Apprentice Danish chef gets taste of Japan

Embassy's 'food ambassador' opens up new perspectives with exchange program for young trainees in culinary arts

by May Masangkay

Kyodo News

When Philip von Arenstorff, a young Dane training to be a chef, set foot in Japan for the first time this month, he had only a vague idea of the country’s food culture.

But after a weeklong visit to Tokyo and its vicinity, the 18-year-old was better able to assess Japan’s diverse contribution to global gastronomy, including sushi and other healthy foods.

Von Arenstorff is the first apprentice to take part in a privately sponsored exchange program for trainee chefs between Japan and Denmark.

Niels Frederik Walther, chef at the Danish Embassy in Tokyo and fondly touted as Denmark’s “food ambassador,” is the brains behind the exchange.

He said he wants the program to bring out creativity and leadership skills in aspiring chefs.

“The chefs are still in training, and that is the whole idea — to give these young chefs the possibility to see other ways of doing things in a kitchen before graduation,” Walther said.

“I am sure this will have a great impact on their further choices in the line of cooking,” said the 47-year-old Walther.

He hopes to keep the initiative going and see it eventually evolve into a government-sponsored program.

Having secured the support of the Danish Embassy and the Japanese Embassy in Copenhagen, the program will see a Japanese trainee chef go to Denmark in October.

Walther said he chose von Arenstorff to kick off the program because of what he sees as the teenager’s “potential” for ingenuity and leadership. At home, von Arenstorff is an apprentice at Soelleroed Kro, a 332-year-old restaurant north of Copenhagen that has been awarded a Michelin star.

Von Arenstorff, recounting his itinerary that included visiting the kitchens of the renowned Restaurant Nobu in Tokyo and the Kamogawa Grand Hotel in Chiba Prefecture, said his trips to Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market and Kappabashi “kitchen town” made a deep impression.

“I’ve seen the fish market (and) there’s a lot more variety of fish here than in Denmark. You can get everything you want, all things fresh,” he said, noting that his home country has no equivalent of the Tsukiji market, only supermarkets.

“All our good fish is sold for export to Japan and France because they are good fish,” he said. “In Denmark, we only eat the bad (fish) because it’s cheaper so that’s a big, big difference.”

On his experience in the Kappabashi shopping street, filled with stores selling dishes, cooking utensils and all kinds of items needed by restaurants, von Arenstorff was impressed by the quality of Japanese knives.

“For example, I’m left-handed. In Denmark you only have one kind of knife, but here it comes as a surprise that there is a special knife for me,” he said of finding a knife in Kappabashi designed for lefties.

Other than sushi, “soba” also caught the fancy of the apprentice chef, whose home country is known for its “Smorrebrod” open sandwiches, “Wienerbrod” pastries and “Stegt flaesk” fried pork slices.

“It’s very simple, but there’s a lot more taste than you expect . . . I like that form of cooking,” he said of the buckwheat noodles, adding he found them tasty even with minimal use of ingredients.

He also discovered that Japan’s idea of fast food is not limited to hamburgers and pizzas, as consumers have a variety of choice that includes nutritious fast food, an apparent reference to “bento” boxed lunches.

Von Arenstorff said chefs in Japan go out and select ingredients themselves — a practice which he says suits him — whereas back home they order them over the phone.

He also praised the way cooking is done in a Japanese kitchen with a “lot of control,” with everyone knowing what to do.

“Most of the time (Japanese in the kitchen) don’t say a thing and do exactly what they are supposed to do, while in Denmark there’s a lot of shouting,” he said.

If he gets the chance, von Arenstorff said he wants to come back to Japan and experience other cuisines around the world as well.

“I don’t know what I want now, but I definitely want to go to (more) foreign (places) like Japan, to try and see different places, and experience many cultures and different kitchens,” said von Arenstorff, who has completed three years of his four-year training regimen.

Eager to go back to Denmark and make use of “the best of both worlds” in Japanese and Danish cooking, he said, “I think if you only stay in one place, you only learn that kind of cooking.”