Photo by David Nakamura
It would be hard to find a chef who is a better match for the food he prepares than Yoshikuni Katayama.
Katayama works the countertop hot plate at Hassho, generally considered the best of Hiroshima's estimated 860 okonomiyaki restaurants. Okonomiyaki, a thin flour pancake mixed with cabbage, bean sprouts, corn, eggs, soba or udon noodles, tempura bits, fish flakes, powdered seaweed, and a choice of pork, shrimp or, other meats, is a Hiroshima specialty. And it makes sense that Katayama, 41, oversees a shop that makes about 200 of them every evening--an average of one every two minutes.
Ten years ago, Katayama was one of Japan's vaunted salary men, the army of white-collar workers who helped grow the nation's economy into the second-largest in the world. He worked at a company that manufactured and sold construction cranes. Then, in 1999, during Japan's "lost decade" of depressed economic performance, his company downsized, and he was laid off.
Out of work at 31, Katayama changed careers. He walked into Hassho, which operates an apprentice school, and became an okonomiyaki chef. That decision had a certain poignancy because okonomiyaki is the mother of all recession food. The dish rose to prominence during Hiroshima's post-World War II recovery, sustaining residents of the flattened city at a time when rice was scarce and people were forced to rely on imported American flour. Okonomiyaki, which means "as you like it" because one can customize the ingredients, became a simple, inexpensive staple.