The charm of Osaka, a city renowned for its love of good food, lies in great independent restaurants infused with the local Kansai dialect and a dash of chaos
“Osaka has great food: takoyaki (octopus dumplings), gyoza (pork dumplings), okonomiyaki (pancakes topped with meat, seafood, and cabbage), and buta-man (pork buns).” As exemplified in this local song, Osaka is famed for its wide-ranging cuisine and its love of good food and drink. We spoke with Yoshihiro Hongo, a TV producer in the production/sports section of the Mainichi Broadcasting System (MBS), about Osaka’s unique gastronomic charms, and his hopes concerning the Umekita 2nd Project from a culinary standpoint. As a producer of cooking shows, he is well known in the industry for his contributions to the food scene throughout the Kansai region, which includes Osaka and Kyoto.
“Osaka’s culinary charm lies in the uniqueness of each independent restaurant, running the gamut from casual to exclusive. There is a wide variety of restaurants in terms of category, interior, exterior, and price such as ‘Momen,’ a Japanese restaurant whose chic yet easygoing septuagenarian owner still stands at the counter and which has been fully booked for over 30 years; ‘Gomen-ne Jiro,’ a Western-style restaurant whose name literally means ‘Excuse me, Jiro!’ that is aptly named for its interesting chef; ‘Nama Horumon dokoro – Osamu-chan,’ a yakiniku (barbecue) restaurant that is just as noteworthy for the comical banter between the owner couple; and ‘DonDon-tei,’ an okonomiyaki place run by a gritty old guy on his own—all adding up to create a food culture that is slightly chaotic (in a good way).
“The owners and staff are warmly welcoming in their broad Kansai dialect, even to first-timers, typically opening up with something like: ‘Hello there! Where are you from?’ and, ‘You should try this, it’s really good!’ before jumping straight to ‘You look rich. Are you married?’
“Such candid communication—perhaps unique to Kansai—immediately helps build a closer relationship between the staff and customers. With such free-flowing conversations, the place warms up and the customers enjoy themselves more. And the more fun they’re having, the better the food tastes.”
And the broader food milieu in Osaka is also a major factor contributing to its charm, notes Hongo. “Osaka boasts a wealth of vocational culinary schools, such as the Tsuji Culinary Institute, many of whose graduates have expanded the horizons of Japanese and foreign dishes. What’s more, companies with a connection to cooking like Osaka Gas and Kansai Electric Power have played an active role in food culture for several decades. Additionally, a number of commercial TV stations—including my own—have been broadcasting reports on restaurants and chefs for just as long, giving rise to celebrity chefs and generating more interest in the profession amongst the public, which has helped to improve its status and create a higher energy across the culinary scene.
“In other words, a chaotic collective of uniquely individual restaurants with a heightened intimacy has been formed, while vocational schools, companies, and the media have all played their part in boosting the culinary sector. I think that the appeal of Osaka’s cuisine lies in its ability on many levels to meet our desire to take pleasure in the eating of delicious food, which has evolved from simply wanting food that tastes good.”
Hongo says he was not the least bit interested in gourmet cuisine during his student days, but was so awestruck by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner movie that he joined a television station in order to work in video production. In his third year with the company, he was tasked with producing a program called Amakara Avenue, which awakened in him a fascination with food. To date, he has reported on a cumulative total of ten thousand restaurants for the program, and privately dined at more than ten thousand others. The show Maki Mizuno’s Magic Restaurant, which started in 2001, is designed to bring joy to all involved—viewers, cast members, interviewees, and staff. Then in September 2019, he set up Toromi Produce, Inc., using the vast network and store of knowledge accumulated through the program.
“The idea for a food business company was selected via an internal new-business contest, leading to its establishment. We have developed across four main business areas, namely, restaurant planning, event planning, video content production, and product development & consultancy, under the theme “Enjoy dining.” Toromi (meaning “thicken”) concerns three effects, namely, making the food look appetizing, keeping it warm, and reducing the salt level so as to be able to better sense its natural umami (flavor). We named our company Toromi to convey the sense of “Supporting your business by making it more interesting and increasing its value.”
As part of this effort, “Toromi Yoshoku-do” opened on January 8, 2022, in Nakazakicho. This restaurant offers Western-style dishes for adults, such as brand-name beef hamburgers, beef cutlet sandwiches, and spaghetti Napolitana. Also, “Secret Chef’s Table q” is a members-only restaurant in Kyoto with just six seats. Top level chefs—including Hiroshi Sasaki of Gion Sasaki, who also designed the kitchen—take turns in demonstrating their skills. Although it is not open to the general public and is a restaurant known only to a select few, it is attracting attention from gastronomes throughout Japan.
Hongo is also implementing projects at Umekita Sotoniwa Square under the Toromi Produce brand. Umekita Sotoniwa Square is an outdoor demonstration space set up for just a thousand days as a trial site that aims to create an urban fusion of greenery and innovation. In this square with its expansive lawn and blue skies, the Sotoniwa Well-Being Days project was held under the “Green Living Lab” theme. At Dinner on the Lawn, a program for which Hongo did the overall planning, a gala dinner was served by Yoshio Takitani of La Shang Sen (a Chinese restaurant) and Yasushi Karato of Lumière (a French restaurant).
“It was a challenge to create a kitchen from scratch on the lawn in terms of both obtaining a business permit and maintaining proper hygienic conditions. However, I thought it would be nice to enjoy an exclusive dinner in an oasis-like setting in the middle of the city with views of skyscrapers while feeling the breeze and the changes in temperature and color of the sky as the sun sets. Although intended as a trial for the potential uses of the park after the opening of the Umekita 2nd Project facilities, it was great for us to discover the possibility of new sorts of dining experiences at the same time.”
Under the Umekita 2nd Project, Time Out Market Osaka, a food market where visitors can experience “food and culture” curated by the editors of Time Out—a city guide that operates worldwide—will be launched for the first time in Asia. Waldorf-Astoria Osaka, part of Hilton’s top luxury hotel brand, is also scheduled to open. What does Hongo expect from the Umekita 2nd Project in terms of dining experiences?
He explained, “There are not so many independent restaurants in the area located around Osaka-umeda Station known as Kita (“North”), one of Osaka’s two major city centers that can be used for special occasions or business entertainment apart from those in Kita-shinchi and Nishi-tenma. It will be a zone fulfilling such high-end needs. I expect it will be a chaotic culinary wonderland in a good sense in that people will be able to freely enjoy Osaka food culture, whether it be at the Time Out Market Osaka where Japanese and international tourists can casually sample Osaka’s gastronomic delights, at restaurants offering healthy and environmentally friendly dishes, or at open-air venues where one can dine in a natural green environment, such as Dinner on the Lawn. Development plans including the former Osaka Central Post Office site are progressing for a spring 2024 opening, and from 2030, Osaka-umeda station will be significantly revamped. While new sites will continue to open, I hope that the Umekita 2nd Project will become a truly original hub and a commercial facility that we can be proud to show off to the world.”
Photography: HIGASHIYA KOICHI Text: KONAGAYA NATSUKO