The glitterati of the Kansai culinary world gathered at the Nara Prefecture New Public Hall in Kasugano, Nara, on Tuesday to celebrate the launch of the “Michelin Guide Kyoto Osaka Kobe Nara 2012.” In particular they were there to welcome the historical host city’s entry into the exalted company of Michelin-endorsed destinations of merit.
The region’s top chefs, local celebrities, politicians and representatives of the tire maker-turned-arbiter of global culinary taste heard Bernard Delmas, the president of Michelin’s Japan branch, announce: “No longer can anyone say, ‘Nara ni umai mono nashi (Nothing is tasty in Nara).’ “
Delmas was referring to a phrase first coined by novelist Naoya Shiga in his 1938 work “Nara,” which swiftly entered common parlance and has dogged the former capital’s culinary reputation ever since.
Tetsushi Morita, executive secretary at Michelin and head of the guides for Japan, laid that old chestnut swiftly to rest, as he welcomed 15 Nara restaurateurs into the star gourmand fold — affording one, Nobuhiro Yamamura of Wa Yamamura, the coveted three-star status.
A visibly stunned Yamamura told reporters, “It has come totally out of the blue. I didn’t even know that the inspectors had been to my place, let alone that I was about to be awarded this way.”
The shy 58-year-old Yamamura explained how he rose from humble culinary roots to become the first Michelin trois etoiles chef in Nara. His parents ran a truck-stop eatery in his native Kumamoto, and he learned the basics of his trade whilst taking evening classes at Nara’s Wakabane Chori Senmon Gakko cooking school, working by day in the kitchens of famed Nara ryokan Kikusuiro, also honored in the guide.
The softly-spoken master chef initially wanted to be a French-cuisine specialist, before realizing that his metier lay closer to home; and thus he created Wa Yamamura, an intimate 27-seat restaurant in the city’s Shibatsujicho, offering a personalized, informal take on Zen-inspired tea-ceremony cuisine, chakaiseki kuzushi.
“I have to confess to feeling a bit of pressure now,” he said, finally cracking a smile. “I can only hope to keep doing my best, satisfying the customers, hoping that they’ll keep coming back.”
Of the other 14 Nara-based awardees, Junichiro Horie, proprietor of the Italian restaurant I-Lunga, was perhaps the most sanguine. For him this was old hat, having first been acclaimed in 2003 as the first Japanese person to be awarded a Michelin star in Italy, working as chef at Ristorante Pisterna in Acqui Terme, Piedmont.
“I can’t overemphasize how important this is for Nara,” he said. “Now N-A-R-A will be recognizable the world over, and domestically perhaps we will finally be recognized as a destination where adults, not just kids on school trips, can enjoy a pleasurable time. It is really fantastic for the city.”
Then, he paused for a moment to reflect.
“And for me personally? Hmm … One star. It’s a start.”
“The Michelin Guide Kyoto Osaka Kobe Nara 2012″ is on sale now in Japanese and English editions.