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Let’s not forget the sake at world food events

by Melinda Joe

On the afternoon of April 28, at an intimate gathering in London’s Ametsa restaurant, a cluster of admirers with champagne flutes in hand fluttered around chef Helena Rizzo. The Brazilian Rizzo, who helms the acclaimed restaurant Mani in Sao Paulo, had recently been named the World’s Best Female Chef, and the international guests, who had convened in London for the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurant award ceremony, had come to congratulate her before the gala that evening. As trays bearing crispy scorpion-fish cakes and chorizo sandwiches floated around the room, a representative from Champagne house Veuve Clicquot, which sponsors the awards, announced the planting of a herb garden in Reims, France, to commemorate the winners. Rizzo will be the first recipient to select herbs that reflect her style of cuisine and her native country, Brazil, for the new garden.

The days leading up to the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards are filled with convivial celebrations. It’s a busy time for many in the food and beverage business, who travel from around the globe to attend. While the ceremony is the main draw (this year, Copenhagen restaurant Noma regained the No. 1 position), the entire week functions as a culinary-themed World’s Fair in miniature.

On the previous day, I’d stopped by Lima, the Michelin-starred restaurant led by Virgilio Martinez, where Martinez and his compatriot, Mitsuharu Tsumura, of Maido in Peru, had prepared a special lunch. The meal highlighted local ingredients and the country’s unique Nikkei cuisine, which fuses Japanese and Peruvian flavors. Prior to the party for Rizzo, I’d attended an event at the Italian Cultural Institute hosted by San Pellegrino, one of the backers of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant program, which showcased an array of Italian products such as artisanal cheese, charcuterie and olive oil. As I nibbled my way through half a platter of delicately perfumed lardo cured pork fat, I couldn’t help thinking of sake — or rather, the sake industry’s lack of presence during the festivities in London.

A lot of thought and discussion have been devoted to the topic of promoting sake abroad, but marketing remains a weak point for the industry. Although the government has recently made efforts to boost the drink’s profile overseas, the activities appear to be largely limited to serving sake at Japanese embassy functions and Japanese food events. While these activities are important, they do little in the way of reaching new audiences and showing how sake can be appreciated outside of the context of Japanese cuisine.

The situation may be changing, though. During the 2012 Olympics, a group of sake producers successfully collaborated with soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata to open a sake bar for two weeks in London. Next year, sake will be a feature of the Japan pavilion at the Milano Expo, a global event that runs for six months beginning in May 2015. Perhaps brewers should consider producing another sake pop-up bar during the next World’s 50 Best event. Why wait for the Olympics?

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.

  • Charlie Sommers

    Sake is by far my beverage of choice with many foods. Almost anywhere that white wine is good sake is equally tasty.