The first World Summit of Gastronomy opened February 9th for 3 days near Tokyo station. This event was presided over by former Japanese prime minister Koizumi and Princess Hisako. It brought together in one place for the first time the world’s top chefs like Joël Robuchon, Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, and Yukio Hattori. Chefs demonstrated their latest techniques, shared their recipes, and discussed the future of the gastronomic arts. This event was impeccably executed and is an important milestone in worldwide culinary cooperation.
How does a 3 day event in Tokyo on food have an impact on me and you? That is what I wondered as I headed to the event. Monday was a cloudy, chilly February day. People were bustling to work in parkas and coats with fur trim. I pressed past them and descended the long escalator to the event reception and then yet another to the expansive event halls deep within Tokyo International Forum. Here I entered another world.
The world of gastronomy and culinary delight is one that is vast and accelerating. The research, experimentation, and cooperation are bringing new tastes to people. How about a sorbet made of sake? Have you ever seen watermelon that looks and cuts like red meat? Why would you want to cook your food in dirt?
I would have thought there would be a world summit every year on food, but it is apparently easier to get the world’s top political leaders together than it is to get the world’s top chefs together. This is the first event of its kind. It took more than two years to make it happen. In fact, perhaps it takes a little political and royal power to make such an event happen.
The presidency of Tokyo Taste was held by one of the most popular prime ministers in Japan’s recent history. Junichiro Koizumi was the 87th, 88th, and 89th prime minister of Japan. That alone is impressive for a country where prime ministers change frequently. He has been a tremendous advocate of getting more people to visit Japan. Princess Hisako added royal flair as the honorary president.
Mr. Koizumi recounted the story when he met the president of France Jacques Chirac. At that time, Paris had some 50 million visitors every year whereas all of Japan had a mere 5 million visitors. The two talked about why Paris attracted so many. Mr. Koizumi noted the beauty and tradition of the city, but Mr. Chirac added, “we have French cuisine.” Mr. Koizumi retorted, “Japanese food is very good.” To this, Mr. Chirac replied, “then why don’t you promote it?”
People get together every morning, noon, and evening to eat. “Culinary as Culture” as Princess Hisako noted is what differentiates us from animals. We eat not just to get energy and nutrients, but to enjoy the tastes, emotions, and memories that go with our meals.
Think Japanese food and at some point you will be led to soy sauce. Think soy sauce and at some point you will be led to Kikkoman. The CEO from Kikkoman who was the Executive Committee Chairman for the event stated the three objectives for Tokyo Taste. 1) To educate and train young chefs, 2) To introduce and promote Japanese food as a brand to the world, 3) To raise awareness of SHOKUIKU.
Shokuiku is a Japanese word. “Shoku” means food and “iku” means education. Shokuiku means to learn about food, build good eating habits, and have a balanced diet. It is more than a word. It is a movement and embodies the spirit of Tokyo Taste in the slogan “Let’s shokuiku.” In Japan, shokuiku is also law. Japan in 2005 became the first country in the world to enact a Basic Law on Shokuiku.
Michelin Guide was also represented by Jean-Luc Naret. About a year and half ago, they launched in Tokyo. Michelin sold some 300,000 copies of their guide on Tokyo within 5 weeks. Overall, Tokyo has 227 Michelin stars. This is more than double what Paris has. Paris may have more visitors, but Tokyo is the place to come for taste.
The chefs who participated in Tokyo Taste have had influences from Japan. Some of these influences are subtle and some have been profound. An influence does not mean that Japanese food itself is added as an item to the menu, but rather ingredients, preparation, and presentation impact the food of a local culture. Like a pebble in a pond, the energy of the wave may disperse as it ripples out, but it reaches all.
Joël Robuchon who has the most Michelin Guide stars of any chef in the world remarked at his surprise some 30 years ago of the slurping sound Japanese make when eating soba noodles. Why Japanese do this has more to do with taste than etiquette. He noted how yuzu, soy sauce, matsutake, and wasabi used to be unheard of in French cuisine, but now are readily found. Seafood carpaccio is directly tied to Japan’s tradition of sushi and sashimi.
Ferran Adrià the owner and chef of elBulli in Spain is the acclaimed pioneer in cuisine of the unexpected. His contact with a Japanese ingredient was some 20 years ago in the form of soy sauce, but it took nearly another 15 years before he came in contact with many of the ingredients that every Japanese home chef knows. Those ingredients now find themselves as regular components of his recipes. He sees the past 10 years as a revolution, “We share our recipes and include each other. We want to be a model to millions of people. Gastronomy is culture and we never forget that.”
Yukio Hattori is the original Iron Chef. He also runs the Hattori Nutrition College. He is an instigator of good. His efforts were key to bring about Tokyo Taste. As with Iron Chef, his college, the Basic Law on Shokuiku, and Tokyo Taste, he works to educate and engage. Despite the demands on his schedule, he could easily be found at the start of the event each day greeting the visitors. He is the embodiment of the word “host” and acts in a mission to share with others all that Japanese cuisine has to offer.
Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in the U.K. loves the Japanese word “Umami”. Umami is the 5th sense of the palate along with Sweet, Sour, Bitter, and Salty. It is something that the Japanese have known for centuries through Bonito, Konbu, and other ingredients. It is something that chefs in the West have not understood directly, but have realized indirectly through various cuisine like combining tomatoes with parmesan cheese. He found that the tradition of tossing away the tomato pulp near the seeds as had often been taught in Britain was a mistake. That pulp is rich in Umami and delivers more taste to react with meat. He found that sherry has compounds that enhance Umami
Chef Blumenthal’s first visit to Japan gave him inspiration to revisit his own British cultural kitchen with a different set of eyes. British food is all the better for it. In this return to Japan, he repaid the primarily Japanese audience with a treat. He navigated through the story of his creation of a Christmas dinner. He distributed two unique tastes to every member of the audience. One was a melt-in-your-mouth thin strip of film imbued with frankincense. The other was a wafer with slight scent before eaten and strong aroma after of the freshness of a baby. I have no further words to describe the experience.
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa is perhaps the best ambassador of Japanese cuisine overseas with his restaurant Nobu in New York and some 21 other restaurants around the world. His early struggles were trying to find ways of getting American patrons to try various raw food and to teach people what goes on in preparing Japanese food. He recounted a story of some 15 years back where at a food and wine festival in Carmel, he became mad at someone who said it takes just 10 minutes to make Dashi. Dashi is the soup stock filled with Umami used in much of Japanese cuisine. Chef Matsuhisa argued that it took 2 years to grow konbu and 2 months to dry it and that it took 6 months to dry bonito fish. The flavor comes from the ingredients. The care and attention that goes into the ingredients directly bears down on the end flavor.
Chefs Robuchon, Adrià, Hattori, Blumenthal, and Matsuhisa sat in low chairs around a table discussing the variances and use of Oriental Dashi and Western Dashi. They noted not just the taste of Umami filled Dashi, but the ingredients to make it and how the food from East to West differs. Chef Hattori spoke of the difficulty he had trying to create Dashi in Europe because European water is harder with more calcium than Japanese water. Chef Matsuhisa countered that there was a way to make good Dashi with hard water.
Chef Robuchon noted that in France soup can be a meal, but not in Japan and that Japanese soup is served too hot for Western taste. Chef Adrià spoke to the use of a knife and fork and the impact this had in the kitchen; without a knife and a fork at the table the size and texture of the food prepared in the kitchen will be different.
Chef Blumenthal spoke to the balance of dishes. The balance is not just in the taste, but also in the textures. Flavor is when aroma (sensations of the eyes and nose) and taste (sensations of the mouth) meet together in the brain. How flavors are revealed makes for the meal. For example, dishes should get lighter as the meal progresses. Chefs need to do more than just prepare in the kitchen, they need to promote food from a social awareness point outside the kitchen. Anyone who can make someone go to the market, buy a raw ingredient, and cook it is doing something very powerful.
The summit continued Monday afternoon, all day Tuesday, and Wednesday morning with top chefs demonstrating their techniques, devices, styles, and combinations. Seiji Yamamoto showed how to grill to perfection. He explained how to grill Ayu sweetfish where the angles were just right and the head of the fish became deep fried in its own fat while on the grill. He knows his fish well. He went to the extreme of having an MRI performed on a Hamo (pike eel) to learn the bone structure and to perfect techniques at cutting to avoid crushing the bones thereby retaining flavor and moisture in grilling. Hamo is great for Umami; it requires no seasoning. A good match though is the matsutake mushroom.
Grant Achatz of Alinea from Chicago who is at the forefront of the molecular gastronomy movement has created ways to surprise the palette with cold and hot served together. His emphasis far from the food alone; it is on a triumvirate of Design, Food, and Service. He has had bowls created that will not balance on the table, so the server must hand the dish to the customer. This creates a delight of the senses beyond taste and smell. Even the color of the clothes worn by the server alter the experience of the dish.
Tetsuya Wakuda is not sure if he is still Japanese. With so many years abroad and one of the best restaurants in Australia and in the world, he cannot be sure if he is still Japanese or Australian. He has added the flavors of Japanese cuisine in quietly to French cuisine. His efforts are responsible for an ever growing variety of Japanese ingredients in the Sydney area as he works with local producers. His philosophy is that discreet flavor enhances.
Juan Mari Azrak was one of three Spanish chefs at the Tokyo Taste. Chef Azrak is third generation in the same restaurant. His creation includes serving lobster on a bed of white olive oil that is made to look like cottage cheese. Andoni Luis Aduriz also of Spain delivered very powerful and directed presentations of his cuisine. He is seen as the next generation to lead Spanish chefs forward.
Not just chefs, but those more of the academic background such as Hervé This the mainstay advocate of molecular gastronomy presented. Also speaking was Jacques Puisais of the French Institute of Taste.
There were many other chefs such as Massimiliano Alajmo, Pierre Gagnaire, Bruno Menard, Yoshihiro Narisawa, Kunio Tokuoka, and Dong Zhenxiang who also presented. Exhibition halls displayed side presentations, ingredients from various regions of Japan, new food products, machines and devices for food preparation, and an assortment of wines.
For all the techniques demonstrated, knowledge shared, participants, press, and chefs, my amazement was to learn the unexpected. To learn that the tastes of Tokyo had traveled and were impacting the tastes of the world. To learn that all these people had come together from great geographical and cultural distance to create a new milestone in gastronomy. It is my hope that another world summit in two years time can be held and mark one of the best ways to bring people together; through cooking, eating, and sharing.
By Japan Correspondent Sherwin Faden
© Sherwin Faden 2009