This is an era of gastronomic collaboration. Chefs fly from one continent to another, swapping kitchens, recipes and sometimes even their homes. But rarely does this restless cross-fertilization of ideas and techniques involve the world of washoku, Japan’s traditional cuisine.
That is why it was a major coup when three of Tokyo’s top chefs arrived in Barcelona early last month. They were there to prepare a series of dinners in the city and, later on, in Ibiza — the first events of this kind to be held in Spain, or indeed anywhere in Europe.
For Tokyo gourmets, none of the three need any introduction. They are among the very best in their categories: Sushi maestro Takaaki Sugita, whose eponymous restaurant in Nihonbashi is revered by local connoisseurs of Edo-style sushi; yakitori supremo Yoshiteru Ikegawa of the revered restaurant Torishiki; and Kentaro Nakahara, whose mastery of wagyū beef has made his Sumibiyakiniku grill a place of pilgrimage for visiting epicureans.
Ikegawa and Nakahara have worked together before on a couple of occasions and there is an obvious overlap between the way they both cook with meat and fire. But Sugita is the odd man out. His expertise revolves around fish and water.
Sushi chefs rarely stray from behind their chopping boards, least of all outside Japan, where they are removed from their assured supply of premium seafood. And sharing the spotlight with other genres like this would be unheard of in Japan.
It was not these three who arranged this trip, nor was it a cultural exchange dreamed up by some corporate or government body. The person behind this unprecedented event is a former supermodel from Lithuania, Aiste Miseviciute, who is famous among foodies around the world thanks to her blog, Luxeat.
As she likes to explain, her aim is to bring together two of the most important parts of her life: a love of Japanese food, born out of repeated visits over 20 years to Tokyo’s finest restaurants; and Spain, the country that has long been one of her main bases.
Miseviciute’s idea was to bring over her three favorite chefs and let them loose on Spanish seafood and produce, which is some of the finest in Europe. So she popped the question. Amazingly, they all agreed to close their restaurants for the best part of two weeks and venture far outside of their comfort zones.
Their very first morning sees them at La Boqueria, the legendary market that sits in the heart of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter. At 8 a.m., there are still few tourists, so the gaggle of Japanese — chefs, assistants, spouses, photographers and assorted hangers-on — can take their time inspecting the glistening arrays of fish, the mounds of vegetables and fruit, the snails, nuts and fungi.
It looks colorful, exotic, impressive. But Sugita for one is underwhelmed by the seafood. Spain boasts an ancient tradition of tuna fishing in the Mediterranean. It also has a very recent sushi boom. His eye is caught by the dark red tuna meat and slabs of toro, the marbled flesh from the underbelly of the huge fish.
But it has not been cut with the kind of precision he is used to. And the way it’s been handled and stored does not compare to the pristine conditions at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. Asked for his assessment, Sugita merely says there are a few sections from the very middle of each slab that he might use in a pinch.
That moment arrives sooner than he probably imagined. By early afternoon he is standing in the garden of Barcelona’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, alongside the other two. All are dressed in spotless whites for their news conference. But once the introductions and speeches are over, it is Sugita who is pressed into action.
Working on a trestle table, with only a thin layer of canvas protecting him from the heat of the sun, he transforms a large chunk of prime tuna into bite-sized morsels of sushi. It may well be the best nigiri ever served in the city, and probably the finest ever tasted by the assembled dignitaries and press representatives.
Sugita is far from satisfied — how can the rice be perfect in these temperatures? But he works with unflappable calm, as though he were back home. It will not be the last time he and the others are under pressure on this groundbreaking trip.
The venue for the first of the dinners is Pakta, whose owner is Albert Adria, the highest-profile chef in the city. Like all the events it is sold out, with guests flying in from around the world to join the gastronomic glitterati of Barcelona — chief among them Adria’s brother, Ferran, of El Bulli fame.
For all of them, it was likely one of the most memorable dinners of the year.
This is the first of a two-part feature detailing the trip of three Japanese chefs to Spain. The second half will appear in next week’s Food pages.