A corporate consultant turned entrepreneur tempts the 20-something crowd with Japanese treats
The three best friends with matching handbags collectively hold their breath as they watch the delicate matcha (green tea) chiffon that they’ve been working on for the past hour slide out of its bundt pan, perched upside down over an empty wine bottle where it’s been cooling for the last 20 minutes. Sighs of relief accompany the sight of a perfectly made cake, impossibly springy to the touch.
We’re at Star Kitchen (2nd Floor, 8/15 Le Thanh Ton, above 4P’s Pizza, D1) one of the newest cooking classes in the city and the brainchild of the most unlikely of bakers, 30-year-old Yuya Arashima. Armed with a degree in social entrepreneurship, Yuya started out as a business management consultant for IBM (Tokyo) advising Japanese clients looking to enter the overseas market. But contentment did not come along with success.
“Consulting wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be. After considering and analyzing, I might propose Options A, B and C, believing A was the best choice, but sometimes the client would end up choosing C. Even if the venture was successful in the end, it wasn’t because of me because I didn’t have a hand in the execution,” he says.
So Yuya turned to entrepreneurship instead, following his parents’ footsteps as small business owners running a handful of ventures, including a remodeling business, a ramen shop and a BBQ restaurant. “It was natural for me to start up my own business and not work for someone,” says Yuya.
In July 2012, he started analyzing the Vietnamese market and came to the conclusion that there were many Vietnamese in their late 20s, having graduated from good universities with good jobs. “I saw that people here don’t work so much like in Japan and people didn’t have much to do after work, often satisfying either their consumption needs like going out for coffee with friends or going to a bar, or their intellectual needs like learning a language or being on Facebook. I saw a gap in the entertainment field which satisfies both these needs.” So was born the idea for a fashionable cooking studio that is, in equal parts, taste and style.
“I want people to be brilliant in their life. Our motto is: ‘Make your life sparkling’. We’re not just a cooking school, we’re selling style and the experience. Cooking is just one part of our product; like a culinary Disneyland, it’s all about the experience,” says Yuya of the small but stylish kitchen located in an upstairs space on a small alleyway off of Le Thanh Ton known for its cluster of Japanese joints.
A Matter of Taste
With no background in cooking (“I don’t see myself as a foodie but I like food”), Yuya brought on a cooking advisor from Japan who designed the food and trained the teachers. “It’s been challenging to teach the Japanese style to my assistants, not just cooking but the whole concept and service. I want the classes to be standardized, unlike most of the classes here where each teacher teaches his or her own recipe. We started from the beginning, like how to crack an egg, even though some of our trainers had decades of experience in five-star hotels. Vietnamese
consumers are savvy so I want everything to be perfect.”
Back in the cooking studio, the students are working on their second cake of the morning, carefully folding the egg whites for maximum aeration under the watchful eye of trainer Tran Ngoc Hoai My, with 20 years of pastry experience in upscale hotels like the Equatorial and the Windsor Plaza. “The Japanese are meticulous. Each step is very precise. Everything takes longer, but it’s better because the results are more reliable,” My says of the Japanese baking style as the students line the bottom of the pan with dried sakura (cherry blossom) flowers brought over from Kyoto.
Star Kitchen specializes in Japanese treats like mochi cream, matcha nama choco (green tea chocolate) and kinako (ground roasted soybeans) balls. There are also Japanese takes on European classics like the Tokyo cheesecake and the Star Tiramisu. “We aim to combine traditional and modern styles, Japanese style with a European influence, like filling our mochi creme with blueberry cream cheese. When people think of Japan, they think of sushi and kimonos. I want people to have a more modern take on Japan and learn about our culture and background through cooking.”
While the treats are exotic, employing ingredients like green tea powder and cherry blossom leaves soaked in brine, there has been some modification for the Vietnamese palate. “We’ve actually decreased the sugar by almost half in some dishes, to suit the Vietnamese taste. It’s strange because the Vietnamese drink cafe sua da, which is crazy sweet but when it comes to desserts, they don’t like things too sweet. We’ve also decreased the amount of butter and cream because the Vietnamese don’t seem to like fatty things.”
Star Kitchen officially opened this July after many months of preparation and training, but Yuya likes the way things are going. “My parents are from the typical old generation. They think Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia are the same. They joked that I was starting a cooking school in the jungle and told me to be careful not to step on land mines. But I’m really happy. Even one year ago, I couldn’t have imagined I would’ve started a new business here.”
For more information about the classes, which can be conducted in English, Vietnamese and Japanese, or to pre-order cakes or purchase baking ingredients, visit Star Kitchen on Facebook.
Images by Nam quan