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Think caviar but brace for caveat

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

In one of the most memorable scenes of the late, and sorely missed, Juzo Itami’s classic 1985 film “Tampopo” (“Dandelion”), Japanese businessmen enter a French restaurant. Confused by the exotic items on the menu, the elderly members of the party stick to what they know: sole meuniere, consomme soup and Heineken beer.

The youngest member of the group, however, breaks the harmony by ordering quenelle, Boudin-style, like they serve it at the Taillevent restaurant in Paris, escargot wrapped in pastry with a fond de veau sauce, and an apple and walnut salad. The waiter is thrilled somebody in the room truly knows fine food, while his older colleagues fume with anger and embarrassment.

Nearly three decades later, that scene looks less like a parody of high-end diners ignorant of gourmet food and more, as the recent food misrepresentation scandal shows, as a prescient profile of today’s finicky foodie who reads the menu carefully and knows which South African wine goes best with the Kobe beef or Okinawan pork.

The revelation in October that eight hotels belonging to the Hankyu Hanshin group in Osaka, as well as the Ritz Carlton Osaka, had mislabeled about 50 food items on the menus of nearly two dozen restaurants and banquet halls turned out to be the tip of a very large iceberg.

To date, in addition to Osaka-area hotel restaurants, a Tokyo Disneyland hotel and the Hyatt Regency Tokyo are just two of the many prominent names that have gotten caught up in the scandal.

While the president of Hankyu Hanshin Hotels resigned to take responsibility for, among other things, claiming frozen fish as fresh and regular onions as a famed Kyoto variety, it was the Ritz Carlton Osaka’s president who created outrage when he said he originally thought there was no reason to announce one of the restaurants in his hotel was doing such things as using a different kind of shrimp than the one on the menu.

Talentless “tarento” expressed shock that the famed Ritz was putting on its customers. Reporters scrutinized leather-bound menus of other Michelin-starred restaurants with a fine-toothed comb for lies, distortions, omissions and exaggerations. Suddenly, everybody was a food critic.

Upscale Tokyo pundits assigned blame to the usual suspects — a sensationalist media, a few greedy corporations, and poor quality control by the line cooks. One restaurant industry source, speaking to the Asahi Shimbun, blamed the problem at the Ritz on a translation error.

In Osaka, however, talk centered on the traditionally tightfisted, bargain-hunter culture of the natives toward spending money in a manner Tokyoites considered normal, even proper. The cost of living is 15 to 20 percent cheaper in Osaka than in Tokyo. Historically, Osakans, no matter their income level, have always been vocal in their demands for the lowest possible price for everything, especially in the service industry, regardless if certain sectors of it may be considered “high-end” elsewhere.

This means even highly respected Osaka restaurants and hotels must go to extraordinary lengths to trim costs. Combine that with weak consumer protection laws and a hesitancy to question the waiter’s recommendation and you have an atmosphere ripe for abuse by those writing today’s specials on the chalkboard— at least until somebody in the know complains, is rebuffed by management and decides to blow the whistle.

The young protagonist in “Tampopo” may have been showing off. But he instinctively understood the ancient concept of caveat emptor. As the food labeling scandal shows, today’s customers need to also heed the term’s gourmet cousin, which might be rendered as “caviar emptor.”