Japan’s ailing economy may lack the impact it once had on global finance, but there’s one area of influence where the country’s significance is on the rise: the world of gastronomy. Earlier this month, a team of 39 top-tier Japanese chefs wowed an international audience with dazzling displays of technique and artful presentation at the Culinary Institute of America’s annual Worlds of Flavor conference in Napa Valley, California.
Widely recognized as North America’s most influential professional forum on world cuisines and flavor trends, the event, now in its 13th year, has highlighted broader geographical regions in the past. This year’s conference is only the second time that the institute has focused on a single country. Although the majority of attendees traveled from within the United States, the event also attracted industry professionals from Britain, Australia, South Korea and South Africa.
The conference featured Michelin-starred Japanese master chefs from across Japan — such as Kunio Tokuoka of Kitcho, Yoshihiro Murata of Kikunoi and Yousuke Imada of Kyubei — alongside U.S. celebrity chefs David Chang of Momofuku and New-York-based Masaharu Morimoto of “Iron Chef” fame. Over the course of three days, 90 Japanese and American chefs and industry experts delivered presentations on cooking styles ranging from kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) to casual foods such as ramen and soba, and covered topics as diverse as the umami taste, health issues, and cultural exchange between Japan, Europe and the Americas.
Recently, Japanese food has been enjoying unprecedented popularity around the world. Japanese restaurants abroad now number over 25,000, according to estimates by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of Japanese restaurants doubled in the U.S. alone.
However, Japanese-food educator and author Elizabeth Andoh sees the new wave of interest as part of a continuum, rather than a peak.
“There have been changes and circumstances (since the end of World War II) that have increased the pace or slowed it down; where we are now is the natural result of that flow of time,” she observes.
Andoh — whose latest cookbook, “Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions,” was released in October — has been involved in the industry for nearly four decades and cites the emergence of fusion cuisine in the last 15 years as one of the reasons behind the boom.
“In the mid-90s, fusion was the word,” she explains. “It was a source of inspiration and stimulation, and this is a culmination of that period of interest.”
Japanese cuisine’s influence on fine dining can be seen everywhere from the development of the “tasting menu” — which presents a multicourse succession of smaller dishes, rather than the standard format of an appetizer course, followed by a main dish and a dessert — to the shift from tableside service to the intricate, decorative plating of individual dishes. But the effect of Japanese culture on the food service industry has not been limited to high cuisine. As dishes such as sushi and ramen continue to infiltrate the mainstream, and Japanese flavors and ingredients make their way onto menus of other kinds of restaurants, Japan will wield greater influence on global food trends in the future.
“Japan is going to be the culinary center of the world,” says David Chang. “It’s partly due to their work ethic and the fact that no one else looks at food the way (the Japanese) do, but it’s also because they go abroad to bring back ideas and make them better.”
Meanwhile, in Japan, more chefs are starting to experiment with a fusion-style approach to cuisine. Over the centuries, Japanese cooking has absorbed ingredients and techniques from abroad, but industry professionals predict that foreign influences will begin appearing in Japanese food with increased frequency.
“There are very few unchartered waters left in cuisine, and the biggest area to learn from is the merging of East and West,” observes Japanese-American chef Jeff Ramsey of the Tokyo restaurant Tapas Molecular Bar.
At the Worlds of Flavor conference, Kyoto-based chef Masayasu Yonemura demonstrated a dish of seared foie gras atop a bed of fluffy fu (wheat gluten), dipped in egg and cooked in the style of French toast, served with a mound of blanched shungiku (chrysanthemum leaves) in sesame paste. Yonemura is among a growing number of Japanese chefs known for combining classical French techniques with Japanese ingredients and culinary aesthetics.
Even chefs working within traditional genres see the changes in the Japanese food scene as a good thing.
“It’s important for cuisine to evolve,” says Daisuke Nomura, chef and third-generation owner the shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) restaurant Daigo in Tokyo. “A lot of people don’t have the courage to do radical things, but I’m glad to see some people taking the lead. Whenever people do new things, it takes time to become accepted.”
Japan’s rise to culinary prominence is sure to bring new challenges, as well as opportunities, to those working in the industry.
“It could lead to more competition to represent Japan abroad, which could be positive or negative,” Andoh notes. “It will make people more aware of the necessity to participate in international events.”
The fact that the Worlds of Flavor conference assembled the largest number of Japanese chefs in history was significant in itself, as Japanese chefs are known to be notoriously cliquish and reluctant to share the secrets of their craft.
“In some ways, this was only possible because the event was held in the U.S. You’d never see this collection of talent together in Japan,” Ramsey remarks. “All of the chefs loosened up and gelled together.”
While it’s still too soon to tell if the experience of working together at one conference will have any lasting effect, Ramsey and others hope to see greater cooperation and communication within the industry in the future.
“That openness is still not quite there for Japanese chefs,” he observes. “But the sharing of information and spirit of camaraderie among chefs in countries such as Spain is what made their cuisine develop so rapidly.”