People did some funny things during the bubble economy. An insurance firm paid $80 million for an incredibly ugly painting by van Gogh; other companies paid equally stupid sums for New York’s Rockefeller Center and California’s Pebble Beach golf course; Louis Vuitton’s vastly overpriced handbags became de rigueur among young Japanese women with more money than taste; and Verdy Kawasaki paid a useless soccer player named Tsuyoshi Kitazawa 70 million yen a year.
At a time when Japanese people were willing to pay funny money to eat badFrench food, Jane Best-Cooke and her husband, Steve, opened an English restaurant called 1066 in Tokyo. It seemed to make sense to no one except a few strange Englishmen such as myself.
No one ridiculed the restaurant once they had been there, though. Best-Cooke was no amateur caterer, and she armed herself with a vast repertoire of dishes, some well-known, some not, that enticed people down to NakaMeguro and even convinced some to come back for more.
More than that, Best-Cooke appeared frequently on television to persuade suspicious Japanese housewives that British food was edible, and she has been in demand to cater parties and events for the likes of the Rolling Stones, the British Embassy and Tokyo’s Highland Games.
In fact, such is the demand for Best-Cooke’s outside catering services that she decided to close 1066 down just after Christmas to concentrate on that side of the business.
“After 12 years, it’s probably long enough for a restaurant that really can’t reinvent itself,” she explains. “The restaurant was holding its own, but business wasn’t increasing so we decided to concentrate on the side of the business that was expanding. There’s been a lot of demand for outside catering.”
In fact, her first big gig was the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels Tour 10 years ago.
“The Tokyo Dome rang me up and asked, ‘Can you do shepherd’s pie?’ Then they asked us to do it backstage for 80 people,” she recalls.
The restaurant and its owner flew the flag for British food in the face of considerable opposition. Japanese — including many who haven’t even been to Britain — often think that British food is terrible, but around 70 percent of the customers at 1066 were Japanese and many were repeat customers.
“Many people believe what they read, and there’s still a certain amount of disinformation about what the British eat and how we eat it,” Best-Cooke explains.
Initially, Best-Cooke changed the menu daily from a repertoire of over 200 dishes. However, as she learned from customer reaction, the menu was trimmed down.
“There is a huge variety of British dishes, and a great deal of balance in flavors, nutritional value and texture,” Best-Cooke emphasized. “The saddest part of running the restaurant was that I wasn’t always able to show the variety. Many people were just looking for the staples.”
Roast beef, fish and chips and shepherd’s pie proved the most popular and all have their place, but Best-Cooke did throw in some delicious surprises such as haggis, pheasant and Christmas pudding. Of course, the Japanese didn’t always get it right and Best-Cooke tried her best to guide her customers in the ways of English cuisine.
“Somebody once wanted to have cake before his main course and I told him, ‘No,’ ” she admits, although she did accede to one customer who insisted on having Yorkshire pudding with his fish.
“Perhaps the funniest thing was a day when we had rabbit on the menu,” Best-Cooke relates. “A group came in and talked animatedly about the menu, before eating their meal and leaving. As they left, I noticed they were members of the Peter Rabbit Fan Club.”
Best-Cooke is pleased that she has been able to dispel a few myths about British food, myths that often originate close to home.
“The restaurant scene [in Britain] is 100 percent better than it was 20 years ago,” Best-Cooke adds. “And it’s doing good business.
“There are still negative opinions out there, but a lot less than previously,” she notes. “I’m grateful to those people who appreciated us, both foreign and Japanese, who kept coming for 12 years. Many left the restaurant having enjoyed the food when they thought it would be bad.
“I think now there is a better understanding of what British food is.”