Another night at the helm of Ezo Seafoods (photo courtesy of food blogger "foodiesinhk")
"We have to be like supermen" I told Keiko this year, only one week into the 2012/13 Niseko ski season. The long, exhausting days were only just beginning to take their toll, and we still had 100 days to go. Keiko and I operate Ezo Seafoods, a small but busy seafood restaurant here in Niseko Hirafu – which is rapidly becoming the snow sports destination of choice for Australians and Asians. To give you an idea of what I meant by the “superman” comment I am going to reconstruct a typical day, all from actual events and situations.
At 4:55am, the iPhone alarm drills its melody into my consciousness. The iPhone alarm is brutally efficient - there is no chance you will sleep through it. I sit up and immediately check Trip Advisor for new reviews for Ezo Seafoods - anticipation high as the page downloads, and YES, a glowing five star review - relief. 'Thank you' I telepath to the customer - its this kind of encouragement that makes the 4:55am start worthwhile.
I rug up – its minus 15 and snowing outside – take a quick breakfast of oatmeal and start my drive to the Sapporo Wholesale Markets, a roughly two hour drive away. I drive through Kimobetsu, over the icy Nakayama pass, through the Jozankei onsen town before reaching the outskirts of Sapporo around 7am. By 7:30am I arrive in central Sapporo and get the salute through from the gateman at the wholesale markets. I salute him back and make my way in.
First, I check in with my fish supplier. Let's just take a peak at today’s Rockfish order. ‘Ok, decent size, obviously fresh.’ The dealer informs me that the market price is actually double what he is charging me and then doffs his cap and bows - which is his way of telling me that he is prepared to lose money on this one. What this actually means is that he will charge me the same per kilo price even when the market price is half of that - but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.
The next priority is Uni (sea urchin). I approach my dealer with a nod and ask what's what today. I can see there is Uni from the ‘Northern Territories’ (Russia) – but it's generally smaller and darker than premium Hokkaido Uni. I'm not interested in it. ‘What about Nemuro? Yes. Anything from Hamanaka? No. Ok, let's take 2 boxes from Nemuro.’ Check the used by date, grill the dealer on quality – ‘is this the best in the markets today?’ trying to communicate that I don't want find something better from a different dealer.
Moving through the markets, I order as I go - half a kilo of Awabi (abalone) please; Tsubu (sea snails) everywhere, let's take 3 kgs, no -- take the whole box; Manta ray fins look good - but too exotic; Herring, in season but too boney for my customers. Samegare (Sole) has been selling well, let's take five. Not much Wakasagi (white bait) around, which means it will be over ¥1100 a kilo. Asari clams, one case – with seawater; Botan shrimp looks too small today, again. I settle up with the dealers in cash and share some friendly chat, exiting the market by 8am. ‘Making good time,’ I note to myself. Fill up the tank along the way, and resume the drive back to Niseko.
It’s the 4th time this week that I have done the 6 hour round trip and I have another two to go – this week. I go to the Sapporo Markets every day of the week, except market holidays. On those days, I source from coastal fishmongers that stock fresh shellfish and locally caught fish.
I roll back into Niseko Hirafu at 11am, unload about 10 polystyrene cases of seafood into the display cases and ice up the oysters which have just arrived from Akkeshi. I then transfer raw waste from the last two nights into the back of the van in plastic bins - around 100kgs of mainly oyster, scallop and crab shells. I also load up the empty bottles, burnable waste etc and head out to a waste disposal facility, a 20-minute drive away. Dumping the raw waste is the only job that I really don't enjoy. Its heavy,messy, and unpleasant work performed in the cold and morbid atmosphere of the waste disposal facility. But I reason to myself that it gives me a sense of the full cycle of our business.
Back to Hirafu by noon, I check emails for 15 minutes – I have around five new reservation enquiries, three or four other enquiries on the go, and a wine order to place. Meanwhile, head chef Keiko has already been in the kitchen since 9am preparing stock for clam chowder and paella, getting the vegetable order in to the local grocer and adjusting the roster, amongst other tasks. I give her the 10 Rockfish fish to fillet and have an impromptu lunch of leftovers while talking through bookings and staff plan for the night ahead. We have two big takeout orders today that need to be ready by 5:30pm as well as a full house from 6pm, trying to imply "you do understand we are going to be busy tonight, this is not like summer when no one shows up." Keiko sighs, nods and resumes filetting. Of course she understands.
My favorite part of the day is a luxurious one-hour nap from 1pm. I turn the phone off, breath deeply for a minute then usually manage to doze off quite quickly after the hours spent driving in the morning. When I wake, I take our patient and long suffering pug for a walk, but end up cutting the walk short because I remember that there were some emails that needed responses.
Back in the office at 3pm, Yo-chan is already in the restaurant vacuuming and mopping. Keiko is motionless on the couch upstairs and doesn’t respond to any conventional encouragements. So I sort out those emails, peruse the bookings, sip green tea, before changing into Ezo attire and gum boots, and descend the stairs for another night at the helm of Ship Ezo.
By 4pm our hall staff start arriving and go about preparing for the night ahead. Setting the tables, cutting lemons, preparing ponzu sauce for the crab, putting the ‘wine of day’ on ice, scrubbing oysters, adjusting the sashimi menu board, etc etc. By 5pm opening, we have around 10 types of seafood on display and it all looks absolutely mouthwatering. I just hope there are no last minute cancellations tonight.
I finalize the seating plan with our head waitress Miki. I say 'finalize' knowing full well that it will be a work in progress depending on how the night unfolds. Every night is different. Tonight will be based around a group of 16 from 8:15pm and several other medium sized groups. I need to ensure that their tables are well and truly cleared to ensure a smooth changeover. I get the music started – something uptempo and authoritative early on that will send a message 'this place might be chaos but its fun' - Eric Clapton and BB King. Then the phone starts ringing with people wanting to make new bookings, change bookings, and worst of all, cancel bookings. Tonight we are 'full' but actually only about 80% full – I have left some tables to give me some flexibility for walkins and ‘breathing space’ to ensure the 8pm changeover goes smoothly.
Then the early bookings start arriving, the Rihanna party of six from Hong Kong; the Siradej family of 10 from Indonesia; a young couple from Australia and several other bookings with similarly diverse profiles, yet united by a love of Niseko's fantastic powder snow not to mention fun village nightlife and wining and dining scene. The 6pm sitting is generally what we call ‘family hour’. Noisy, lots of kids about, lots of fried rice and udon orders, and lots of green tea. For about 15 minutes there is the usual chaos of taking multiple orders and getting everybody seated, but our four hall staff know their jobs and get to work, methodically executing each task and before long a smooth hum or buzz prevails.
By 6:20pm I notice that Table 4 booking still hasn’t arrived. Slight panic attack. The phone starts ringing but I am in the middle of explaining the daily menu to customers and simultaneously shucking oysters so I don’t pick up. (Its probably Table 4 ringing to cancel). The takeout platter is ready but no one has come to pick it up yet. A couple walk in and ask for a table but I apologize and tell them we are full. Tomorrow night? I give them a card and ask them to call me tomorrow, or even better email. The customers who I were explaining the menu to wait by patiently. Where were we? Yes, the fish of the Day. We prepare it two ways: Crisp fried with Thai-style tangy chilly sauce, or Braised Japanese style with soy, sake and ginger. She is a celiac, and cannot take gluten, so she takes the crisp fried option. I realize I should have given Table 4 to the couple who walked in.
By 7pm, the first sitting is well under way and everything is going smoothly enough. The takeout platter was eventually claimed. The couple on Table 2 have just finished the crab and give me a hearty smile and thumbs up. I have already shucked a few dozen oysters, prepared several sections of King Red crab. The sashimi is selling well tonight, in fact a bit too well. I only have two servings of Uni left for the 8pm sitting and people hate it when you run out of Uni. I check the phone message - indeed; it was Table Four who had ringed to cancel because some members of their group were “sick”. I notice a call from the Vale front desk - so I pick up and take another booking from 8:30pm as well as confirm a booking for tomorrow night.
By 7:45pm most tables are done, but the Indonesian families still haven’t had their Paella, and there is that group of 16 due in from 8:15pm. Panic starts, I stomp into the kitchen and make it clear that Table 9 and 10 are top priority, and rouse staff for not keeping an eye on the time. They insist that they were aware of the problem but kitchen was too busy. Phone rings again, but another couple walk in – regulars who I haven’t seen for a year who just arrived in town, so I can’t pick up. ‘Great to see you back! When can we get you in? Now? Sorry, cannot do it! On second thoughts, we’ve had some cancellations, so come on in.’ Mutual delight all round. Back to the pressing issues – that Paella! And here’s mum from Table 6 wondering when the 6 bowls of Udon noodles for her kids are coming out. I instruct staff to follow up. A couple are leaving and want to thank me for the meal. A brief chat about the meal turns more personal – 'so what do you do in summer?'– and I take a moment out to talk a bit about summer in Niseko and hoping the staff are taking care of the Paella issue for Table 9/10.
At 8pm, most of the 'familiy hour' tables have vacated, and the next wave of bookings start rolling in. The next 30 minutes are going to be a busy, but I’m looking forward to seeing some regulars back in -- Noel and Pam from Brisbane and also Allison and friends from HK. I switch the music to something cool and understated – something that everyone will ignore but that will keep me going. Gene Harris “Downhome Blues.” Perfect. It starts really quietly builds up over 11 minutes. I could play and repeat all night and I am sure no one would notice.
When the group of 16 arrive, I’m already shucking oysters. I explain that their table will be ready shortly and start explaining the menu. They are delighted with the display and eager to start ordering. They decide that there is too much choice and leave it all to me. Two more bookings of five and six arrive and for a couple of minutes, between big groups leaving and new groups arriving, the phone ringing, staff asking questions – everything is in state of flux. But the staff go about their jobs – getting customers seated, taking drinks orders, clearing the tables, taking the food orders, shuttling the fresh seafood from the display case into the kitchen and before long the first orders are hitting the tables to the delight of customers. Thankfully Allison rocks up 30 minutes late apologizing profusely, but she has actually done me a huge favour.
After getting through several dozen oysters, I take a walk around the upstairs room to check that all is on track. The group of 16 have crab and oysters on table, white bait is being plated, and the sashimi is in the wings. To my horror, I notice that a table of four are drinking Veuve Cliquot from wine glasses – I replace the glasses immediately with flutes and rouse my staff – isn’t it obvious that champagne is served in flutes? Obviously not. Another learning for the staff training manual. I try hard to not to get angry at staff, but to no avail. A full-blown dressing down ensues. I offer the guests a new bottle of Veuve which they politely refuse, but acknowledge the gesture.
If I am still shucking oysters by 9pm, it will be a good night. Its one of my business performance ‘yardsticks.’ And I am still shucking on this night. A good mood prevails in the shop and so I switch the music back to my ‘History’ playlist – which is a collection of black music from Nat King Cole to KC & the Sunshine band to Beyonce. Something for everyone – well, I know Allison will just love KC. With everything under control I pop upstairs to the office and check emails – another 10 reservation enquiries emails that require more or less immediate responses. I try to get all of them done before returning to see what is happening downstairs.
Inevitably, we have run out of Uni, to the disappointment of a group of three from Hong Kong. How could I underestimate demand for Uni on a night like this! There are several tables in dire need of a service, so I get my staff onto it. Noel and Pam have just arrived and ask me about how the season has been. Its great to see them in again they’re from Brisbane and we have many mutual acquaintances. I check stock again, which has finally made some progress, only two of the Rockfish left, six scallops, and a few other bits and pieces of King Crab. Still 2 kgs or so of Asari clams, but that’s manageable. What was I so worried about?
By 10 pm there are only 3 groups still left, lingering over their wines and a couple of final orders. The kitchen are in shut down mode while Keiko is preparing the staff meal for tonight’s seven staff – a selection of sashimi, tuna curry and a vegetable noodle dish. In the meantime, I enjoy some banter with Allison about the music. I pass out some free chocolate brownies to the group from Hong Kong who didn’t get their Uni – but they didn’t come for brownies…
By 11pm, the last of the customers have left and the clean up is in progress. I calculate that we had 70 customers in. Most customers left very happy, though there was the issue with the Udon noodles arriving late, the Uni running out, the chaos at 8pm and that one couple who left without saying thank you or any sort of acknowledgement. But overall, another good night. A final inspection of stock ensues, a look over tomorrow's schedule, apologies or make up with the staff that I had words with and an update to Keiko on the night. I’m aiming to hit the pillow by 11:30pm so I just have a quick dinner of left over salad, rice and some tuna sashimi. This tuna is good, I tell myself.
I’m back home by 11:15pm, briefly walk and feed the dog then hurry upstairs to get my head on the pillow. It takes about 30 minutes to calm down and fall asleep, only for the iPhone to intrude a few hours later. Let's hope the day starts with another glowing review! 100 more days to go....