MenagerieAn intertwined fabric of heart, culture, and food: The legacy of Chef Hiroaki Otsuka
An intertwined fabric of heart, culture, and food: The legacy of Chef Hiroaki Otsuka
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August 24, 2018
Tags:
August 24, 2018

As a little girl, I was at the Otsuka household a lot. While at work,  mom and dad always preferred leaving me with people they trusted—those who, without a shadow of a doubt, wouldn’t only watch over me, but would treat me as one of their own. They always preferred family, which is why I spent countless afternoons of my childhood in the Otsuka house safe, entertained, and of course…fed, because in the Otsuka household, to be loved is to be fed, and vice versa.

“Food is love” is a saying that the hard-working, generous, and extremely loving wife of the late Chef Hiroaki Otsuka is known for. Lorna Otsuka (also called “Mama Lorna” by her kids, her granddaughter, and I) stood by her husband like a pillar from the day they got together all the way up until the moment he took his last breath. Even now, she stands by the legacy he left behind, resolute in her faith that God is good and that things always get better. No one would understand the depth hidden beneath the words “Food is love” better than she does, especially considering the fact that food is what kept her and her husband together for more than 25 years.

There’s no doubt that meeting Lorna, a gorgeous Filipino woman, was a pivotal moment in Hiroaki’s life. After all, they ended up getting married, and having five wonderful children who have continued to carry their father’s legacy as they walk along their individually chosen paths—Hana, their eldest daughter; Yoshi, their eldest son; Kazu, their youngest daughter; Sachi, their youngest son; and Hanakazu—an authentic Japanese restaurant tucked inside BF Homes, Parañaque—a place where people from all over come together to have a meal prepared by hands radiating with warmth and passion that come straight from the heart.

If good food is indeed love, as Mama Lorna says it is, then the hands that make it must belong to someone with enough passion inside to trickle onto every dish they put together. This is the story of the hands that built Hanakazu. This is the story of Hiroaki Otsuka, the man who worked behind his station with such a ruthless and dedicated passion. Though he was known as a man of very few words, the food he prepared with his own two hands spoke a million.

 

Gangster turned head chef

I’ll never forget all the rebel stories his eldest son has told me through the years. Yoshi, who’s been a close friend of mine since preschool, would me tales of how his dad cut classes in high school, looked for people to beat up together with his gang, and how he even pushed someone off a train once. Though the drive and fighting spirit that Hiroaki developed as he “lived the gangster life”, as Yoshi likes to put it, may have played a huge role in shaping the way he worked as an adult, the culture he was surrounded by during his early years may have played an even bigger one.

“My dad grew up in a traditional Japanese family. He was a gangster musician during high school. He decided to skip college after the first week and go to another country, the Philippines. A friend of his offered him a job as a chef in a Japanese restaurant he was starting in Makati named Kaide. He took the opportunity. After that, he worked in Tsukiji, a high-end Japanese restaurant along Jupiter Street. He was the head chef there for 14 years before starting his own, Hanakazu [in] 2005.” Yoshi says.

Though his demagogue of a past doesn’t seem to coincide with the elite profession of the later parts of his life, these two different sides of Hiroaki—the carefree, ruthless rebel who loved listening to Queen and the disciplined and passionate chef—came together to create a legacy of food prepared with such heart…one that won’t be going away anytime soon.

 

 

Japanese food—tradition meets art

“Food is an art. The Japanese are very particular to the point of perfectionism when it comes to the presentation and ‘story’ of food,” Hana explains. Having grown up in Tsukiji, her earliest memory of her father in the kitchen was seeing him “…in his white uniform with a rolled up cloth headband wrapped around his head and always smelling of fish.”

In Japan, food represents authenticity and is even offered as a sign of respect. The Japanese have a very deep appreciation for their cuisine as seen in the way they say “Itadakimasu” (meaning “I will receive” when translated literally) before every meal. “They’re thanking the fish, the chicken, the pork, the beef, the rice, and the vegetables,” says Kazu, the youngest Otsuka daughter, who is currently working in Japan. “Food is very important in the Japanese culture. Choosing the right ingredients for a dish is as important as choosing the ‘perfect’ tableware that would complement the food.”

Every dish that Hiroaki prepared showcased the seriousness with which the Japanese treat their cuisine. And just like his eldest daughter has discovered about herself, he loved seeing people enjoy his food. Even I, quite a stranger to the culinary world, can attest to this. When my family, friends, and I would eat at Hanakazu, Hiroaki would often step out of the kitchen to greet us. He’d always sort of look around and take in the sight of us eating, a pleased look always making its way across his face. If he was busy at his station, he’d do the same from there. I always wondered why he looked so happy and satisfied watching us eat. I guess where most would find joy in actually eating the delicious food, he found his in watching others enjoy it; which just might be the real secret behind the sacred art of Japanese food—laying your heart out on a plate, expressing your love with the unspoken words of service.

 

Filipino cuisine—a tradition passed on through generations

Where Japanese food is a sacred art of tradition, Filipino cuisine is more a custom of passing down family recipes. Not only does it exhibit diversity taste-wise, but it also carries a significance that is quite unique to Philippine culture, which is very interdependent. “Whereas the Japanese tend to keep to themselves, Filipinos tend to be involved [with one another],” Kazu, who is no stranger to the difference between these two cultures as she grew up exposed to both. “I think that that aspect of Filipino culture affects Filipino food. In the Philippines, we love to spend quality time with one another [in] the presence of food. I’d like to think of it this way—Adobo is a happy Filipino family, and tempura is an overworking Japanese office worker.”

Hiroaki, a culinary genius, succeeded in blending the two seemingly contradictory cultures together—creating a taste that appealed to people from all over. “He was able to make authentic Japanese cuisine fit Filipino taste buds that even those well-travelled customers prefer Hanakazu dishes than those in Japan or in other countries,” Hana explains. “[H]e…managed to make the two different cultures coexist because he didn’t let any obstacle bring him down.”

Perhaps it was his resolve, yet again—his inability to take “no” for an answer that made Hiroaki so well-known and well-loved—not just for his exemplary dishes he so humbly made, but for the successful merging of his original culture with his adopted one on a plate which he served to people from all over.

 

Work, work, work—no one does it like the Japanese

Not only are the Japanese known for their high regard for food but even more so their intensely work-centered lives. The Japanese are trained to work tirelessly at their craft until it is the best that it can be, this passionate desire for perfection often a jaw-dropping sight to people of different cultural backgrounds.

Known for an unshakeable devotion, passionate dedication, and a cutting sharp discipline towards his craft, Hiroaki’s work ethic exhibits qualities that clearly stem from his Japanese roots. Whether it was waking up early in the morning in order to buy the best ingredients, spending his days and nights in Hanakazu, or simply striving for the best in his kitchen—never settling for anything less than excellent, the obvious commitment he had to his job seems to have been a result of the Japanese work mindset he was surrounded by growing up.

Those who knew him well recognized that his perfectionist tendencies were evident in the way he cooked—whether it was his absolute refusal to serve ramen that wasn’t scorching hot or his sense of urgency when it came to how fresh his sashimi was.

“No excuses, no complaining, no half-baked work,” Sachi, the youngest of the Otsuka siblings, says. He too, is no stranger to hard work as he has recently started training as a rookie for the De La Salle University men’s football team. In fact, it may be that this same Japanese-level value of hard work was passed right on to him, as is evident in the way he works at his own craft—football. “My dad’s work ethic is instilled in me. He was hard-headed towards [his] work and so am I towards [my football] training. I always try to push myself past my comfort zone.”

Even Kazu, who’s currently working in Japan as a teacher, recognizes the stark difference between the work mindset in Japan and that of here in the Philippines. “The Japanese are crazy when it comes to their working hours. Overtime, for them, is as normal as can be. Living in Japan made me realize even more how hard the Japanese work. I guess they don’t understand the saying ‘too much of anything is bad for you’.”

 

 

Grounded by the family-centric Filipino culture

Things definitely would have turned out differently had Hiroaki never met his wife, Lorna. She and the culture instilled in her, which was mainly Filipino, just may have been this workaholic’s “saving grace”.

“Though he remained Japanese all the way,” Yoshi explains, “his manners changed throughout the years and [he] started to act more Filipino.” In Hiroaki’s many years of living in the Philippines, he seemed to have more than just picked up a few attitudes unique to Filipino culture, but actually adopted them as his own.

For Hana, one of the most evident ways her father was “Pinoy at heart” was the way he valued his family. “[H]e saw [family] as more important than work. This was very unique to Papà and we are lucky he wasn’t like most Japanese [who] are robots [when it comes] to their work and disregard their families in the process.”

Had it not been for the balance of family that his wife’s upbringing brought to the table, Hiroaki may have only been known for his amazing work. However, because of Mama Lorna’s particular set of beliefs and values, that was not the case. Aside from being known as and praised with the honourable title of “head chef” of what has been called the “sashimi heaven of the South”, Hiroaki Otsuka was also known as a good and loving father.

 

A legacy none greater than family

Though he worked day in and day out, oftentimes even jokingly being called a “workaholic” by his own family, Hiroaki made sure to be as present as he could, always ready to support each member of his family and their individual goals and aspirations—from the eldest all the way down to the youngest.

Because I grew up with the Otsukas, I was very familiar with their unique family traditions and even dynamic. Since Hanakazu was open even on weekends, Monday was the Otsuka family day. Since Yoshi was my classmate all the way up until high school, I got used to him getting picked up from school right away on Mondays, so he and his family could go out and spend time together. It was always clear to me that though the Otsukas were indeed busier than most families, they still made time for what mattered most—investing their love, encouragement, and support in each other, which is why a part of Hiroaki is still very much alive, living and breathing in his children.

Being a second-year culinary major in the College of Saint Benilde, Yoshi is learning new things about food everyday. “I am actually amazed [at] how vast the culinary world is [it]makes me want to be really good like my dad,” Having inherited the kind, hard-working, and disciplined attitude of his father, Yoshi never sets limits to his love for food and the love for learning new things about it, just like his dad. “[E]ven though he was a genius in the kitchen, he still practice[d] and studie[d] more about food.” Based on this comparison alone, the apple clearly didn’t fall far from the Otsuka family tree.

“Papa taught us to be disciplined and never settle for anything less at work. Yet he taught us that family was equally important,” Hana says. “And he showed us how to balance both.” Having just started a new business—Yoichi (by Hanakazu), located at The Port in Las Piñas, Hana simply wants to emulate the same clear vision and dedication she grew up seeing in the eyes of her father. “Having grown up with the standard of Hanakazu, I know that people don’t really know what good Japanese is. This is the niche that Yoichi aims to fill. Hearty ‘affordameals’. And because Filipinos love a little bit of everything, bentos [are] our focus of specialty.” says the De La Salle University Business Management Magna Cum Laude graduate.

For Kazu, the lasting legacy Hiroaki left in her was the piercing aim to do her best—not for others, as her father taught her that many will judge and hate while others will praise and walk alongside her—but for herself, and more importantly, for God. “When my dad was still alive, he used to call me every week and ask me about my work here in Japan. He’d always tell me to just do my best in everything. Those words were so important to me.” The same strive for excellence Hiroaki had is evident in Kazu, his bravery to try new things visible even in her decision to move to Japan for work.

Hiroaki’s dedication to his craft seems to have been something even his youngest inherited. Though Sachi’s passion does not lie in the kitchen but rather in the football field, the same mindset of his father is what he takes with him every time he steps on the pitch. “I will play with my heart no matter what [just like] my dad would cook with his heart no matter what.” Anyone who’s seen Sachi play football would know that this is true as the moment he steps on the field, the same honor and respect for the game that his father had towards food overcomes him.

Clearly, Chef Hiroaki Otsuka’s spirit is still very much alive in his family. And though many think that the greatest legacy this culinary magician left behind was Hanakazu, I personally believe that it is his children. After all, what greater a legacy than one that lives on, a heritage that is passed from one generation to the next, as it is innovated into something a thousand times more majestic and resplendent than the original legacy that was left behind?

 

The language of the heart

Though Chef Otsuka passed away late November of last year, his legacy not only remains intact, but is, in fact, very much alive (and will be for generations to come). His story, one of hope, hard work, passionate determination, and unconditional love, stands as one that deserves to be told again and again, a thousand times over.

Though he may not have been known to be a man of many words, the dishes he served spoke a million, and these unspoken words will forever resonate within the walls of Hanakazu and more importantly, within the hearts of his family members as well as in the hearts of those who knew him. He may have spoken Japanese, Filipino, and some English, but I now understand which language he was most fluent in—the language of love through service,which he spoke with his hands as he worked, preparing meals to satisfy the hungriest soul.

The legacy of Hiroaki Otsuka’s food—prepared with love straight from the heart, cooked with the same heat that is found deep inside the soul, and finally, seasoned with the invigorating passion discovered within life itself—is one that will see no end, as it will continue to be a cause for people from all walks of life to come together and eat until their hearts are satisfied.