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From salaryman to sanga-slinger: Kohsuke Yamaoka knows the secret to a great sandwich

By Florentyna Leow
The Japan Times
October 28, 2020

Cafe dreams: Realizing a career in Xerox sales wasn’t for him, Kohsuke Yamaoka now runs Chipper’s Coffee & Sangas as a pop-up | FLORENTYNA LEOW

Quarter-life crises descend upon the best of us, and barista Kohsuke Yamaoka was no exception.

Watching Yamaoka make sandwiches at Chipper’s Coffee & Sangas, his weekend-evening pop-up operating out of Kamiyama coffee favorite Camelback Coffee, it’s hard to imagine that he was once a cog in the corporate machine. For five years after graduating from university, the Hyogo Prefecture Awajishima native commuted between Osaka and Himeji to sell copy machines for Fuji Xerox. But in 2014, at age 28, he saw a future of neckties and briefcases unspooling before him into the distance, and resolved to change his life.

“This just wasn’t the kind of adult I wanted to be,” he says.

With dreams of one day opening his own little diner, Yamaoka traded his office life for several years of barista training at the Osaka outpost of Saturdays NYC. There, he learned how to pull a mean espresso under the tutelage of Takayuki Ishitani, two-time winner of the Japan National Barista Championship. But he wanted to learn more, and the world beyond beckoned.

“You only live once, and if there’s something you want to try, you have to go for it,” Yamaoka says of his impetus to leave Japan. He arrived in Melbourne in December 2017 on a year-long working holiday visa and just ¥100,000 to his name, with neither work nor lodgings lined up. But he persisted, and eventually he was working double daily shifts at a few cafes across Melbourne.

“I wanted to learn about good coffee culture,” he recalls. “And I wanted to experience different kinds of atmospheres, so I worked in large cafes as well as hole-in-the-wall places.”

Yamaoka constantly kept an eye out for a special something to complete his future dream cafe. On a crisp late autumn afternoon, he found his answer at Hector’s Deli, a sandwich shop in Melbourne suburb of Richmond.

Shibuya sanga: Kohsuke Yamaoka’s chicken schnitzel sandwich is based on a “top secret” recipe adapted for local Tokyo palates. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

“When I first visited, I found the space so relaxing and fun,” he reminisces. “The sandwiches were delicious, too.”

He was sold: coffee and sandwiches — or “sangas,” in that infamous Australian tendency to shorten every other word — would be his thing. Yamaoka began pulling lattes at Hector’s Deli, and spent the following months observing its techniques. Before leaving Melbourne in 2018, he persuaded the owner to part with his “top secret” recipe for Hector’s chicken schnitzel sandwich, which he’s now adapted for the Tokyo palate.

Yamaoka finally launched his pop-up on July 17 with a compact menu — the aforementioned chicken schnitzel, a tuna melt and a monthly special.

He says that a good sandwich is about layers and balance. “In Melbourne, it would sometimes be too salty, spicy or oily,” he explains. “So I try to strike a balance.”

His spin on Hector’s Deli’s chicken schnitzel sandwich illustrates this approach. It’s far less heavy than you’d expect from a crunchy, deep-fried slab of chicken thigh encased in a tiny toasted bun. The devil’s in the details: a sprinkle of scallop dashi powder adds a touch of oceanic umami; a squeeze of lemon and chopped pickles in the mayonnaise provide the tangy, acidic counterpoint; a shiso (perilla) leaf straight from Camelback’s own sandwich playbook lends a fresh, herbaceous note to each bite.

Ultimately, he says, the point is to make people happy, or “chipper.” He’s often thinking about what makes his customers smile, and brainstorming new sandwich ideas. No source of inspiration is off-limits. A recent lamb meatball sandwich stuffed with shoestring fries, for example, was inspired by the iconic meatball scene in “The Godfather.”

Eventually, Yamaoka hopes to find a permanent space for Chipper’s Coffee & Sangas. His face lights up as he talks about all the sandwiches he wants to make — from a tortilla breakfast wrap to a falafel-packed pita — and the music he’ll play at his space, switching from Anderson.Paak to Frank Ocean depending on the weather or time of day. It’s about transposing the elements of his favorite Melbourne spaces: great coffee and sandwiches, and a warm, welcoming space — a place for people to feel good about life.

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