PARIS – Arriving in France with a suitcase full of smoked chicken and wasabi from Fukushima Prefecture, chef Harutomo Hagi was a man on a mission.
Armed with a sheaf of test certificates vouching for the safety of the produce in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns, the chef was in Paris to show the world what Fukushima has to offer.
“Even when they smiled, the farmers were sad,” Hagi, 37, said, explaining that products from the area had become tainted in the eyes of consumers and were being sold at half the price they fetched before the disaster.
The situation was so bad, he said, that he thought “it was all over.”
Large swaths of the area were evacuated after the earthquake and tsunami two years ago triggered the man-made calamity at the Fukushima No. 1 power station.
Three of the plant’s six reactors went into meltdown and spread radiation over several prefectures and the ocean.
For months afterward, Hagi’s restaurant in the city of Iwaki, around 30 km from the power plant, was deserted as people feared everything in the region had been contaminated.
Many fled this key agricultural area, which now has the highest proportion of fallow land in Japan. But Hagi opted not to join the exodus.
On the contrary, he decided that not only would he stay, but that he would cook with products exclusively from the region.
The publicity generated by his initiative turned around the fortunes of his own restaurant, and now the chef is determined to do what he can to help others revive their livelihoods, too.
And so, over the past month, the chef has found himself in the kitchens of the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris and the royal residence of Prince Albert in Monaco.
Invited to Europe by the Club des Chefs des Chefs — whose elite membership comprises the current personal chefs of heads of state — Hagi spent two weeks at the Elysee, followed by a stint in Monaco.
He met both President Francois Hollande and Prince Albert, and served up Japanese dishes using European produce.
In Paris, he also cooked with chef Thierry Marx at Sur Mesure, a restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel that holds two Michelin stars.
The chef speaks with pride of Fukushima’s “baby peaches, tiny and sweet” and the smoked chicken from the region that he brought with him.
“I was very moved to come to France with this chicken,” he said, adding that Paris is important because it’s one of the gastronomic capitals of the world.
Gilles Bragard of the Club des Chefs des Chefs said the visit would help lift the spirits of restaurateurs and farmers in Fukushima.
Although most of Fukushima Prefecture was unaffected by the crisis, produce prices have plunged and people are still shunning food with Fukushima labels.
“If the French eat these products, the Japanese can regain confidence and buy them again,” Bragard said.
Hagi, who has just returned to Japan, was an “ambassador for the products of Fukushima. . . . It has become his crusade,” Bragard added.
The visit also served as a welcome boost to Hagi’s own morale.
“All these chefs gave me the courage to continue. I feel reinvigorated,” he said.
“We must motivate people to continue rebuilding Fukushima,” he said.