In December 2013, when UNESCO formally recognized washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) as part of the World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, the reaction here was mixed.
On the one hand there was jubilation and national pride. On the other, dismay that the world at large knew so little about Japan’s food culture apart from sushi. Clearly something had to be done.
As a first step, the government sponsored a major symposium in Kyoto last month called Washoku-do. It brought together some of Japan’s most revered chefs, including Yoshihiro Murata, of the Kyoto kaiseki (multicourse) restaurant Kikunoi, and Toru Okuda, who runs two Michelin-starred Japanese restaurants in Tokyo, and also one in Paris.
Several top French chefs were also invited, among them Alain Ducasse. The celebrated super-chef, who runs more than 20 restaurants and inns on three continents, was one of the judges in the World Washoku Challenge, a cooking competition for non-Japanese chefs.
He spoke to The Japan Times about Japanese cuisine and the challenges ahead.
Why is Alain Ducasse spreading the word about washoku? What is your own personal interest in this project by the Japanese government?
It is a really good thing for us to share techniques and information. French cuisine is French; Japanese cuisine is Japanese. But there are still many aspects in common: a shared interest in food, in ingredients.
I was invited to come here and help with the promotion of the first washoku symposium, and it has been a good opportunity to meet many people and make exchanges to bring back to France.
French people, like Japanese, have no qualms about paying very high prices for haute cuisine. Today, many people around the world, wherever there is gastronomy, are ready to pay for cuisine on this level, but 25 or 30 years ago, it was only the French and the Japanese.
Over the years you’ve been to Japan numerous times . . .
More than 120 . . .
What changes have you seen in Japanese cuisine?
Over the past decade, I’ve noticed a growing number of younger washoku chefs with their own identity and they are trying to transmit this through their cooking. They are still strongly based in their traditions and techniques, but they are also adding their own personalities as chefs. That was not the case until quite recently.
In fact, the situation in France used to be similar. French cuisine was codified and chefs were expected to repeat the standard recipes. Then, from the 1970s and ’80s, new chefs began to emerge with their own interpretations, which they added into their cuisine. This movement began in French cuisine some 40 years ago. In Japan, it has only started to occur in the past 10 or 15 years.
What ingredients or aspect of Japanese cuisine do you think will become popular next outside of Japan?
Sushi is a hit because it is seen as a healthy food. It’s low-calorie and affordable. But what will come next? I don’t know. The important thing is not to introduce new kinds of Japanese restaurants, it is to train people to understand the basis of Japanese food, because if the chefs don’t know the fundamentals, they cannot start to add their own personality.
(In the) Washoku Challenge competition . . . half of the participants created their own versions of Japanese cuisine, which were more their own ideas, not based on traditional washoku. It is crystal clear that they need to be trained in the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine; they need to get back to basics. They should start at the starting line, instead of just trying to be creative.
Which countries do you see as most receptive to washoku?
Rather than countries as a whole, the big movement is in major cities, such as London and New York. They are melting pots and people there are ready to listen and discover new cuisines. Paris, too, will follow suit but it will be harder there.
The French are definitely interested in Japanese cuisine but they don’t understand it. They need to have it explained to them: What is Japanese cuisine? Why does it represent such a high level of excellence?
France has its own food customs. It’s a country with a deep tradition and strong food culture, so Japanese chefs really need to explain what they are doing and why they’re doing it. Price is (also) a huge factor. Japanese cuisine is very expensive. For example an evening at Okuda (the top Japanese restaurant in Paris) costs over €300 (¥50,000) for two.
So do you think Japan should be doing more to educate the world about washoku? Do you think this symposium is valuable, in that sense?
It’s a beginning. They have opened the door a little. They have made their decision to spread the word to the world.
After observing and judging the Washoku Challenge cooking contest, do you think the level can improve?
Obviously it must improve. This is only just the start. It is important to launch something, but it’s even more important to carry on with it. That will be the next step for the Japanese government.
These days there are many Japanese chefs working in Paris and other parts of France. Even though they are working totally in French cuisine, do you think they can have some influence in spreading washoku?
The thing is, they don’t have any knowledge of their own cuisine. They can make perfect French cuisine, but they don’t understand their own country. That is very unfortunate. They should become ambassadors for washoku.
Do you yourself have any favorite Japanese foods?
There are so many genres in Japanese cuisine, and every time I visit there is a new discovery, so it’s very hard to say. Besides sushi and tempura, etc., I do love soba. It is very good. And the very best soba is that made by chefs with a strong personality.