Still eating, still writing: Robbie Swinnerton reflects on 20 years of Tokyo Food File

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

On April 9, 1998, The Japan Times launched a new restaurant review column, introducing Hong Kong Garden, an unlikely, 1,000-seater gastrodome in Tokyo’s Nishiazabu neighborhood. That restaurant is now confined to history, but the writer, Robbie Swinnerton, and his column, Tokyo Food File, show no sign of letting up. To mark the column’s 20th anniversary, Swinnerton looks back at Tokyo’s restaurant scene and how it has developed over that time.

How does it feel reaching two decades of Tokyo Food File? I’m pretty stoked to have made it to 20 years. … It’s just a number of course, but I’m also coming up on 40 years in Japan, and that’s going to be another huge milestone.

Do you feel like you’ve become somewhat of an expert on Japanese food in that time? If by that you mean someone who’s in a position to consult on food then I guess I am. But Japan and the food scene here is changing so fast that I’m always having to keep up. It’s not that it’s stayed static while I’ve become more experienced. And yes, if you ask me somewhere to go in a certain area of town, I’ll probably be able to give a couple of good recommendations. So in that sense I could be thought of as an expert.

What keeps you writing? It’s a labor of love really. It’s a never ending challenge — the only thing that’ll end is me. Tokyo will always continue to spit out new restaurants. But on a purely personal level, I don’t know anywhere in the world you can eat so well as you can here. I’m just as excited now as I was at the beginning. Tokyo Food File has been a vehicle for discovering the city. It’s allowed me to watch the city develop over the years, and keeps me hunting for new places rather than going back to the same old favorites again and again.

You have a remarkable knack of covering the most interesting restaurants in Tokyo. What are your sources? It used to be watching TV and reading vernacular magazines. Especially the women’s magazine Hanako because during the late ’80s and ’90s it was the women who had the spending power and were eating out. And Dancyu, the first food magazine aimed at men. Those magazines were a great source of intelligence. These days we have the net. But I also spend a lot of time walking round the city sniffing. I’ll choose a neighborhood I haven’t been to for a while and walk around it trying to find out what’s good. A lot of what it comes down to is boot leather.

How do you think the Tokyo food scene has changed over 20 years? Twenty years ago, there were far fewer non-Japanese in Tokyo, and to find restaurants outside the central districts that were both good quality and accessible — which was my whole reason for writing Tokyo Food File — I really had to push. Now, we have a whole new generation of chefs and restaurants coming through. From the 1990s, there was an increasing number of Japanese chefs going abroad to study in Europe and, after coming back to Japan, instead of replicating the place they trained at, they started to do their own versions of those foods. In Tokyo, we now have a really sophisticated food scene. By that I don’t mean expensive, I mean there’s a lot of ideas and a lot of synthesis of ideas. And recently, chefs have been collaborating more, and this leads to greater cross-pollination and creativity.

What is it about the Japanese character that makes Tokyo “the foodiest city on the planet?” It’s special, isn’t it? There’s a rigor and ability to focus so narrowly which seems inherent with Japanese cooking and culture. In the old days, the only way to get anywhere was to become an apprentice and serve your seven or 10 years somewhere, before being able to leave and set up your own place, which was often a clone of the original. There’s now a shift toward trying new things. But what hasn’t changed is an ability to work incredibly long hours, and to focus on the quality of ingredients and beautiful presentation — without which you’re not going to get very far in Japan, it’s expected by the customers.

So the scene is driven by the customer, too? It’s culture driven. If you’re expecting customers to pay for your food, it’s got to look good. When customers spend an hour waiting in line for a ramen bowl, it had better be perfectly presented, with the sheets of nori in the right place and the menma (bamboo shoots) on the other side. On every level, from ramen to kaiseki (multi-course meals), there’s an attention to detail that blows my mind.

Has your approach to the food changed over 20 years? Inevitably. I started off as an outside punter, who just happened to speak Japanese, and wanted to report on the foreigner’s experience of dining at different restaurants. Now, as I’ve become more experienced and as chefs have begun to open up more as Japan has changed, it’s become easier to get an insight into the mind of the chefs and those involved with the cooking. You’ll still feel the old school vibe at some restaurants, but generally the food scene has relaxed, and that’s allowed the column to relax as well.

Are there any restaurants you still rate highly from the earlier years of your column? Quite a few. I’ve been a big fan of Bird Land (yakitori) since before it moved to Ginza. It’s still worth its Michelin star. I also love the old-school restaurants that have been around far longer than I’ve been in Tokyo, such as the wonderful, classic Kanda Matsuya (soba), Isegen (monkfish hotpot) and Botan (sukiyaki), all of them in Kanda.

Assuming there’s another 20 years of Tokyo Food File, what do you foresee changing in the Tokyo scene? I think there’s going to be an acute lack of seafood very shortly. It’s interesting that at the point where Tsukiji is moving to a bigger and better location, the bottom could fall out of the seafood industry. The meat industry is also unsustainable, so I think we’ll see Tokyo looking more toward the vegetable kingdom, localizing and focusing even more on seasonal produce. A lot of the top chefs are already picking up on this. Yoshihiro Narisawa is doing amazing things with his restaurant Narisawa. He’s working in Okinawa to keep the culture of catching sea snakes for use in dashi, both to keep his culinary ecosystem as wide as possible and to support local communities. Then there’s chef Shinobu Namae at L’Effervescence, who’s been traveling the country and liaising with small producers. In the long term, he wants to connect these producers and consumers to encourage the next generation to take over the helm when it comes to farming.

Do you think there’s a danger that traditional Japanese restaurants in Tokyo will stop evolving? The opposite. Chefs really have to stay on the ball, there’s so much competition with great food from abroad and that’s forced everyone to step up their game.

Which chefs/restaurants are you most excited about in the coming year? The new L’Effervescence bakery with Osaka’s Sucre Coeur is due to open in June. And so is a major new restaurant that I can’t divulge yet. Watch this space!

If you had to do a Food File for any other city in the world, where would it be? There’s nowhere else in the world I’d like to do this more than Tokyo, but if I had no choice, it would be London now — not 20 years ago — it’s the only city that’s comparable in scale, variety and a growing emphasis on quality.

All that good food, but what’s your guilty pleasure? Curry rice. I didn’t get it at first, but I had an epiphany about 25 years ago. My current favorite shop is Oxymoron in Kamakura. In Tokyo, I’d go to Good Luck Curry, and then there’s the delightfully-named Have More Curry in Kita-Aoyama.