Bunny Awchat: “Cooking should have no boundaries”
Osaka– Rabbit Awchat, 45, attended culinary school in Paris and worked in several distinguished restaurants in Europe before moving to Japan more than two decades ago. He is the owner-chef of Indigo Asian Bistro by Bunny’s in Osaka, which he opened in 2018.
1. Where did you grow up? I am Dutch and Indian. I lived in India until I was 10 and moved to Switzerland to go to boarding school.
2. When did you decide to become a chef? I started cooking at 17. I’ve always loved food, but living in a boarding school and eating cardboard bread and tasteless food made me more passionate about cooking.
3. Where did you train? I went to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris. I worked in two Michelin starred restaurants in France. While this gave me a solid foundation, I found their styles to be too myopic for my liking. It was fanaticism on a plate.
4. Have you worked elsewhere in Europe? I worked at Montreux Palace and Brasserie Bavaria in Switzerland, and at Hotel Perla in Pamplona, Spain. My best experience was working in Italy in a rural pizzeria in Pozzuoli in Naples. I learned hunting, butchery, gathering and charcuterie. It taught me a valuable lesson about hospitality and working with people from all walks of life.
5. Why did you decide to move to Japan? I was very interested in Japanese food so I packed my bags and my kitchen knives and arrived in Osaka on a working holiday in 1999. I would have chosen Tokyo, but my girlfriend at the time was from Osaka and she thought the food in Osaka was better than in Tokyo.
6. Did you have difficulty finding work? I couldn’t get hired for the first few months and my money started to run out. I was about to give up when I met a hilarious English speaking surfer in a izakaya (pub). When I told him about my situation, he insisted that I work at his permanent bar in Juso. I became the stranger Maneki Neko (beckoning cat) to attract more customers, which really improved my Japanese.
7. Was it difficult to learn Japanese? I speak six languages and learning Japanese was definitely the hardest. But after almost 25 years in Japan, I started dreaming in Japanese!
8. What was the biggest culture shock you experienced in Japan? Bathing naked with other people.
9. When did you decide to open your own restaurant in Japan? This was after working at the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo for five years. I returned to Osaka and opened my first restaurant, a Spanish tapas bar called Poron Poron. I ran it for nine years, but decided to move on after the tapas boom.
10. What is the difference with running a restaurant in Europe? In Europe, if you have exceptional cuisine and a good location, people will flock to your restaurant, but you will spend half your life getting the proper licenses. In Japan, it’s super easy to get a license to open a restaurant, but it takes longer for the community to welcome and accept you.
11. How has Osaka’s food culture influenced you? Ingredients and simplicity allowed me to step off the fine dining horse and into hearty, hearty food – good value. My second restaurant failed after two years because I hadn’t anticipated the cost sensitivity of my customers. Lesson learned? Know your immediate surroundings and don’t try to prepare foods that people don’t understand.
12. What is the concept behind your current restaurant, Indigo Asian Bistro by Bunny’s? I believe that food and cooking should have no boundaries. I draw my cuisine from French, Italian and Spanish cuisine, but I took a big leap by leaving my comfort zone and returning to my Asian roots. So it’s mostly Asian barbecue with Indian, Chinese, Korean and Filipino fusion dishes.
13. What kind of research do you do when preparing a new dish from another culture? Well, I browsed around 200 videos on YouTube and Netflix. I’ve watched them several times just to get advice on things they don’t mention. After 26 years in the kitchen, I have a rough idea of what the final product will be.
14. Can you give an example of a new dish you have recently prepared using this technique? Tacos Birria. Nobody made birria in Osaka, so I did extensive research. I also made contact with former Mexican classmates. I made them five times before serving them.
15. Do customers sometimes ask for dishes that they cannot find in Japan? Call me ahead and I can fix almost anything you need from home. In the past, I have made many requests, including pupation, a thick pancake that is El Salvador’s national dish; and lechon kawali, a crispy, fried pork from the Philippines. I also developed a tedious brining process to create New York delicatessen style pastrami – the main difference is that my pastrami is smoked, not steamed.
16. Are there any chefs you admire? Brazilian chef Alex Atala and Filipino American chef Tom Cunanan, formerly of Bad Saint in New York.
17. What do you like to do on your days off? I often do collaborations and restaurant visits in Osaka. I just like the camaraderie with other chefs, and I like meeting and talking to people.
18. Do you foresee any changes in the restaurant industry due to the pandemic? Ghost kitchens and satellite kitchens are the future. I used to be against a “one menu” restaurant, but the pandemic has turned the whole industry upside down.
19. Do you have a New Year’s resolution? In the future, I would like to open a farm-to-table weekend restaurant.
20. What was your best day in Japan? The day my daughter was born.
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