New York chefs taste authentic Japanese cuisine

by Yukari Pratt

Top New York chefs were given a rare treat recently when master chefs from Kyoto traveled to the Big Apple to give a master class.

The exchange was organized by the Japanese Culinary Forum on Oct. 21 and 22. Representing Japan was the Tsuji Culinary Institute and the Japanese Culinary Academy, which has established the goal of setting a global standard for Japanese cuisine around the world.

The exchange comes at a time of surging global interest in Japanese food, but criticism from the Japanese government and industry about the lack of authenticity of restaurants in the U.S. The challenge is that there has never been any organized, systematic instruction in English, as one would find with French cuisine.

“I learned so much about classic and contemporary Japanese cuisine (at the forum), and felt lucky to be in the same room as so many distinguished chefs,” said Salma Abdelnour, travel editor of Food & Wine magazine, who recently returned to New York from a trip to Tokyo. “I was especially fascinated by the panel discussion on the ways in which Japanese and American chefs are influencing each other — and what this exchange of ideas will ultimately mean for the future of both cuisines.”

Professor Koichiro Hata of the Tsuji Culinary Institute outlined the geographic and historical background of Japanese cuisine, its characteristics, including kisetsu (seasonality), represented in ingredients and tableware, the inclusion of five colors to satisfy the body as well as the eye, and eating with the five senses.

Chef Shigeo Araki of Uosaburo, whose family has been cooking professionally for nine generations, demonstrated the versatility of tofu, both as hirozu (deep-fried tofu with chopped vegetables) and dolloped into a Western dish of chilled tomato soup.

Masahiro Kurisu of the restaurant Tankuma Kitamise cooked duck in a modern style, using a low heat with the meat in a vacuum-packed marinating bag.

Chef Yoshio Maruyama of Gion Maruyama captivated the audience with his presentation of the essence of Japanese cuisine demonstrated through cooking rice. Maruyama’s philosophy is to consider the life that is found in each grain of rice, how it must be brought back to life by soaking it in water, and the importance of its cooking vessel. The quintessential expression of maternal love in Japan can be found in assembling musubi rice balls simply flavored with salt.

“The connection they all (Japanese chefs) have with the understanding of nature is truly inspiring,” said chef Matthias Merges, of Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant. “There are so many parallels between the ideals of wabi-sabi (embracing the imperfection of nature) and the way organic, biodynamic and seasonal cuisine is viewed here in America and throughout the world.”

A demonstration lunch allowed attendees to watch as their food was prepared for them. Kuniyasu Sasaki of Izuu, a seventh-generation chef, demonstrated sabazushi (mackerel and kelp sushi) that his family has been making for 220 years.

Other chefs who gave presentations included Hiroaki Yamagishi of the restaurant Ginsui, Tetsuo Takenaka of Seiwaso, Tadayasu Yoshida of Yaochu Bekkan, Yoji Satake of Minokichi and Terumune Ishikawa of Tenki. The only non-Kyoto restaurateur was Kimio Nonaga of Nihonbashi Yukari, Tokyo.

The hosts of the program, Yoshiki Tsuji and Dorothy Hamilton, believe that the American chefs received unprecedented exposure to Japanese cuisine, and that their curiosity was piqued.

Tsuji, president of the Tsuji Culinary Institute, said, “The deeper one comprehends a culture, the deeper one would appreciate the food, whether it be evolutionary or traditional.”

Hamilton, CEO and founder of the International Culinary Center, said, “Not only did it open our eyes to the sophistication and nuance of Japanese cuisine but we learned how inextricable the culture and history of the country was to the development of the national diet.”

The curiosity for Japanese cuisine in the U.S. is palpable. The Japanese Culinary Academy has a captive audience, and this first event of its kind in America has started the dialogue and exchange of information.

The forum has set the stage for reaching a global standard for Japanese cuisine. The U.S. chefs could get a true taste for Japanese food and start a dialogue with their foreign peers, and the signs are positive that chefs in America are yearning to learn more about the techniques, ingredients and presentation of Japanese food. And with that, the cuisine can only become more authentic.