The Kitchen Conductor

An interview with Joji Hattori.

The 1st district of Vienna is one culinary hot spot richer, now that you can find modern Japanese cuisine in Shiki, not far from the Staatsoper. Behind the concept is violinist and conductor, Joji Hattori, who spent his childhood in Vienna. A conversation about skipping school for days spent in coffee shops, cuisine and culture.

It’s busy in Shiki restaurant this afternoon. Joji Hattori is calmly sitting in a niche between the bar and fine-dining areas. Behind him, it’s possible to watch the chefs at work through the glass wall of the open kitchen, in front of him is a laptop, his cell phone is within reach. The first question to the conductor and neo-host:

What is easier, running a restaurant or conducting an orchestra?Let’s just say that it always reminds me of conducting my first opera. That is to say, it is much more complicated in comparison to symphonies or instrumental music.
A small break in the conversation in order to welcome the Korean ambassador, then we continue.

The direction of your restaurant is similar to an opera production?
It’s a lot more similar than you might think. Here, like there, there’s an audience, a curtain, the stage and, of course, everything that happens behind the scenes. In the opera there’s the choir, soloists, orchestra, technicians, costume designers and set designers. Out of a team of people that all have their own perspective, a whole must be achieved. It’s similar in gastronomy.

In your space you’re hosting, but you don’t cook. How important is your home kitchen?
I have a huge kitchen and I’ve always cooked a lot for friends. But since I’ve had the restaurant, they’ve already started to complain about me stopping. Yet, if I were to place modern Japanese cuisine in front of them, my friends would rightly complain that I’m not quite as good as the chef in the kitchen.

And at Shiki you live out your Japanese side?
I’ve been looking for something like this for the last five or six years. There’s nothing Japanese in classical European music. I wanted an elegant Japanese restaurant, which hadn’t existed to this point in German-speaking countries: A European restaurant with Japanese food, a culture of European wine and service and all of it done in a modern way.

Yet, you haven’t given up conducting for it completely?
Luckily, the restaurant is compatible with a reduction in my work as a musician. And, because I’m not the chef or service director, I can still travel for a week.

You’ve always traveled a lot as a conductor and musician. Do you still like to travel?
In my early 20s I was a passionate traveler. Today, I have an aversion to airports. I wish it was possible to beam from place to place, like in Star Trek, that would be wonderful.

For a long time, London was the center of your world.
I started my career as a musician and lived there for 17 years. I decided to leave.

Why?
In Vienna in the 70s, as a Japanese, German-speaking boy, I was treated like a little sensation. When I got on a tram, or went into a shop and ordered something, it was often the case that a shop owner would call for his neighbor, saying something along the lines of, “The boy knows German perfectly, you have to see this.” Then a bunch of shop owners would gather around me and admire me like a speaking dog. They thought it was sweet, I felt uncomfortable though.

What do you think about, when you think about the Vienna of your childhood?
It was quite a change for me, coming from the metropolis of Tokyo with 20 million inhabitants to the quiet of Vienna, where you can count the people on the street on a Sunday. The first thing I noticed as an eight-year old was the scarcity of television stations. In 1977 in Japan, there were 12 TV stations running around the clock. Here there were only two.

Where would you eat with your parents?
At the Café Imperial on Ringstraße, for example. As a teenager I loved to eat French. One birthday, I got a cookbook by Werner Matt, who, at the time, was the most famous chef in Austria and led the Imperial restaurants. Then I started to follow the recipes and make this French-inspired Austrian cuisine.

And today?
Vienna is a cosmopolitan city. And because my best friends are here, at some point I also wanted to come back here. Also, I speak better German than English. I dream in German.

As a child, what were your favorite places in Vienna?
Actually, Café Imperial. I didn’t like my last few years of high school, so I skipped a lot. I would take my schoolbooks from home, run straight to the coffee house and at eight in the morning, I would order a coffee and an orange juice and drink them down there. It wasn’t really normal to sit with two drinks for three hours without being questioned, but that’s what makes up the culture of the Viennese coffee house.

What’s the state of classical music in Vienna?
Vienna is a city of music and, in terms of opera houses and orchestras, has just as much to offer to its less than two million residents as London does. This is an extraordinary achievement.

Can young people today be excited about classical music?
I think that the industry made the mistake of selling classical music as a luxury product. And for some events the tickets are too expensive. It’s certainly not true that children don’t like classical music, it’s the image that stands in the way of their interest. A lot of youths don’t want to go to classical music concerts because they don’t feel comfortable among so many older people. Maybe they’d be more happy to come when they’re 20 years older, because they correspond to the average age of the audience. A club owner also isn’t worried if older people aren’t coming to his place.

Did you also go to clubs when you were younger?
Not really, because I don’t like anything that’s loud. I listen to pop music quietly at home. What I don’t like is electronic music. When the beats are made by hand, and played by people on drums, then I like it again.

Speaking of handmade: What dish in Shiki bears your signature?
A Shrimp Chicken Soup bears my name because I created the recipe. The combination of chicken broth with shrimp heads hints at a flavor reminiscent of lobster, even though there isn’t any in the recipe.

Shiki, Krugerstraße 3, Vienna

Fine Dining:
Tuesday-Saturday 18:00–24:00 (last order 22:00)
Brasserie:
Tuesday-Saturday 12:00–15:00 (last order 14:30)
& 18:00–24:00 (last order 23:00)
Bar: Tuesday-Saturday 15:00–24:00
www.shiki.at

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