Go-en: ‘Real,’ not ‘authentic,’ Japanese food

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In Photo: Marilyn Pefianco and John Geron

IN Japan the 5-yen coin is called goen. It is the only Japanese coin without Western numerals. It is considered a good luck piece, as well. When put in the back of a cash register or in a wallet given as a gift, it means good luck with money.

However, the phonetically similar goen is also taken to mean good luck in relationships and is often exchanged between friends. It is this meaning from which Goen took the name of its shop.

March 11, 2011, in Japan changed a lot of lives. For two expats with 20-plus years of living and working in Tokyo, that earthquake and the days that followed convinced them that, perhaps, it might be a good thing to spread their endeavors beyond Japan. While maintaining their Tokyo modeling agency and gourmet food import-export company, they looked to expand with a mind-set of a little more playfulness in their work. With a long history of love for food and things Japanese, they decided to open a ramen shop in Manila, Marilyn Pefianco’s home country.

An educational background in accounting plus training in a variety of Japanese food preparation combined with a number of professional-level friends willing to share their knowledge and techniques set the stage. Marilyn prepares all menu recipes, trains all kitchen staff and cross trains a number of them to be able to maintain consistency even though the store carries only a small number of employees. It’s next to impossible to have a single main chef that prepares a menu then have it remain the same if it’s his day off, or if he decides to move on to another restaurant; his “taste” goes with him. “At Go-en we strive to keep the flavors the same, visit to visit, with none of the ‘ah, it must be the chef’s day off’ feeling that you might find elsewhere,” the company said.

The other half of this dynamic duo is an American, born and bred in Texas. With a background in international management and an eye for design with a pinch of tech savvy, John Geron handles most of the non-food-related items for the restaurant and a fair amount of operational support. His is the design you see for the restaurant and kitchen, the logo and somewhat novel prose of the menu. John also has the good fortune of handling the game department, kendama et al., and is one of the official tasters for Marilyn’s creations—not a bad gig.

Marilyn and John have been together since the early 1990 s and have been business partners since 2003 in Tokyo, where they met. They generally handle very different aspects of the companies with a little crossover here and there. The one thing that they share with exuberance is their love for Japan, and they feel that it’s their job to personally bring a taste of it to the Philippines.

While a large part of the message is carried by the food, it is the experience that pulls all the disparate entities together. “This is where our staff comes into play, all of whom are full time. It was determined early on that you just can’ t get the same kind of dedication and understanding from part-time employees and the rigors of Japanese food and culture require more than a little dedication. Go-en has been blessed with some of the finest staff that could have been hoped for, a number of whom are university graduates specializing in hotel and restaurant management. They took it upon themselves to learn kendama well enough to be able to teach it to our customers, understand and speak a number of Japanese words and phrases related to their work, and keep a careful eye on our customers to make sure they are included in the Go-en experience,” the company added.Go-en believes the food should be as close to real Japanese taste as much as it can using both local and imported items.

“We choose to say our food is ‘real’ rather than ‘authentic’ since nearly every Japanese restaurant in Manila claims to be authentic. The word ‘authentic’ no longer has meaning. ‘Real’, on the other hand, is our attempt to convey that our food is just like the food you could expect to find during a trip to Japan rather than something more abstract,” it added.

Unlike many in the Japanese food industry in the country, Go-en has not changed the flavor and content of its food for the local population, but has tried to find Japanese flavors that fit Filipino tastes while staying true to their Japanese origins.

Some say that only a native can properly produce the cuisine of their country; if you look around the world, that is not the case. Some of the most recognized and successful chefs create amazing food that is not from their native countries (e.g., Julia Child—French cuisine). Conversely, it is quite likely that many have experienced local food produced by a local chef that was subpar, to put it nicely.

Interior

IN Japan you don’t really need a Japanese interior; it is Japan, after all, so everybody understands. Outside of Japan it’s helpful to try and add a little “Japan-ness” to the restaurant design so customers can feel some of the Japanese cultural influences. It adds to the full experience of eating Japanese food. “We try to bring a little bit of Japan into our shop by including some well-known and not-so -well-known items. You’ ll see ukiyo-e pictures, manga comics, noren curtains, a super-sized portable yatajinbe outfits for our waiters, and even the Japanese skill toy, kendama, which our staff will help teach our customers to use while waiting for their meal. All this backed by Japanese music both traditional and modern.”

Also included in the interior design is an open kitchen to add to the closeness between the customer and the chefs. The customers can see where their food is made and talk to the chef. “We strive to make our shop warm and friendly by taking down the barriers between the staff and customers.”

In addition to the counter seating, we have a high table directly behind that also allows for a view of the kitchen for those who might be interested in the process but shy about being right next to all the action. The height difference between those tables and the rest of our seating also creates a split-level effect that, although our shop is small, gives it the functionality of a sunken area and a raised area that breaks up line of sight between non-grouped diners. You can have two parties of 12 sit in the side booths and at the taller tables and neither will really be distracted by the other group nor concerned about how boisterous their own group becomes.

“Our other small touches: the waiters will teach you how to play kendama or help you pick out a manga to read. We even adopted a kitten that lives by our front door; our own maneki neko or ‘welcoming cat.’
[Sylvester has gotten a lot bigger.] The customers have responded favorably to all of these.”