KYOTO – Seventeen students from the United States stare at a garden of eggplant. “You can take pictures, just don’t touch anything,” the group’s translator informs them, most of whom are in their early 20s. A minute of silence passes as they gaze at the circular vegetables. Then they pull out their smartphones to snap some shots.
“Wanna get in, bruh,” one student says to another. “For the ‘gram?” (referring to the popular photo sharing site Instagram).
This is day eight of a 10-day visit organized by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), which found students from the New York state-based college traversing Japan to learn about washoku. It feels partially like a field trip garnering great air miles, as all those coming out plan to take a course called “Advanced Cooking: Japanese Cuisine” this fall. During their stay, CIA faculty who accompanied them pepper activities with phrases such as “You’ll be doing this when we get back to Hyde Park.”
“We wanted to expose the students to authentic Japanese cuisine and culture,” says Cathy Jorin, director at CIA’s Food Business School. “We wanted them to see the sense of purpose, the attention to detail, the quality, beauty, flavors, and ingredients and even more — the sensibilities, the focus on seasonality and the overarching theme of hospitality.”
Yet it’s also supported by beverage giant Suntory Holdings, as is the aforementioned class. At a time when Japanese companies and the government eye new ways of spreading the nation’s culture abroad, this partnership between higher learning and the private sector presents one possible path forward — soft power patronage.
“I believe what we and the government should do is give students the chance to understand the core part (of Japanese cuisine),” Suntory CEO Takeshi Niinami says in Odaiba on the first proper day of the program on Aug. 31. “Once they understand that, they can challenge to provide innovative cuisine. I want to feel (a sense of) ‘Wow!’ from these students.”
The CIA students rarely cooked during their week-plus stay, however. Their itinerary found them zooming across the country, starting off in Tokyo for several days before jetting off to Kyushu and proceeding to the heart of Kansai for the last jaunt. Along the way, they were presented with lectures and demonstrations of all corners of Japanese cuisine: Segments of the program zeroed in on sharpening knives, food from Mie Prefecture and how to make the perfect highball. Daily schedules appeared packed. By the time they made it to the eggplant fields just outside Kyoto, the 17 participants looked especially tired. When I talk to one about the trip so far, his only comment is “All of the food has been great.”
“One student told me that he has changed his thinking about his future career as a result of the trip, realizing that there is so much more to experience than what he had previously been exposed to,” Jorin says. “Another student perfectly explained the process of farming bamboo shoots to a friend while a colleague who was on the trip was listening. Even with the packed schedule, the students were soaking up the knowledge imparted to them.”
Japanese food has accomplished what many other aspects of the country’s culture has struggled to do internationally. Films and music, for example, remain niche … but everyone knows about sushi. The country’s cuisine boasts a strong international reputation, with a 2013 government survey revealing the number of Japanese restaurants abroad on the upswing and every month a new culinary item on the verge of global trendiness.
Suntory wants to be the company that helps spreads the intricacies of washoku abroad, and correctly sees the best way to do that by supporting the chefs of tomorrow. Spending three days on the trip, I was reminded most of Red Bull’s various efforts at patronage, especially with electronic music. The energy drink behemoth dips into its funds to support dance music venues and artists, getting its name out there and bolstering its reputation in the process. Suntory’s collaboration with the CIA aims for something similar, with this sponsored trip being their most ambitious effort yet at imprinting Japanese food in the minds of future chefs.
Trailing the students, I saw hints of what does and doesn’t work when promoting washoku to a non-Japanese set. The trip faltered when giving into something many other efforts to share Japanese culture suffer from — telling rather than showing. Lectures along such lines felt like proclamations of Japanese cuisine’s greatness without the providing any compelling evidence, complete with the familiar “four unique seasons” bullet points.
When students were actually able to get involved — trying different versions of dashi or watching a soba master thinly slice dough — things became more interesting. Staring at eggplants registered as so-so with the visitors, but the next farm drew “Oh wows” from them by showing off larger-than-usual soybeans. Self discovery also proved a winner — one student talked about “eating two bowls of ramen last night … including one at 2 a.m.” These gushing moments brought to mind the JET Programme, which aims to leave a strong impression of Japan in young people’s mind before they head back home.
“Our plan is to grow the program with Suntory. Our mutual goal is to develop the initial course and culinary tour into a full semester concentration,” Jorin says. “The ultimate goal is for students taking these courses and the tour, to incorporate Japanese ingredients, flavors, techniques and culture into their future food endeavors and spread their knowledge among their peers and to their customers.”
The highlight came on the second-to-last day, with a trip to Osaka’s Tsuji Culinary Institute. Following a genuinely interesting presentation on the history of Japanese food by the school’s president, Yoshiki Tsuji, the students watched as various Japanese dishes were put together, ranging from sashimi to tamagoyaki (Japanese-style omelet), practically magnetized by the sight of food being prepared.
“Oh wow, yep I definitely cut that wrong,” one CIA student said while tasting a piece of hammo (conger pike) he had cut, discovering many bones within. “I won’t forget that.”
Patrick St. Michel traveled to Kyoto courtesy of Suntory Holdings Ltd.