LONDON – British chef Valentine Warner developed a taste for Japanese food at a younger age than most Europeans in his generation.
Until he was 3, he lived in Japan while his father was the ambassador. After the family moved back home, his mother continued cooking Japanese dishes using seaweed and mackerel while “japanifying” other meals.
Warner’s love for Japanese food and drink continued, and he is now helping to promote the cuisine in Britain, taking part in a culinary demonstration hosted by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
One day at an international food and drink trade exhibition in London, Warner prepared a dish of mackerel tartare with “umeboshi” (sour plum) and “yuzu” (citron) garnish served with a thimbleful of award-winning sake.
The idea was to draw attention to the links between Japanese and British cuisine while highlighting sake’s compatibility with a range of dishes, both Japanese and Western.
Warner feels that aside from ingredients common to both countries, such as mackerel, even quintessentially Japanese ingredients like umeboshi and yuzu are not especially alien to the British palate, comparing them to plums and tangerines.
Still, the 41-year-old chef, who appears regularly on British TV, believes the choice of Japanese dishes on offer is limited, although the cuisine has gained popularity in recent years.
For most people in Britain, and possibly elsewhere in the world, sushi is one of the most famous dishes associated with Japan.
But Warner feels that sushi, sometimes treated as a gorgeous dish and a sort of art in Japan, “has been accepted as a kind of fast food in this country.”
“The supermarkets do it in little boxes at lunch and that’s where a lot of people’s perception ends,” he said.
Although Japanese restaurants are increasingly commonplace, especially in larger towns and cities, Warner believes that in Britain, cooking at home with Japanese ingredients is still relatively rare.
Promotional activities at international food exhibitions can help, but the chef believes one way to change such attitudes may be through the power of TV.
Although British TV has a wide range of cooking programs and numerous celebrity chefs, Warner laments the lack of programs thus far on Japanese food.
“Despite what we said with sushi in nearly every town in this country, it’s never on television,” Warner said. “We go back to the same places again and again and again, another series in India. Show something we haven’t seen before!”
With his connections to Japan, his TV experience and his love of Japanese food, Warner thinks he could be the person to get a cookery show on the cuisine off the ground.
“We are trying to get things going” he said. “I’d love to do it. Also because of what my father did there, we would have amazing access too.”
Warner said he even has an idea of a dish that he feels would work well on British screens.
“I’d really like to do something on yakitori,” Warner said. “I think once people see all the smoke wafting up from warm charcoals (people will) realize it’s not just all about rolling fish in rice and seaweed.”
“It’s a magic box of beauty and it’s also very healthy food.”