In the past four years, if you’ve stepped into Isetan Shinjuku and checked out one of its in-store displays, or visited Rakuten Ragri, the website for the organic food initiative of the Japanese retail giant, chances are you’ve seen Tokiko Iino’s food styling designs without even realizing it.
A food presentation artist, Iino aims to tell an appetizing tale that starts with the producer and draws eaters in at first sight. And her client list extends beyond Japan — Iino also receives invitations from private and corporate clients in the United States, France and Italy to do party design, lead workshops and train employees in display design.
But Iino’s goal is a larger one: to draw people together, engaging all of their senses and intellect at the table so diners get to know each other, as well as the food and place.
When working in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, for example, she serves regional sake in Sota Azuchi’s handblown glass sake cups. In Gotsu, Shimane Prefecture, Iino photographs plates and bowls from nearby Miyauchi Pottery against a background of ita wakame, an edible seaweed and local delicacy.
“Buying something at a supermarket is fine,” Iino says, placing a piece of cheese on a board and adjusting a stray flower before stepping behind her camera to take a photograph. “But the most important things are the people and the land. I try to incorporate as much as possible from the place so people can really taste and feel where they are.”
Born and raised in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Iino attended Tama Art University and worked with Kiyoshi Awazu, a renowned Japanese graphic designer, for three years. But it wasn’t until her growing family moved into its own home that she was able to turn her eye for design to the table.
“(Having my own house) was the first time I was able to choose for myself what to make and invite whoever I wished to dinner,” Iino says. “I found I enjoyed creating nice food displays for my family. Paper was my inspiration, but it was easy to find art in food on the plate.”
She was not alone. Food design appeared as a distinct field shortly after the global emergence of local food movements in the late 1990s, including the Japanese iteration, chisanchishō (“local production for local consumption”). By 2010, Dezeen, an international online design magazine, legitimized the new movement with a special report detailing the global pushback against “designer food” and the return to “a focus on more hand-crafted food, served in an informal way, and often featuring local produce and methods.” For Iino, the timing was perfect.
She began hosting salon-style dinners at her home, which she dubbed the Green Kitchen, three to four times a month. Iino invited friends and acquaintances with complementary backgrounds, tailoring her menu and table design to match the tableau or conversation she wanted to inspire.
That same year, Iino began entering design contests. She took first prize in the Edo Tokyo Vegetable Cooking Contest, and in 2010 won another for a “line” salad recipe and design starring mozuku (an Okinawan noodle-like seaweed). She also garnered an honorable mention in the 2011 International Ceramics Festival Mino in Mie Prefecture.
Noting her success, a friend suggested Iino apply to teach at Freedom University, a community-based university with a presence in Tokyo and Onomichi, Hiroshima. In 2011, she began offering classes on food design and arrangement.
Students bring food they prepare or purchase, and Iino demonstrates how to match the resulting spread with table decorations made from wild plants, local weavings and pottery. Sometimes she also invites the grower or producer to talk or demonstrate their craft.
“If people can see the face of the farmer, the weaver, the fisherman, the potter, it brings them closer to the object or ingredient,” Iino says. “They get a deeper feeling for the season or time and how these people work.”
Eventually, Iino hopes to expand her work to include training staff at nursing homes and hospice facilities to make the food seem less institutional and plain. Beautiful food, she believes, should always have a place at the table.
“My goal is to tempt (diners). Plain or simple food is fine,” she says, “but if it were arranged well, maybe that would make them happy.”
For more information about Tokiko Iino and upcoming lectures and classes, visit www.tokikoiino.com. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food and restaurant industries.