Soul of Japan group turns attention toward helping, feeding disaster-hit northeastern areas

Top chefs keep taste of Tohoku alive

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

Some of the country’s most highly esteemed chefs are working together to ensure that the people of the Tohoku region are not forgotten three months after being hit by the March 11 disasters.

At a charity dinner held May 31, a group of nearly 40 chefs cooked to raise money and awareness to support the region’s struggling farmers, fishermen and meat producers. They plan to send chefs and kitchen workers to serve meals in the affected areas this summer.

The group, called Soul of Japan, first collaborated in October to represent the nation at the influential Worlds of Flavor culinary conference in California, an event that marked the first time so many noted Japanese chefs had ever worked together. Shortly after the catastrophic events of March 11, Soul of Japan members joined forces once again to create a disaster relief program called Soul of Tohoku that would allow them to put their culinary skills to use for charity.

A symposium that preceded the dinner drew an impressive crowd, filling a banquet hall at the ANA Intercontinental Hotel to capacity and leaving some to stand for the duration of the lecture.

The event highlighted the uniqueness of Tohoku’s culinary traditions and described the plight of agriculture producers across the stricken prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima.

About 16 percent of the nation’s farms are concentrated in the country’s northeast, said Niigata University professor of agriculture Masanori Nonaka. With more than 80 percent of them farming commercially, the economic implications for the region’s farmers are enormous.

Nonaka called for a revival of Tohoku’s agriculture industry as well as its food culture, and urged the audience to lend support by buying food products from the area.

“From watching television recently, the farming and fishing industries don’t appear to have been significantly affected by the disaster, but that is a big mistake,” said agricultural consultant Kenji Yamamoto.

He described the impact on rice and vegetable production as “midterm,” while the effects on the seafood industry are likely to be long-term and far-reaching — even without taking into account the possible effects of radiation contamination from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, approximately 2.5 million hectares of rice fields have been damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. Roughly 20,000 hectares of those paddies — with a combined production capacity of 7.95 million tons of rice — were completely flooded and will require extensive desalination before rice planting can begin again. “There will probably be a decrease in rice-growing areas,” Yamamoto warned.

What most worries Yamamoto, however, is the effect that the disasters will have on meat producers.

Tohoku is Japan’s third-largest meat producer, supplying the country with much of its domestic beef and chicken. Most of the broiler chickens consumed in Japan are produced in large bird farms that require significant amounts of energy and water. Power and water shortages resulting from the disasters will have a dire impact on these facilities.

One of the biggest problems, Yamamoto noted, is the current lack of animal feed.

At the moment, 80 percent of the corn, soy and wheat used for chicken feed is imported, mainly from the United States, Brazil and Australia, but the tsunami damage is likely to make the region even more heavily dependent on imports for feed.

The beef industry is expected to fare better in the years to come. But for cattle ranchers still grappling with the large-scale destruction wrought by the quake and tsunami, getting back on their feet has been a tremendous challenge.

For the last 20 years, Mutsuko Ozawa and her husband have raised cows for wagyu beef on their farm in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. Like many others in the area, Ozawa lost her home in the tsunami, which tragically took the lives of eight of her family members.

“The first morning was the most difficult,” she recalled. “We were so shocked and depressed, we couldn’t think of how to carry on the business.”

Of the 44 families in her village community, 15 lost their homes, and most are still living in temporary evacuation sites. Power supply returned to Rikuzentakata only in late May, and the Ozawas and their neighbors are still without running water.

“We had to move a generator to pump water from (wells) to give to the cows,” she said.

To make matters worse, they quickly ran out of fuel and were also running out of hay for their cattle. Eighty percent of their grasslands were ruined in the deluge, making it impossible to harvest hay grasses. Although the government has granted them compensation for the tsunami damage, Ozawa said they have received no financial assistance to maintain their business.

Fortunately for Ozawa and other cattle farmers nearby, the domestic and international ranching communities have come together to offer support; farmers from inland areas in Iwate brought food and gas, while the Australian government, through an organization called Meat and Livestock Australia, sent emergency supplies of hay.

Similar accounts of hardships suffered by ordinary people in Tohoku prompted local chefs Masayuki Okuda, of the restaurant Alchecciano in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, and Katsuyasu Ito, of Laureole in Oshu, Iwate Prefecture, to travel to some of the hardest-hit areas to provide direct assistance.

After the earthquake, Okuda and his kitchen staff started an impromptu soup kitchen for people in emergency shelters, driving three hours to Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, to prepare pots of hot curry for hungry disaster victims.

Okuda and Ito rallied chefs across Tohoku to collect food contributions and help workers at distribution centers decipher the labels of food products donated from overseas. More importantly, they helped the shelter cooks create simple, appetizing dishes with unfamiliar ingredients.

“The (kitchen ladies) would look at some of the cans of food and say, ‘What is this, and what am I supposed to do with it?’ ” Okuda explained.

The duo visited shelters asking inhabitants what they wanted to eat. They pooled their resources and collaborated with a team of chefs to cook on site, when possible, and delivered meals prepared in the kitchens of local restaurants at other times.

During the periods of incessant power outages, Okuda taught dairy producers in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, how to make mozzarella cheese from their storages of fresh milk so that they would have something solid to eat in case of a blackout.

They also began to consider ways to help the region’s farmers and fishermen. After spending the day with a hoya (sea pineapple) fisherman in Iwate who worried that his surplus of fish might be wasted, Okuda realized that, although many fresh ingredients were easily available, they were not being fully utilized. He then began a campaign to educate consumers and worked on developing recipes that would appeal to a wider audience.

The members of Soul of Japan plan to work with chefs like Okuda and Ito and expand on the initiatives they started. Dressed in chef’s whites embroidered with the label “Team of Japan,” project leaders Yoshihiro Murata of Kikunoi, Kunio Tokuoka of Kitcho and Kihachi Kumagai of Kihachi outlined the objectives for the Soul of Tohoku Kitchen Caravan program, which they expect to launch in mid-July.

The group has purchased three kitchen-equipped vehicles and will dispatch chefs and kitchen workers from around the country to cook meals at various locations in the affected area this summer. Around 50 chefs have signed up for the program, and the organization is continuing to gather volunteers.

The project is still in the planning stages, but the organization has discussed collaborating with other charity foundations to stage events that will promote local produce and educate young people about the food culture of Tohoku.

Their long-term goal is to rebrand the regional cuisine. Much in the way that Danish chef Rene Redzepi — whose Copenhagen restaurant Noma was named best in the world again this year — has made New Nordic cuisine an international buzzword, Soul of Japan hopes to bring global attention to the food of Tohoku.

The buffet dinner following the symposium featured a dazzling array of dishes using ingredients from Tohoku, prepared by Soul of Japan’s roster of celebrity chefs.

More than 300 people attended, and the event raised ¥5 million, which will go toward the purchase of another caravan and ingredients for the project.

For the event, chef Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen made 450 portions of his signature shio-ramen noodles in broth, with pork from Iwate, garnished with bamboo shoots, asparagus and tomatoes from other parts of Tohoku. Orkin also plans to participate in the caravan program.

“It’s been so nice to be a part of this,” he said. “When you’re a cook, cooking is easy. If you can do it to raise money for a good cause, it’s a real pleasure.”

The Soul of Japan is looking for chefs and kitchen staff to volunteer for its Kitchen Caravan program from mid-July to the end of August. Participants need experience working in a restaurant kitchen and Japanese language ability.

To apply or make a donation, visit their website at www.soulofjapan.org.