A word of warning if you are planning to attend Expo Milano 2015: Bring water. The heat is punishing, there’s not enough shade and you’ll be doing a lot of lining up — at the entrance gates, waiting for the shuttle bus, at the food concessions and, as at any theme park, outside the most popular attractions.
Count the Japan pavilion as one of those. By mid-morning a queue has often formed along the pavilion’s outside wall, giving visitors an extended opportunity to scrutinize, close-up, the 3-D crosshatched timber grid that forms the shell of architect Atsushi Kitagawara’s distinctive design.
The wait, rarely less than an hour, is rewarded by one of the most impressive high-tech displays in the whole expo. You pass through a remarkable immersive projection-mapped space that creates the illusion of wading through lotus ponds, then gaze in wonder at a digital waterfall that reveals images and tidbits of information about Japanese food.
There are also banks of displays — interactive, of course — introducing the depth and variety of Japan’s traditional diet with its building blocks of seafood, vegetables, rice and fermented foods. The overall message is that this is a template for the world to learn from — to ensure a healthy, sustainable future, which is very much in line with the lofty aspirations of the entire expo.
Its official theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” is a call to arms and an invocation for the future. Instead of mere self-promotion, participating countries have been invited in the expo’s manifesto to focus on important issues, such as the “right to healthy, secure and sufficient food for all the world’s inhabitants.”
How well does the expo — and Japan in particular — live up to this laudable aim? Walking around the site, there are plenty of thought-provoking ideas, from the Israel pavilion’s vertical field, a sheer wall on which lush expanses of rice, wheat and corn are growing, to the comfortingly horizontal, back-to-the-roots worldview of the slow food movement’s section.
This focus on food at the expo represents a major evolution in thinking. From the start, one of the figures deeply involved with the event is the high-profile Italian chef Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, holds second place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. As he points out, it is remarkable that he, a chef, was invited into the spotlight at an event of this kind, alongside the politicians and celebrities.
Overall, though, the ideas on offer reflect a first-world perspective, and one that dovetails with national and corporate interests. As for Japan, despite the outstanding design and technological expertise on display, real inspiration is in short supply. One person who feels this event represents a missed opportunity for Japan is chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, whose eponymous French restaurant in Tokyo is consistently rated among the best in the world.
“The thinking behind the pavilion is outdated,” he says. “Nothing has changed in 50 years — in fact, it’s little different from Osaka’s Expo ’70. These days all the information about Japanese food is available online. Instead of simplistic messages about sushi, tempura and sukiyaki, we should be introducing the depth and complexity of Japan’s food culture.”
Narisawa’s imagination has been fired up far more by an initiative that is happening on the sidelines of the expo called Refettorio Ambrosiano. It is a conscious effort to reconcile two of the major issues of our time: the vast amounts of food, both raw and cooked, that is thrown away while it is still edible, and the large number of people who are living — and too often dying — in hunger.
This project has been spearheaded by Bottura, as a response to food waste at the expo. He has overseen the refurbishment of a derelict theater in a down-at-heels quarter of Milan into a soup kitchen like no other. The people it feeds are those at the social fringes — the homeless and penniless, refugees and local children from low-income families. But the cooks are some of the most renowned chefs in the world.
On June 4, the opening night, Bottura himself prepared the first meal with a team from his restaurant. Since then, he has enrolled numerous friends and colleagues into volunteering their time and recipes, from France’s multi-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse and Noma’s Rene Redzepi to the personal chefs of both U.S. President Barack Obama and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
The ingredients are delivered each day from a supermarket at the Expo site. It is all food that has been taken off the shelves ahead of its expiry date and will otherwise be destroyed. There is milk and meat, lots of stale bread and plenty of seasonal fruit and vegetables. But each day the mix is different.
Narisawa cooked here on two days in late June. He says it was a remarkable experience and, over a month later, the excitement is still obvious in his voice as he describes the menu he created and the reaction it got.
“I wanted to give my meal a Japanese element,” he says, “so my main dish was a hamburg steak prepared from ground meat and breadcrumbs, topped with a homemade teriyaki sauce.”
“At lunch the guests are elementary schoolchildren,” he recalls. “If they don’t like something, they just leave it. But they did enjoy it — and they really showed it.”
All the chefs’ dishes have been recorded and a cookbook may soon be on the horizon. More importantly, though, the recipes will continue to be used by local volunteer cooks long after Expo Milano has closed and the celebrity names have moved on.
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