One of the most popular events held at OVE Minami-Aoyama is “Rondo of Traveling Sound,” a lecture-type concert, conducted by prize-winning cellist Chika Omae. She keeps the concert light-hearted and fun for first-timers by speaking about history, secret stories of classical music, and so on. But that’s not the only reason why this concert is popular. Following the musical performance, audiences can enjoy French food prepared by her.
In fact, Ms. Omae, who is a professional performer, is also a chef who was trained in France. That is why she can put together such an entertaining concert where performers and audiences can take pleasure in sharing a table and conversing. Needless to say, music and cooking are complex skills and mastering either requires a great deal of study and experience. How did Ms. Omae manage to take on two very different roles? Let’s ask the always vivacious and smiling Ms. Omae how she did it, beginning with her childhood.
“I was born in Hiroshima. My father was an artist - a painter. He frequently made trips to collect information and he would often take my sister and me with him. We traveled to various places in Japan by car, and since my father also spent long time living in France, we also had many opportunities to visit foreign countries. We even went sightseeing in rather unusual places like Jordan. (laughter) Perhaps, because of those experiences and since I had been to Paris before, I did not really fear going to France to study. I think we feel more comfortable with the places that we visited when we were children, than with the places that we visit for the first time after we have grown up.”
“My mother was a clothing designer. She operated a shop that offered haute couture for a long time. I don’t know if I can call my family an ‘artistic family,’ but, as a child, I knew that my parents’ jobs were somewhat special.”
Since the family had a piano in their house, Ms. Omae began to play it when she was young. She was only four years old when she began to learn the basics of music at the “Music School for Children” that was run by Toho Gakuen College, her alma mater. Her avenue to becoming a cellist was an extension of the music lessons that she took there. The late Hideo Saito, a cellist who made a significant mark on classical music education in Japan, devoted his energy to training music students in Hiroshima. So at the time when Ms. Omae was growing up, Hiroshima had an ideal environment for fostering talented cellists.
“Well, it was really a coincidence. It was not like I was ‘discovered’. At that time, child cello players were temporarily scarce, I was inactive, after having quit learning to play the violin because I had never liked it. One day, a person from a music school recommended that I play the cello because I had large hands for a small girl.”
“I didn’t like the violin because I had to stand up to play. I often wondered why I had to stand up the whole time. . On the other hand, a cello can be played while sitting on a chair. Even girls play it with their legs apart, (laughter) and so at first my mother was reluctant to let me start the lessons. After all, she was easily persuaded by other people’s opinions.”
She was a third grader at elementary school then. Ever since, she has continued to play the cello. What is it about the cello that attracts Ms. Omae?
“The range of a cello is closer to that of the human voice than other instruments. It is said that its sound is just about the same range as a tenor, or a little lower than the average female voice. The sound of a violin is too high and is far from a person’s natural voice. On the other hand, a contrabass is too low. Compared to these other two, the sound of a cello is a lot closer to the tone of a human voice.”
“I’ve been playing the cello continuously since I began as a child. I didn’t take a break from my lessons even when I needed to study for the junior high school entrance exam. Now, I’m in a position to teach children. There are talented children, but they do not suddenly become good at playing. They could not play well at first, but they had the mettle to keep practicing every day. I would say that ‘talent’ is ‘the ability to keep on going,’ at least during the first stage of learning. Practicing is not fun for most children. We may see some children who are better than others, like having better ears or finger movements. However, they all have to practice hard to develop skill.”
“When I was a child, I seldom went out with my friends on Saturdays or Sundays because I had cello lessons over the weekends. My violinist friend told me that she always took her violin with her even on family trips. I did the same, except that I sometimes left it at home on purpose, saying ‘that it is too big to fit in the car’.” (laughter)
As we can tell from the way she talks, Ms. Omae is a really cheerful-minded person with inner fortitude. She revealed her strength most when she lived in France and studied both music and cooking at the same time. Let’s hear about those days.
“I studied music in three different countries. I stayed the longest, seven years, in France. I knew very little French at first, so I had to practice it in my daily life. For many months, I found myself being the only person who did not understand what other people were talking about. When the topic was music, I could more or less understand the conversation since many terms were in common with those in Japanese. However, even young people in France talked seriously about issues like politics or religion while chatting. So, I had a hard time following them.”
“If you don’t speak out, they think that you agree with them. It’s not a culture in which people try to understand you when you don’t say what you think or want. So, I came to believe that I had to make myself clear to other people. However, after I returned to Japan, I was sometimes mistaken for a person with a sharp tongue. (laughter) I was told by my friends that I sometimes said things that I was not supposed to say at that time. (laughter) I never used be that kind of person. I may have changed a bit while I lived abroad.”
Her classmates became rivals in competitions, but Ms. Omae usually treated them as good colleagues. It seems that she led a fulfilling life of study in France. At around the time that she had almost completed her studies, she became involved in something significantly different - cooking. Why cooking?
“I had been always interested in cooking. I left home when I was fifteen to live in Tokyo, so from time to time, I cooked for myself. When I was a child, my father used to cook French food that he had learned to make when he lived in France. Since my mother was very busy, we often went out to eat at our favorite bistro. I had an interest in cooking then, but was not really serious about it.”
“As I was waiting for the graduation exam after completing my study of music, I thought of taking lessons in French cooking. I wanted to discover the secret of French sauces before I left Paris. I had always wondered how those thick and rich-flavored French sauces were prepared. So, I went to a home cooking class given by a lady in the neighborhood. However, because she was only offering lessons in simple cooking; it was not the place for me to learn about French sauces.”
Ms. Omae decided to attend a cooking school located in the Hotel Ritz Paris, one of the highest ranked hotels in Paris. The school was rather strict. Students could attend a lesson every other week, but they had to study really hard on weekdays.
“The elementary course was for beginners. The classes contained various students including journalists and people who were related to the restaurant business. They taught not only cooking, but many other cooking-related subjects, such as confectionery, wines and flower coordination. The final exams were rather difficult. By attending that school, I was finally able to discover the secret of French sauces.”
“I became more and more interested in French cooking as I moved on to new courses. When I had completed the elementary level, I decided to go on to the next level. I felt a desire to master French cooking by studying longer. I asked my mother for her advice. She told me to stick to it if I had already made my decision. She also suggested that I learn from real French chefs.”
How did Ms. Omae manage to deal with the issue of balancing the study of music and cooking at the same time?
“At first, I did not tell my cello teacher that I was taking cooking lessons. Most concerts were on weekends, and so I could participate in them without a problem. However, my weekdays were pretty rough. From 8:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon, I had cooking lessons. At 6:00 in the evening I attended the cooking theory class. So, I needed to take cello lessens during the few hours in between these classes. For a while I followed that schedule, but it was too difficult for me to maintain. So, one day I told my cello teacher about my cooking studies. I said to him, ‘I didn’t tell you before, but I’m also studying cooking and confectionery. Could you please adjust your lesson time for me?’ And then he replied, “Why didn’t you tell me? You are doing a great thing.” (laughter) I was actually surprised at how he reacted, but was relieved. He was familiar with Japanese society. He told me that multiple role players like me would be useful for the music industry in Japan.”
Changing her schedule was easier than she had thought. With the support of her cello teacher, Ms. Omae was ready to wear two hats.
To build her cooking career, Ms. Omae took a job at a restaurant at the Hotel Ritz Paris where her cooking school was located. The restaurant was just across the hall from the school, but everything about it was different - it was real kitchen work.
“The school offered training at the hotel restaurant to students who had completed all of the courses. In the beginning, we had to work without pay. I knew that what I had learned was only the basics of cooking and that I would not be accepted into the real world of professional cooking. So I decided that I needed to work hard to obtain more experience.”
“The school and the restaurant were right across from each other, but their environments were worlds apart. A uniform was handed to me and I was immediately assigned to the kitchen. Many people were working there, but nobody paid attention to me. It was an extremely busy place where most workers wanted to get their lunch tasks done as quickly as possible in order to begin dinner preparation. They had no time to teach rookies who didn’t know anything. There were many newcomers who became discouraged by the way in which they were initially treated.”
“Since it was a hotel restaurant, the amount of work was extraordinary. I was assigned to jobs like ‘skinning three hundred tomatoes,’ ‘peeling two hundred eggs’ and ‘sorting the peas and pods of a pot full of green peas’. (laughter) All of these tasks were tough. But they didn’t give me a new job unless I had finished the present job. This meant that, if I didn’t get them done, I wouldn’t be able to learn anything new.”
To cope with the tremendous workload, Ms. Omae devised ways to enable her to ‘finish the jobs unusually quickly.’ What a fighting spirit she had!
“For instance, when peeling eggs, I held an egg on each hand and hit and pressed them against each other. By doing this, I could easily peel off the shells. It took me about ten seconds to peel two eggs including putting them into a container. I could quickly finish the job. ‘Oh, you’ve finished already? OK, skin three hundred tomatoes next.’ (laughter) Just like that. As I kept doing my job patiently, they realized how fast I was and started to give me more important roles like making clubhouse sandwiches. Finally, I was hired to work at the four star restaurant.”
The restaurant kitchen was a harsh work place where most workers were males who often talked roughly. In such an environment, Ms. Omae gained the favor of the chef. After she had experienced working at all of the different sections of the restaurant, she received permission from the chef to work there longer.
“Sooner or later, I would have to return to Japan. Until then, I wanted to learn all that I could. The job was physically hard. Dinner was served until about 11:30 in the evening. Since the restaurant’s lunch service and dinner service were completely different, I needed to be there from morning until night to learn all of their services. That’s why I asked the chef if I could work all day.”
The chef must have been very surprised at the way in which a Japanese woman handled her job.
“Maybe so. (laughter) But the people in France would recognize good workers regardless of a language barrier. I thought that the most important thing was to work hard without cutting corners, whatever the job was. We can accomplish anything if we don’t give up.”
The energy of Ms. Omae who copes perfectly with two different roles may come from her ability to believe in people. However, it is probably not only that. She works hard to earn people’s trust. She must have a natural ability to reach out to people.
By the way, how do the two different roles, music and cooking, subsist in your life? Do they occupy your life separately? Do they influence each other?
“Of course, they influence each other. In Europe, the development of cooking and of music overlaps one another in a sense. Initially, they were both developed in the court and later spread to the general public. Thus, they are tightly related. Listening to music, eating delicious meals, drinking wines - these have always been enjoyed together - in one stream - dating back to earlier times.”
Both music and cooking are at the heart of the traditional French and European lifestyle. Ms. Omae says that, studying cooking helped her to understand European culture and influenced her music positively.
“I think that music can be enjoyed only when it stimulates our five senses. By closing our eyes while listening to a piece of music, we may see its color or taste its flavor. We may feel the air of the music. The skill to play such music is not developed just by playing correctly from the score.”
“One’s musical performance reflects his or her life. As we become older, this becomes clearer. I think that we can tell what kind of person the player is just by listening to his or her performance. Cooking is the same. If a chef creates mild and gentle tastes, he is probably warm and sensitive. A chef who creates sharp and unconventional tastes may be an aggressive person. Music and cooking are both vehicles for self-expression, so performers’ personalities come right out.”
Ms. Omae is currently devoting a lot of her energy to the “Music and Food Concert.” OVE Minami-Aoyama’s “Rondo of Traveling Sound,” which was previously mentioned, is a part of such activities. She is extremely busy on concert days as she plays music and prepares food.
“Well, your question is probably why I dare to take on two roles at the same time. (laughter) I know that a musical performance alone is enough to make a concert. Dozens of classical concerts are held in Tokyo alone in one day. However, young people hesitate to attend classical music concerts because they think that classical music is difficult to understand or because they feel out of place. I really want them to come and learn about classical music. For them, a concert with food and wine can be a good opportunity to become acquainted with classical music. After the concert, they can even have an opportunity to talk to other members of the audience.”
“Above all, I want them to feel the power and the sound of strings live - not through a CD. I want them to experience the beauty of the cello. For one thing, the cello is an instrument that has not changed for more than five hundred years and its music has been loved by people for over two centuries.”
The more that we know about classical music, the more we need to learn about it. Classical music can be one’s life interest. If you think that classical music is attractive, but still hesitate to attend a concert because you are afraid of being out of place, come and experience Ms. Omae’s “Music and Food Concert.” It would be a great starting point for you as a classical music listener. Just by witnessing Ms. Omae giving full play to her versatility, you will probably feel as though you share her energy.
Chika Omae Profile
Cellist and cooking specialist. After graduation from Toho Gakuen College of Music, she lived abroad (New York, Germany and Paris) for eight years as a music student and a concert performer. In 2002, she won second prize at the Luigi Racconigi International Music Competition. In 2004, she released her first CD album, “Poesie.” In addition to her musical activities, she studied French cooking at the École Ritz Escoffier, which is located in the Hotel Ritz Paris, and earned a Grand Superior Diploma. Afterwards, she received cooking and confectionary training in the Ritz’s main kitchen. Today, her versatile activities include performing at concerts in Japan and overseas, planning and delivering “Music and Food Concerts” and writing for magazines.