French, Italian and Spanish are the most familiar European cuisines in Japan. As for Austrian — well, most people probably don’t even realize that the country famed for “The Sound of Music” is also noted for its venerable and enormously varied fare.
According to chef Shingo Kanda — who last year became the first non-European to be awarded the prestigious title of O sterreichischer Kuchenmeister (Austrian Cooking Master) — what sets the Central European country apart in terms of its menus is down to its illustrious history as the heartland of the Habsburg dynasty.
Through the catholic palates of that family — which ruled Austria and Austria-Hungary from 1278-1918, Spain from 1516-1700 and the Holy Roman Empire from 1438-1806 — Austria came to embrace a unique blend of cookery cultures befitting the heart of an empire that once stretched to territories as diverse as Italy, Poland, Spain, Romania and Slovakia.
“Compared with French cuisine, which is intricate, Austrian is straightforward both in terms of presentation and taste — which I think is more similar to Italian,” Kanda said. “But Austrian dishes are skillfully seasoned with many spices. And then there’s the influence of Hungarian cooking, which uses a lot of paprika. Compared with Hungary’s orange paprikas, though, Austrian ones are redder,” the 30-year-old meister enthusiastically explained during a recent interview with The Japan Times.
Not content to rest on his already considerable laurels, after his upcoming return to home, the Tokyo native succinctly summed up his next goal, saying, “I would like to introduce what ordinary Austrians enjoy as their genuine local dishes to many people in Japan.”
Kanda’s favorite dish is Wiener schnitzel, the lovely breaded and fried veal cutlet that originally hails from Milan in northern Italy. “It is actually my specialty,” Kanda said earnestly, “and I don’t want to be second to anyone as far as Wiener schnitzel is concerned.”
In fact, Wiener schnitzel was the only Austrian dish that Kanda knew before he left Japan for Austria eight years ago. He had learned the recipe at a culinary college he attended before working in the French kitchen of one of Tokyo’s best-known hotels.
“I searched for Austrian cooking books before I left, but there weren’t any,” he said, adding that he compromised with a German home-cooking recipe book that seemed to be the closest he could get — although that, apparently, didn’t help much.
As it turned out, Kanda’s “knowledge” of Wiener schnitzel was not very accurate, either. “When I went to Austria, I was shocked to find out that people there simply ate their schnitzels with lemon, because the recipe I was taught at college decorated it with fried parsley, capers and diced boiled egg yolk and white,” Kanda said.
In fact, Kanda’s life-changing flight to Austria was something that came about almost by chance. It followed a skiing trip his father made almost a decade ago to Innsbruck, in the western Austrian state of Tirol. When he returned, Kanda said that his company-employee father told him excitedly that he had talked to the owner-chef of the restaurant at the renowned hotel where he stayed, and that the man had happily agreed to Kanda studying under him.
Although Kanda leaped at the chance laid on a plate for him by his father, at the time he thought his sojourn amid the Alps would just be for a few months. Even then, he confessed, his goal in going to Europe was to get to France and polish his French-cooking skills.
In the event, Kanda never went to France. His encounters with the locals had changed his mind. “The Austrians were really friendly, and as I worked, ate the same food and spent time together with my colleagues from the kitchen, I was naturally attracted to their culture and cuisine. Then, before I realized it, my desire to go to France had dissolved.”
That’s not to say that living overseas was always easy. Once, Kanda recalled, when he became homesick he was “saved” by an elderly Austrian woman he knew, who prepared for him a delicious beef and vegetable stock soup with knodel (dumplings) in it made of bread, sauteed onions, flour, egg, milk and nutmeg.
“Austrian was a cuisine that Japanese chefs had never come across, and I was determined to learn and bring back the cooking of these warmhearted people to Japan,” he said.
After working in Tirol for three years, Kanda returned to Japan for about a year and worked as a culinary adviser to the Austrian Embassy in Tokyo. Then, he returned to Austria and worked for two years in a celebrated Vienna hotel before — in the fall of 2003 — he applied to take the difficult national Osterreichischer Kuchenmeister examination. It was a bold decision, because the examination can be taken only once in a lifetime after a minimum of seven years’ experience working in Austrian kitchens.
In the days of the Habsburgs, “Kuchenmeister” was a title bestowed on those who were responsible for preparing meals for the imperial family. As Kanda explained, however, today’s Osterreichischer Kuchenmeister system was established by the government in the early 1970s to foster a pool of talented chefs that would maintain the level of Austria’s traditional cuisine and hand down their skills to future generations.
Candidates for this ultimate gastronomic accolade are strictly examined on several fronts comprising not just their cooking abilities, but also their leadership and management skills.
“I knew it was a challenging test,” Kanda said, “but the momentum was there so I didn’t hesitate to try.”
The entire process took eight months. After he passed the initial screening of application documents in September, Kanda and five others proceeded to the next step. This was a series of oral and written examinations and essays on 16 different subjects, including food products and ingredients, nutritional science, hygiene, Austrian food history, both the French and English languages, accounting, management and employee training. Prior to those tests, the candidates had undergone a month of intensive lectures by experts on the subjects to be examined, Kanda said.
Afterward, when the test results were announced in December, the six candidates were down to five, who then moved to the next stage involving five days of examinations of their cooking skills.
Prior to those practical tests in May, Kanda and the others drew lots in January to decide which ingredients they could use. The menu had to be structured to meet a certain budget, and the calories and nutritional balance also had to be calculated, he said.
For one of the tests, however, the ingredients were kept secret until the day it took place. Then, Kanda said, his box contained about 30 to 40 items, among them lamb, white asparagus, potatoes and different kinds of berries. His task was to use them to make a four-course dinner comprising hors d’oeuvre, soup, entree and dessert.
As Kanda recounted, this challenge could have been his undoing, when an aide mistakenly washed out a pan containing the sauce base for his main dish. Despite a flash of fury, Kanda said he somehow managed to stay calm. ” ‘If it’s gone, it’s gone,’ I thought — so I just had to react to that new situation,” he recalled. As Kanda had just fried the lamb, he improvised a sauce by adding liquor to the pan and boiling it down until it thickened.
Having survived such a close shave, and three more days of practical tests, it was with extreme nervous anticipation that Kanda and the other four stood nervously waiting for the judges to deliver their verdict at the end of the final day’s cooking. So it was with unbounded delight — and pride — that Kanda heard that he, along with just one other Austrian chef, had been awarded the honor of upholding Austria’s culinary tradition at the very highest level. In so doing, Kanda became the 352nd Osterreichischer Kuchenmeister — and the first Japanese.
“Having received this title, I feel more responsibility toward not just what I cook, but also for who I am as a person, because I feel that my humanity was also tested,” Kanda said.
Now on course to return to Japan in May, Kanda is currently spending his final few months in Austria gathering traditional local recipes. Then, he said, he will start preparations for opening his own restaurant in Tokyo where he will serve up what will likely be some of the best Austrian food outside of Austria itself.