action and try it. I tried having morning offerings, and experimented with late-night options. I even ventured into adding takeout availability, despite running a traditional Japanese restaurant.

I also collaborated with a good friend from a tableware store, an artist, and a liquor store to hold an event of Sake pairing.

(*Note: "Sake pairing" means "matching Sake and food". https://japansake.or.jp/sake/en/basic/sake-food-pairing/)

Working with people from slightly different industries brings fresh stimulation and makes life more interesting. I tend to get bored easily, so I find myself constantly wanting to try new things and experiment.

As a small-scale restaurant, I want to keep experimenting with flavors and experiences. I'm always grateful when there are people who enjoy the fruits of that labor.

Restaurant Information


Website: https://www.utsubo-gaku.com/

Reservations Website: https://www.utsubo-gaku.com/reservations

1-14-15 Utsubohommachi Nishi-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka-fu
Honmachi Quiver Building 1st Floor
Trading Hours
11:30-12:30 (Door closes)【15:00 Close】

Closed Sundays and Public Holidays