Friday, December 19, 2008

How I found Inner Peace through Shrimp Tempura

I had many memorable experiences when I lived in Japan from 1989 to 1994 but, as I approach the end of Seichou Karate® dojo’s first fiscal year, an occasion comes to mind when I discovered a concept that has provided me with fulfillment and inner peace.

It was a cold December afternoon in 1990 and I was packing up to leave work at the Kamo Educational Office in Minokamo City when a couple of my co-workers suggested that we go to Nagoya for a tempura dinner. Well, Nagoya was 45 minutes away by train and I was bushed after a long day. To make matters worse, back in the U.S., I had grown accustomed to the heavily battered, tiny shrimp that often masquerades as Japanese tempura. So, I didn’t want to join them. But, since I was new to the office, I couldn’t turn down the chance to participate in the boys’ night out!

90 minutes later I was traipsing through narrow alleys in Nagoya’s “shita machi” (earthy downtown underbelly) with my 3 companions. Finally, we arrived at an unremarkable doorway with a “noren” (a tapestry hanging outside the entrance of a business). I couldn’t read the Chinese character on it, but I’d been in Japan long enough to know that hanging noren meant that the restaurant was open. So, we darted inside to discover a small, sleek interior with lots of chrome and black lacquered surfaces. The place was immaculate and with colorful floral arrangements and cool new age music was playing. My host was an old friend of the chef (also the proprietor) who greeted us warmly and sat us down at the bar. He ordered drinks and appetizers for all of us. Everything was great and, after a few minutes of chatting with my co-workers, I felt much better as the chill left my bones. However, I had no inkling that I was about to have an experience that would dramatically enhance my life.

Before long, the chef placed tiny easels before us. Then, he delicately served each of us two perfect shrimp with tails reaching for the sky. They were absolutely beautiful with coating so light that you could see through it. Each shrimp had a halo consisting of the most delicate batter wisps. In fact, they were so remarkable that I hesitated to eat them. But, when my host noticed my paralysis, he suggested that tempura is much better eaten hot than cold. So, I mixed the grated radish with ponzu (dipping sauce), grasped the shrimp closest to me, plunged it into the sauce, and took my first bite.

For such a light batter, the shrimp were surprisingly crispy, yet they were hot and juicy on the inside. I’d eaten plenty of fried food but had never tasted, or even dreamed of, anything that could be so delicious and, at the same time, be so pretty. It was a delightful surprise and eye-opener. After we finished the shrimp, the chef carefully placed more tempura (mostly vegetables) and rice before us. Each round was prepared with the same care as the shrimp and was delicious. But, it was the remarkable shrimp that caused me to meditate deeply on the level of focus that the chef had invested in preparing the meal. How did he do it? I pondered the question all the way home that night. It was the last thing on my mind before I went to sleep and the first thing I thought of when I woke up the next morning.

Although I was totally blown away by my dining experience, I couldn’t help but think that the chef could have made a lot more money by expanding his kitchen staff and serving a dozen shrimp in a basket to take-out customers. He would have probably needed a wheelbarrow to carry to the bank all the Yen that he would have made.

Then, it occurred to me that while robust profits are a proper and necessary goal of any business, the achievement of professional excellence (in this case offering the world’s best tempura) is also an important goal that need not be at odds with money-making.

The next day, I asked my host about this balancing act and he replied that the chef’s family had been in the tempura business for many years and enjoyed enormous success. The chef was the second son, so he had decided to strike out on his own because the family kitchen simply wasn’t big enough for both sons. The restaurant that we visited was the chef’s new incarnation of his family’s venerable tempura restaurant, but the chef had remained passionately true to the methods and standards that his grandparents had established six decades earlier. In a nutshell, the restaurant only used the highest quality ingredients in painstakingly preparing tempura, and only hired staff members who were completely committed to offering the best service and product. Also, they carefully controlled their overhead so that they could afford to serve only a handful of customers each night. My host told me that his friend’s restaurant wasn’t the biggest tempura senmonten (tempura specialty restaurant) but it was the best because his friend worked harder than any other restauranteur, including his older brother. And then he said something that resonated with me: “In Japan, this is the greatest dignity.”

Since we opened Seichou Karate® dojo last March, I’ve been proud to offer the best curriculum, taught by the finest instructors, in the most functional, beautiful facility. When the going gets tough, I remember the relentless dedication of that tempura chef and I equate the lesson I learned that night to Seichou Karate® in the following way. I am committed to building a mighty institution that empowers students to achieve great goals. I love both the energy that a large group of students generates, as well as the fleeting opportunity to focus on the needs of a few students in a small class. This quest, this path, has brought me tremendous fulfillment and true inner peace. So, if anyone who is reading this article is in need of a rudder, I encourage him or her to take up the quest for excellence.


R. Romero
Seichou Karate® Founder & President