Early one September morning, Ana Ros, Slovenia’s most famous chef, is receiving a crash course in Japanese seafood at Tsukiji fish market.
At one stall, she samples two kinds of sea urchin from Hokkaido, along with an assortment of shellfish that includes ishigakegai, a large cockle with a speckled auburn shell. As Ros lifts a slice of the clam from the plate, the fishmonger scoops up a few live specimens from a tank. The bivalves appear to dance as their long, tongue-like necks dart out and curl around their shells.
“Incredible,” she murmurs, chewing thoughtfully. “The texture is really beautiful.”
Ros, who was named the World’s Best Female Chef this year by the U.K.-based World’s 50 Best Restaurants organization, had traveled to Tokyo from the tiny Alpine village of Kobarid — located on the border between Slovenia and Italy, where she runs the restaurant Hisa Franko — to cook with chef Luca Fantin, of Bulgari Il Ristorante Luca Fantin, as part of the restaurant’s annual Epicurea collaboration dinner series. Over the course of about a week she immersed herself in Japanese food culture, exploring Tokyo’s dining scene and learning about local ingredients from Fantin, who goes foraging for wild mushrooms near Mount Fuji and has traveled the country to source products for his contemporary Italian cuisine.
Cooking collaborations are the latest culinary trend to sweep Tokyo, but chefs from abroad have been making food pilgrimages to Japan for more than a decade — a phenomenon that has been intensified in part by cheaper airfares and favorable currency exchange rates in recent years.
The country has been viewed as a gastronomic mecca ever since the publication of the first Michelin Guide to Tokyo in 2007, which awarded the Japanese capital more stars than any other city.
For those in the trade, however, the fascination goes deeper: “If there is one place in the world that every chef should go, it’s Japan. Regarding quality of products and hospitality, perfection is everywhere — even in simple pastry shops,” Ros tells me.
She first visited Japan as a tourist 12 years ago, only five years into her career as a chef. At that time, the flavors and customs of Japanese cuisine were intriguing but entirely unfamiliar to Ros, a self-taught cook who was on the path to becoming a diplomat before her husband, sommelier Valter Kramer, persuaded her to take over the kitchen at Hisa Franko, his family’s restaurant and inn. When a Japanese friend took her for dinner on that first visit at Mibu, an exclusive members-only kaiseki (Japanese multicourse haute cuisine) restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district, Ros says she felt “like Alice in Wonderland,” recalling “a tatami-mat room with only one table, and a branch with cherry blossoms.”
Since then, her experience both as a chef and a diner has grown considerably. Looking back at her first meal at Mibu, Ros remembers thinking that “the food had nothing in common with European culture.” What she perceived then as a lack of contrast between savory, sweet, and sour tastes — “the way Europeans typically compose dishes” — she now sees as an acute focus on a single ingredient. This minimalist approach to cooking is at the heart of Japanese cuisine. While complex flavor compositions are valued overseas, the task of the chef in Japan is to highlight the quality of the natural products and let them shine.
“I was so impressed by how Japanese chefs explore all aspects of an ingredient, but you need the experience of working in the kitchen to fully appreciate it,” Ros says.
She is known for her highly personal style of cooking, which draws on the traditions of her native Slovenia and takes in the influence of her extensive travels. The dishes she prepared for the Epicurea event displayed an effortless harmony between European and Japanese sensibilities. Kinmeidai (golden-eye snapper) was covered with fresh herbs, wild tamagodake (ovoli mushrooms) and edible flowers, bathed in a delicate broth scented with verbena.
Ros sees this trip as the beginning of a long relationship with Japan and is already planning to return next year: “I don’t know how I’ll get here, but I’m positive that I’ll make it happen.” I have every confidence that she will succeed.
Ana Ros on gender equality among chefs
Thanks in part to chefs such as Hisa Franko’s Ana Ros, the issue of gender equality in the restaurant business has been attracting attention around the world.
Launched five years ago, the European nonprofit organization Parabere Forum holds an annual conference that showcases women’s perspectives on industry-related topics ranging from entrepreneurship to sustainability.
In late August, Ros joined 22 top chefs — including Noma’s Rene Redzepi, Momofuku’s David Chang, and Little Bao’s May Chow — at an avant-garde culinary gathering called Gelinaz, which took place in Upper Austria. The event was the first of its kind to feature equal numbers of male and female chefs.
However, awareness lags behind in Japan, where women are largely absent in high-end kitchens. A Japanese chef has yet to receive the title of San Pellegrino Asia’s Best Female Chef since the award was introduced in 2012.
“The industry seems to be more male-dominated in Japan,” remarks Ros, who speculated that, in addition to the pressure to choose between family and career, the perfectionism that pervades Japanese culture might hinder young women in restaurants.
“Anyone with a career has to make compromises between work and family, and women chefs need to accept this,” she says. “You can’t be perfect, but you can be good.”