Males fancy being veggie, fruit ‘sommeliers’

by May Masangkay

Kyodo News

Gone are the days when women were the most health-conscious consumer group because the fascination with vegetables and fruit is now catching the eye of Japanese men increasingly keen to learn more about these rich sources of nutrients.

The domestic media have coined the term “vegetable and fruit sommelier” for a person with expertise in such products. These people help general consumers understand the intricacies of selection, storage, preparation and nutritional value.

Until recently, the experts were mainly women, but the recent emergence of popular comedian Atsushi Tamura as a vegetable sommelier has highlighted the growing popularity of this new accreditation among men.

Tamura, who spoke about his passion for vegetables on a TV show in late November, is just one of several thousand “vegetable and fruit meisters” who have graduated from a program the Japan Vegetable & Fruit Meister Association’s special accreditation program in the past five years.

The Tokyo-based association, which claims that it is the only body in the world to issue an accreditation for vegetable and fruit experts, runs a three-stage program consisting of a basic curriculum on appreciating the benefits of learning about vegetables, and more advanced studies and training for those looking for business opportunities to share their knowledge.

Association data showed that male students totaled 5,859 as of October, up from 1,280 in 2005, when comparable data became available.

Eiji Fukui, the association’s chairman, noted that the number of male aspirants has been rising since the program began in 2001.

“The economic downturn is all the more reason for (food-related) companies to rethink their sales strategy amid sluggish sales, and one solution to this is to train people to be certified vegetable sommeliers,” Fukui told reporters recently.

Tomokazu Nomura, who manages Vegetable Sommelier Store Ef: in Tokyo, became a “junior meister” five years ago after a three-month program that included lectures and an examination.

He now uses his knowledge to help customers, mostly housewives, learn the value of vegetables and encourage children to eat them.

A basic knowledge about the history of vegetables and fruit and what they contain is useful in recommending products according to customer preference, he said.

The 31-year-old vegetable expert said there was no one reason why more and more men are seeking this accreditation.

“It just boils down to the fact that we became interested in knowing more about vegetables and their different tastes,” Nomura said.

But some argue that this would not have been possible years back when women dominated the culinary arts and food-related work.

Rika Kayama, psychiatrist and pundit, said the emergence of male vegetable sommeliers may be “linked to a trend that no longer compartmentalizes the roles of men and women in Japan as more and more men are becoming actively involved in what have been women’s jobs, such as food-related ones.”

Kayama said some men, tired of the toils of corporate life, could see learning about vegetables as having a healing or soothing effect, while others may look at it as a new business opportunity free from the stress and competition of the corporate environment.

Nomura said studying a vegetable or fruit is difficult since one has to know the item’s profile, such as when to plant and harvest and how to maximize taste, but that he finds gratification in the research and in sharing his knowledge.

Association officials are now eyeing replicating this success in South Korea. The association has launched its first vegetable sommelier curriculum in Korean, buoyed by demand from South Korean graduates who took up the accreditation program in Japan.

“Ultimately, among what we want to achieve is a society in which people enjoy eating food, including vegetables,” Fukui said. “And the role of vegetable sommeliers is vital here.”