Chef Yuki Aoyama x Garcia — The Cat that Changed Everything

Aug 11, 2014 / Interviews

Photo:Kazuho Maruo Edit&Text:Madoka Hattori Translation: Seth High

Yuki Aoyama is the owner of ‘Ao-ya,’ a Kyoto-style restaurant located in Tokyo. As a chef, she also makes frequent appearances on TV and is the subject of magazines features. Aoyama currently lives alongside a six-year old American Shorthair named Garcia. Aoyama claims that since she started living with the cat, many changes occurred in her life. We visited her at home, which had just been remodeled for the sole purpose of her beautiful marble-patterned Garcia. We asked Aoyama what Garcia’s existence means to her.

A Mutant White American Shorthair

- Where did you first encounter Garcia?

“I’ve always wanted to live with a white cat, so I was looking for one on pet adoption websites and through other means. But I never found the right match until a breeder of American Shorthairs that I stumbled upon told me that they had a ‘mutated’ white American Shorthair. I went to see him and decided to get him right there on the spot. After getting Gar-chan, I began to think about taking in another white cat as well, but for now I’m pretty occupied with just Gar-chan.”

- Have you gotten used to living with a cat?

“Because Gar-chan has mutated genes, he’s been pretty weak since birth. At first, he didn’t eat much and was just tottering around - he didn’t have the prerequisite cuteness that kittens should have. And because he had worms inside his belly, I took him to the vet quite often. But I somehow felt that I was destined to live with him. I guess all cat owners must feel pretty much the same. But I fell in love with him after the first night. I’d come home early to be with him and I didn’t think I even needed a boyfriend. The cat seemed to occupy my whole life. And then, after becoming cat-crazy and losing all of my earthly desires, I finally met the man I ended up marrying. I guess that’s how it goes (laughs).”

- So your lifestyle was completely different before Garcia came along?

“My sister opened the restaurant at the age of 31, but passed away the following year, suddenly leaving me to be both owner and chef. I was so busy back then. I honestly don’t have many memories of that period of my life. I worked from morning to late at night and didn’t get to see my friends because I had to run the restaurant. I was suffering so much. I ended up losing my health because of all the work. I started to neglect everything. That’s when I thought to myself, ‘If I have to suffer so much through work, I deserve to do something I always wanted to do.’ And that of course was to live with a cat. And since he came into my life, things have really changed. I feel happy everyday.”

- So your life is no longer centered around work?

“Exactly. I think I’m more human now. When all I had was work, I didn’t even think about whether I was a man or a woman. People gave me a hard time just because I was a female owner-chef. I was as distrustful as a stray dog back then. I guess I felt my heart was all worn out and desperately needed a change. From the day I took Garcia in, just having a cat gave me so much peace of mind. My life has truly changed since then.”

Poop is Proof of Life

- So it was the cat that brought you some peace of mind…

“Because Garcia was weak, I initially felt like I was obligated to protect him. But then after a week or so, I realized that I was the one who was being protected. I was suffocating myself with all of the responsibilities - keeping the restaurant from going out of business, training my staff, and just doing this and that. But the cat, he doesn’t do anything in particular for me. He just sits there and makes me happy. I guess that’s what living creatures have always done. But we are educated to be obedient and give something back after receiving something. And that sense of responsibility was one of the things that made me suffer when running the business. But the cat allowed me to realize that it is wonderful just to be alive. That’s when I started being kind to myself, cherishing my everyday life and treating others nicely and with a poised mind.”

- So the cat makes a difference even when he’s not doing anything…

“And he doesn’t just ‘do nothing,’ sometimes Garcia even breaks things. He aims for my favorites objects, too. But for me, I just can’t think of anything better than cats. I’ve had a dog, but they just love you too much and make you feel obligated to respond to their affection. But cats have their own pace. Garcia respects my pace as well, and that forms the basis of our relationship. Now I feel grateful just seeing him poop. Because poop is proof of life. He eats his meals and poops. If he stays healthy doing that, I’m grateful.”

- What kind of personality does he have?

“He’s very calm. He loafs around more than I’ve ever seen anyone loaf around. I’ll pick him up and he still won’t move. He even falls asleep in my arms. He became sick quite easily when he was young, but now he’s healthier than ever. Because he has allergies that affect his eyes, I give him dry food that the vet prescribed and some chicken tenders. I heard someone say that cats live longer if they only eat dry food. However, when I asked Aya Sugimoto, whose beautiful cat is over 20 years old, about the secret of her cat’s health. She told me that she prepares food by hand for her cat everyday. Since I work in the food industry, I honestly believe in the importance of putting my heart into cooking. So I decided to steam chicken tenders for him everyday.”

- How would you define your relationship with Garcia?

“He was my destiny. I think Gar-chan thinks of me as his mother. He bites my husband when they are playing, but he never bites me. He looks ecstatic when I pick him up. He totally fawns over me. He never asks my husband to pick him up, though he does beg him to play. So I guess he understands the difference between us.”

- Do you think he understands your words?

“Whenever I tell him how cute he was, he looks into my eyes and squints. I think he listens to every word of my conversations with my husband. So I guess yes, he does. When we are about to get into a quarrel, he comes in between us and strikes the cutest poses. When I feel sick he stays beside me.”

Forever Crazy about Him

- Did you remodel your house just for Garcia?

“Yes. This room is dedicated to the cat. We put a carpet over the cement floor so it feels nice on his paws. I also got him a hanging-type cat tower, but he doesn’t like to play on it at all. He runs around by himself most of the time. We are going to visit my friend’s cat, Komutan, and all cats have different personalities. Gar-chan doesn’t try to escape when kids come to play with him, so I think he’s a really sweet cat.”

- Do you have many cat-loving friends around you?

“I used to think that I shouldn’t tell others how I felt about cats. I thought of myself as a weirdo for loving my cat so much and thinking he’s so cute everyday. I can’t stop once I get started talking about how much I love my cat. But then Megu-chan, Komutan’s owner, completely accepted me for who I was and told me it was okay to tell her about how much I love my cat. So then, I finally started allowing myself to talk about my love for Garcia. That said, I don’t have any cat-related items. Since I work in the kitchen, I thought I shouldn’t put my love for cats on display. However, I may start picking up a few cat-related goods. Then again, I guess I love Gar-chan, not cats in general. ”

- What is the best thing about cats?

“Their mysteriousness. One moment Garcia fawns over me, then the next minute he’s in a bad mood. He’ll look as if he’s not interested in something, but then I turn around and find him moving towards it. I guess this is also true with people. However, it’s never good to try and know everything or find every answer. Those kinds of things keep you from being happy. When you are asked about your own character, your answers may vary from time to time, and I think that’s the way all living things should be. Cats charm me with their mysteriousness. You will eventually find things out and come to understand your lover after you’ve been married and living together for a while. But that’s not the case with cats. He will keep me crazy about him forever.”

  • name: Garcia
  • age: 6
  • sex: Male
  • lind: American Shorthair
  • Yuki Aoyama
    The Kyoto-born Aoyama is chef and owner of the restaurant named ‘Ao-ya.’ After graduating from college, she worked in the beauty industry before opening the restaurant in Tokyo’s Nakameguro neighborhood. Aoyama graduated from the National Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, Japan Campus in 2010, where she also acquired certification as a Chinese medicine cooking master. She opened a new restaurant, ‘Ao-ya no Tonari’ in April of 2011. She makes frequent appearances on TV and has been featured in numerous magazines. Aoyama has also published many books, including Aoyama Yuki no Shiawase Washoku Recipe (Yuki Aoyama’s Happy Japanese Cooking Recipes - Nitto Shoin Honsha Press).