Food & Drink

Cook Japan Project: World-class chefs flock to Japan for a year of pop-up dinners

by Melinda Joe

Contributing Writer

Chef Anthony Genovese loves a good challenge. Holding a plate of raw mizunasu eggplant, he bites into a slice and regards the vegetable with the amused admiration of a chess master sizing up a worthy opponent.

Buono,” he says with a wry smile. “I’ve never had this before. We’re going to use it, but I have no idea how.”

He gives the same answer when I ask what he’ll do with the dried sakura-ebi shrimp that he’d purchased earlier at Toyosu wholesale market. Each no larger than the joint of a finger, the pink crustaceans have an intense saline bite underscored by lingering sweetness.

“Maybe we’ll make a stock, or a topping,” he says, popping a few more shrimp into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully.

From tip to tail: Dried sakura-ebi shrimp atop a barely cooked shrimp tail and blueberry pickles | COURTESY OF COOK JAPAN PROJECT
From tip to tail: Dried sakura-ebi shrimp atop a barely cooked shrimp tail and blueberry pickles | COURTESY OF COOK JAPAN PROJECT

At Il Pagliaccio, Genovese’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Rome, he’s known for incorporating Asian flavors into a modern style of cooking that “respects the rules” of the Italian kitchen while showing how the cuisine has evolved. Long before European chefs became enamored of Japanese ingredients — such as yuzu citrus, dashi and fermented rice kōji — Genovese used them regularly.

His love affair with Japanese food culture began in 1992, when he worked in Tokyo for two years at Enoteca Pinchiorri, a branch of the famed restaurant in Florence, between stints in Thailand and Malaysia. Ever since leaving Japan, he’s longed to come back and, thanks to the Cook Japan Project, a rotating chef’s residency program in Tokyo, Genovese’s dream to return came true in late August.

Cook Japan Project launched in April and has already featured 15 international chefs — including culinary stars such as Yannick Alleno, of three-Michelin-starred Alleno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen in Paris, and Julien Royer, whose Singapore-based restaurant, Odette, topped the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants this year. Cook Japan Project executive chef Jerome Quilbeuf, who oversees the project’s kitchen staff, estimates that by the time the program finishes at the end of January 2020, the number of guest chefs will exceed 35.

“We’re adding new dinners all the time because so many chefs have contacted us wanting to join, but the schedule is already full,” Quilbeuf says with a laugh. “It’s kind of crazy.”

That's a wrap: Guinea fowl layered with slices of liver and heart and wrapped in a pickled grape leaf | COURTESY OF COOK JAPAN PROJECT
That’s a wrap: Guinea fowl layered with slices of liver and heart and wrapped in a pickled grape leaf | COURTESY OF COOK JAPAN PROJECT

Indeed, organizing a year’s worth of pop-up dinners with dozens of chefs from across the globe sounds like a logistical nightmare but, as both Genovese and Quilbeuf concede, “chefs are a little bit crazy.” The idea for Cook Japan Project was born when Yuji Shimoyama, the representative director of Tokyo restaurant group Granada Co., which manages the Tokyo branch of Spanish restaurant Sant Pau, visited Quilbeuf in Barcelona.

The Coredo Nihonbashi Annex building where Sant Pau had been located since 2004 was scheduled to be torn down in February, so Shimoyama found a new home for the restaurant inside The Kitano Hotel Tokyo. However, there was one catch: The new lease started in March 2019, leaving Shimoyama with an empty restaurant space and 11 months on the old Coredo lease. When Shimoyama asked Quilbeuf how to make use of the space, he suggested coordinating a series of pop-ups.

The concept is intended to foster cultural exchange by introducing chefs from overseas to Japanese gastronomy while exposing Japanese audiences to the wider culinary world. Visiting chefs create menus featuring Japanese products, with the exception of a few accents from their home countries.

“Usually visiting chefs bring everything with them, but the main ingredients for every dish must come from Japan,” Quilbeuf says, adding that the Cook Japan Project kitchen team has also “learned so much, so many techniques from so many chefs with over 400 new recipes.”

A culinary surprise : Amaebi- (sweet shrimp) filled arancini (deep-fried stuffed rice balls) crowned with blue roe (left) plated next to an abalone tartlet. | COURTESY OF COOK JAPAN PROJECT
A culinary surprise : Amaebi- (sweet shrimp) filled arancini (deep-fried stuffed rice balls) crowned with blue roe (left) plated next to an abalone tartlet. | COURTESY OF COOK JAPAN PROJECT

Most of the chefs in the lineup hail from Europe, but the program has gradually expanded to include talent from South America and Southeast Asia. Many are cooking in Japan for the first time.

While Genovese is no stranger to Japan, on a morning visit to Toyosu he says he feels the same amazement that he first experienced 27 years ago. He ogles boxes of bright orange sea urchin and wonders aloud why the eggs of sweet akaebi (velvet shrimp) are sapphire blue. When a fishmonger offers him a raw shrimp tail to sample, his eyes widen with delight.

“Being here makes you want to cook,” he says.

By the opening night of Genovese’s six-day residency, he has found ingenious uses for all his market purchases. The dried sakura-ebi perch beside delicate Japanese pepper leaves atop a barely cooked prawn tail — its fried head filled with creamy tartar sauce — and blueberry pickles. Braised mizunasu eggplant nestles up against amberjack coated with bone marrow and coffee, finished with pulverized fish bones and caper water.

Genovese’s affinity for Asia is evident in dumplings stuffed with sturgeon and fig, drizzled with fig leaf oil, and amaebi– (sweet shrimp) filled arancini (deep-fried rice balls) crowned with blue roe. However, the perfectly cooked guinea fowl, layered with slices of liver and heart and wrapped in a pickled grape leaf alongside peach chutney, is the runaway star.

“(The project gives chefs) a chance to show what we are doing. For us, we want people to know that Italian food is not just grandma’s recipes,” Genovese says. “We want to give them some surprise.”

More surprises are sure to come. In September, Cook Japan Project welcomes Jorge Vallejo of Mexico City’s Quintonil, Alex Atala of Sao Paulo’s D.O.M., Atsushi Tanaka of A.T. in Paris, and Le Du’s chef Tonn Thitid Tassanakajohn and patissier Dej Kewkacha from Bangkok.

For more information, visit cookjapanproject.com.

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