For Masayo Funakoshi, being a chef is an art and food her ideal medium.

“Food is my way of expression,” she says. “People not only see it, but they can eat it. They can feel with all five senses. People feel the moment, time and space where they are, and food is the most important element to experience it. You see and understand everything about where you are then eat it and then it is who you are.”

But it wasn’t until Funakoshi moved to New York City to study sculpture at the Pratt Institute that she began to blend food with art, such as an installation of lightbulbs inside sausage casings and 120 sculptures made using vintage coppertone jello molds.

“I wanted to be an artist,” she says, “but when I cooked and shared food, there was a moment of shared space and time that fascinated me.”

After Pratt, she enrolled at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, taking every opportunity offered, including assisting at the inaugural Bertolli Sous Chef Awards in 2001. Assigned to then up-and-coming chef Michael Anthony, they hit it off. When Anthony became executive chef at Blue Hill, he invited her along.

Silk Road on the table: The final tablescape for Masayo Funakoshi’s 2016 event, “Edible Landscape: ‘Sacred Food’” | KENICHIRO YAMAGUCHI FOR NARA FOOD CARAVAN
Silk Road on the table: The final tablescape for Masayo Funakoshi’s 2016 event, “Edible Landscape: ‘Sacred Food’” | KENICHIRO YAMAGUCHI FOR NARA FOOD CARAVAN

“Michael and Blue Hill really gave me a lot of inspiration,” Funakoshi says. “I learned where food comes from is as important as the cooking itself. It expresses this very present moment of where you are.”

Stints at two other iconic New York restaurants — WD-50 and Union Pacific — and Astrance in Paris were followed by travels through Europe, northern Africa, India and Indonesia. While cheffing in Jakarta, her phone rang.

“Someone from one of my Jakarta dinners asked if I would work on his boat,” she says. “If I did, I could go everywhere while cooking. I said yes.”

She spent the next 18 months cooking for the crew and guests on a private yacht, preparing three meals a day for upwards of 20 people using whatever was available where they docked. Funakoshi learned how meals could be “main events, where the chef creates the mood and entertains.”

She returned to Japan, and in 2008 took a position as head chef at the then recently opened Cujorl, in Tokyo. Though excited to be home, she encountered a surprise: kitchen culture shock.

“The work-style was totally different from what I knew,” Funakoshi explains. “I was used to sharing and discussing. If I asked the staff what they thought of a new dish, they simply nodded and said it was good. Everyone was nice and worked hard, but I felt so isolated.”

Culinary history: A table detail for Masayo Funakoshi’s 2016 event, 'Edible Landscape: ‘Sacred Food’' | KENICHIRO YAMAGUCHI FOR NARA FOOD CARAVAN
Culinary history: A table detail for Masayo Funakoshi’s 2016 event, ‘Edible Landscape: ‘Sacred Food’’ | KENICHIRO YAMAGUCHI FOR NARA FOOD CARAVAN

So Funakoshi looked for community elsewhere. She participated in Open Harvest, a 2011 event where members of Open Restaurant, a U.S.-based food and art collective, visited Japan. It helped her see a place for art in the kitchen. “Their work makes people think,” Funakoshi says. “I decided to find a way to do the same.”

Several years later, Funakoshi got an offer to help open Kiln in Kyoto. There, she focused on Western-style food using local, seasonal produce. “In Tokyo, producers felt so far away,” Funakoshi says. “In Kyoto, farms are only a 20-minute drive away. It’s important to me for a restaurant to have this kind of connection.”

Then in 2016, Funakoshi directed the food portion of Culture City of East Asia, a joint annual program with Japan, China and South Korea concentrated on cultural and artistic events, for Nara. Dubbing it the Nara Food Caravan, she visited historic locations and researched recipes and food origins centered around the city’s role in the Silk Road. The result was a year of artist residencies, meals and edible art exhibitions, including a spice route installation where visitors could choose a mochi (rice cake) flavored with a particular spice and follow its journey from Nara back to its source.

She documented her time of research and discovery through a film, “An Empty Vessel.” The production culminated with a final meal, “Edible Landscape: ‘Sacred Food.‘”

“I was super curious about Nara,” Funakoshi says. “It has this very ancient air to it. Everything — trees, vegetables, spices — has a label explaining its history and where it came from. I didn’t recreate old recipes but used spices that came through Nara. They were my original dishes inspired by those of a thousand years ago. We were eating where we were, along with memories from the Silk Road.”

The project also motivated her to create her restaurant, Farmoon, in 2018. Because guests must be introduced by a previous diner to eat there, it is both a public and private place where art, artists, music and community come together around an eclectic mix of dishes made using local ingredients, but flavored with spices from the Middle East, China or India.

“Farmoon is not only about the food but the space,” she says. “Seeing people gathering and eating the food I made and having a good time is a once-in-a-lifetime happening I helped create. It’s like magic.”

Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food industry.

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