Savoring Truffle Pasta & Red Wine In Omotesando With Sarah Crago
Japan, Australia & Italy Meet In Your Plate
In a cozy neighborhood sandwiched between Omotesando and Shibuya, an Australian chef and business owner serves up truffle pasta paired with red wine almost every night to regulars and tourists. Savvy Tokyo sat down with Sarah to find out how and why an experienced marketer and foodie made the leap into the restaurant business and what she’s gained from the experience.
On paper, what Sarah Crago has achieved in only a few years at her niche truffle eatery, OUT, is remarkable. And it’s all because of her belief in the potential of OUT, her passion for food and her determination to make her dream a reality.
It’s far from an unusual scenario, except that this individual launched her flourishing restaurant with only a dream—no service experience, no business management skills and no contacts in Tokyo.
What got you into food?
I always had an interest in food and was passionate about cooking and sourcing ingredients, so I went from London to Italy, to do a Masters in Gastronomy; Food Culture and Communications. It probably was the best year of my life. I got to learn a lot about the background of food and do tastings. Even coming out of that masters I didn’t know how to pursue my interest. I thought I would be working in communications around food. I went back to Australia for a couple of months and before I knew it, I was here setting up the restaurant.
I got an idea of what I want in a restaurant and opened OUT from a very customer-focused point of view
You jumped in without service experience. How was that?
OUT is the first service I’ve had to do. I’ve always been interested in food—everything from fine dining to street food—and eaten at a lot of restaurants. I also travel to eat. I’ve always been observant of how restaurants work and what I think makes good service and I was reviewing restaurants in Tokyo for various publications before opening OUT. I got an idea of what I want in a restaurant and opened OUT from a very customer-focused point of view. But I had to learn a lot about cooking and service—and am still learning a lot.
How did you come up with the concept?
I’d just come back from Italy and was in the mountains, not far from Melbourne, in the wintertime, having a dinner party with about 10 friends. We’d made fresh pasta with fresh Australian winter truffles. As it came out, somebody got up and changed the record to Led Zeppelin. Everyone had this moment of ‘this is it’: eating pasta and truffle, drinking red wine and the sound of Led Zeppelin. We joked that it would make a great restaurant concept.
Everyone had this moment of ‘this is it’: eating pasta and truffle, drinking red wine and the sound of Led Zeppelin
Around the table were two of my now business partners—one, a restaurateur in Melbourne and the other, my brother. We thought about where in the world this niche concept would work. We decided it would only work in Tokyo. And I still believe it only works here. I very naively moved to Tokyo with the dream of setting up this very niche truffle, pasta, wine, and Led Zeppelin restaurant.
Had you been to Japan before?
Only twice. I’d studied Japanese at high school and a little bit at university, so I had an interest in Japan. Having not lived in Australia for a long time as I was in London and Italy, I was looking for the next place to live. Tokyo was always on my list. My brother’s industry is video games, which brings him to Tokyo two or three times a year, so he’s always had a connection. Our other business partner had never been before so my brother and I had to convince him that the restaurant could work in Tokyo.
How did you decide on the name?
OUT is a Led Zeppelin reference from the album In Through the Out Door, which was the second-last album they released. It had been a long time since they released an album and they felt the struggle of releasing it as well as pressure from their fans, so that’s why they named it In Through the Out Door. I feel that the name resonates with doing business in Japan as a foreigner. You’re always going to be pushing in through the out door. That’s why I gave my company here that same name.
What was the biggest challenge in setting up the business?
Japan culturally is so different from anywhere else in the world. I think Tokyo is the most challenging city to live in as a foreigner. Language is not the biggest barrier, it’s more how you fit into society. Doing business is a whole different kind of world, so you can’t really take your experiences of doing business in other countries and apply them in Japan.
It took two years to open OUT, which was largely down to me trying to navigate the landscape. A lot of things don’t make sense to us and we would do it differently. But that’s not how it’s done so you just have to go with it. Most foreign businesses come here and align with a Japanese partner. We decided not to go down that path, so that was difficult in every respect. Finding a property took a long time, including five months of negotiating on my lease as I had to convince them I would not be having a Japanese person co-sign it. Japan is still very closed to doing business, which might slowly change.
Did you have any particular issues because you’re a woman?
Yeah, I think Japan is very behind in terms of equality for women in business and society. Even setting up a business bank account, I had to take my male Japanese lawyer otherwise they wouldn’t have taken it seriously. I probably wouldn’t take it in any other circumstance but if you want to make your dream a reality here, it’s something you have to face. Working here, male customers are always surprised that I’m the owner. They assume that my male chef is my husband and owner, so I guess it’s just ingrained in their thinking.
Has OUT met your expectations?
In terms of concept and executing the concept, it’s successful. In terms of what I thought the reaction would be from customers, I didn’t have many expectations. It’s been very overwhelming and surprising that it’s had such a good response. People come for various reasons. I have customers that come just for the Led Zeppelin. My clientele is 60-70% Japanese and the rest foreigners. Thanks to international coverage, I get tourists from all over the world, so that’s extremely humbling when you think of all the restaurants in Tokyo. I have lots of customers who come every week. People crave consistency here while in other countries, I think people want something different.
What do you do for fun?
I drink a lot of coffee. I’m normally in coffee shops around my home or at the park watching dogs. I dream of having a dog, but my lifestyle doesn’t suit now. Otherwise, I spend time with friends and travel during time off. I’ve just come back from Mexico, where I’ve wanted to go for years to experience the food culture.