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Why it matters where our food comes from

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

The latest trend in fine dining has nothing to do with molecular gastronomy or pan-Latin fusion: Sustainability is the new order of the day. At the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony in London last month, the organizers presented their first Sustainable Restaurant Award to Narisawa, helmed by Tokyo chef Yoshihiro Narisawa.

“In the kitchen, I will keep trying to use our traditional food products — rice, soy beans, Japanese fermented foods — and bring those to the fine-dining scene,” Narisawa commented after the ceremony.

The award, audited by the British-based Sustainable Restaurant Association (whose president is star chef Raymond Blanc), coincides with the launch of its global sustainability rating system. A nonprofit organization established in 2010, the SRA determines ratings by first checking whether ingredients are organically and ethically produced, and sourced locally. It also considers the restaurant’s waste- and water-management strategies, as well as its charitable contributions to the community.

What had impressed the committee the most, SRA representative Tom Tanner told me, was the care with which Narisawa selects his suppliers. I wasn’t surprised. On my first visit to Narisawa, a few years ago, the chef served ayu (sweetfish) from Gifu Prefecture baked in a salt shell, and then showed me photos of his children swimming in the stream where the fish had been caught. The Narisawa family has had a relationship with the fishermen there for years.

Two other eateries in Tokyo, Botanica and Iconic, have agreed to be evaluated, and the SRA is working to get top restaurants such as Ryugin and Quintessence on board. “We hope that Narisawa winning the Sustainable Restaurant Award will encourage other Japanese restaurants to put their credentials to the test,” Tanner said.

It’s a laudable aim, but while the idea of sustainability in the restaurant industry has been gaining momentum abroad, the movement has been comparatively sluggish in Japan. An Internet search for sustainable restaurants in Japanese yields a smattering of places labeled “organic,” “slow food” or “LOHAS” (lifestyles of health and sustainability), but little information regarding sourcing and environmental impact is given.

Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of “Japanese Farm Food,” casts doubt on some establishments that claim to be ecologically minded. A sustainable restaurant, she says, sources its meat and fish with thoughtfulness, uses seasonal products from local farms and engages the local community.

“More accountability is needed,” she notes. “If they’re cooking with vegetables that cross over several seasons, or using things that are not grown in Japan, it’s not slow food.”

Understanding the seasons and knowing “where ingredients come from,” she says, is the key. Although seasonality is thought to be the cornerstone of Japanese cuisine, Hachisu points out that “the idea of seasonality is something that’s often said but not actually practiced.”

Another part of the problem is a lack of awareness among consumers about the value of sustainable practices such as organic agriculture and free-range, nonfactory-farm meat production. “Most people can’t taste the difference between organic produce and nonorganic produce,” says chef and restaurant consultant Ema Koeda. “They think it’s expensive and difficult.”

Taste, however, is not the only reason to support these practices. “People don’t realize what can happen if we don’t become sustainable,” Koeda warns. In a country where the food self-sufficiency ratio hovers around 41 percent, the issue of food security is a real concern. In recent years, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has been trying to encourage people to appreciate Japanese products and minimize food waste, which it estimates to reach a staggering ¥11 trillion yearly. To this end, the ministry has produced a series of videos — including an animated clip outlining the disturbing facts about food security, incongruously set to peppy electro-pop (youtu.be/ok3ykR2GHCc) — but it is unclear how effective the campaign has been.

Restaurants, says chef Hajime Yoneda, have an important role to play in raising consciousness. “It is the responsibility of those in the food-service industry to set an example and spread the word about sustainability issues,” he says.

At Hajime, his two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Osaka, Yoneda not only informs guests about the exact provenance of his ingredients, he tries to educate them about ecology through food. Chikyu (Earth), one of his most famous concept-driven dishes, artfully juxtaposes clams from pristine waters off Kyushu Prefecture with dozens of vegetables to illustrate the relationship between ocean and forest.

The earthier, mid-range restaurant Roppongi Nouen in Tokyo takes a more literal approach. In the courtyard, pots of tomatoes grow, and bitter-melon vines crawl up a green curtain. A patch of dirt is devoted to a small rice field planted by neighborhood residents. Every couple of months, the restaurant invites producers to give lectures about farming and allow guests to sample their wares.

“The point,” explains representative Yuichi Sakaguchi, “is to bring nature to the city, and to show people about life in the country.”

Apparently Tokyo’s urbanites like what they see: The restaurant is set to open a new branch this year, meaning yet another venue where you can eat with a clear conscience.

www.thesra.org; www.narisawa-yoshihiro.com; www.nancysingletonhachisu.com; www.ema-koeda.net; www.hajime-artistes.com; www.roppongi-nouen.jp

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    So, you’re against the TPP, then, right?

    • Robert_in_Japan

      Why should the writer be concerned with American agribusiness men who have no ethics and morality?

      • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

        Why should American agribusiness men “have ethics or morality” when there is no consistent protection of property rights offered by governments?

        People will take what they can get under such conditions where the rules of the game constantly change via tariffs, subsidies, regulations and nationalization. There shouldn’t be any expectation of morality when the playing field itself is rigged to encourage coercive behavior. It’s expected. So blaming and shaming won’t change anything.

        If you want morality in economics, you have stop subsidizing moral hazards. If there’s no consistent respect and definition for where property rights begin and end, these problems spread.

        The fact that there’s arguably worse food quality in America doesn’t mean that what is in Japan is desirable either. The choice should not be
        between two terrible alternatives. The solution is not for the state to do more, it’s for it to look at how what they have already done has encouraged the results that they claim to malign.

  • Ol’ Cuss

    Why no mention of radiation? I think they try to avoid this issue in Japan. Surely radiation in food poses more danger than anything else!?