KYOTO – Now that traditional Japanese cuisine has been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage list, Japan is looking to train foreign chefs in the ways of “washoku” to promote proper worldwide appreciation of the culinary heritage.
At the forefront is the cultural capital of Kyoto. Since November, Japanese-style restaurants in the city have been able employ foreign chefs following a decision by the central government to declare Kyoto a special zone for local revitalization with eased visa restrictions.
Previously, visiting chefs who wanted to master the art of Japanese cuisine could do so only as a cultural trainee and were not allowed to receive compensation. Now they can get a work visa good for up to two years.
In a related move, the government is planning to permit foreigners who graduate from culinary schools in Japan to stay on and work, enabling them to continue mastering traditional Japanese cuisine on the job.
Even without Cultural Heritage status, interest in Japanese food overseas was growing in recent years. But with that popularity came concerns among purists that what is billed as Japanese food often bears little resemblance to the genuine article.
Naoki Nishio of the Kyoto Municipal Government cites the example of a restaurant that was passing Korean food off as Japanese.
“It may be that the food is different from what is served in Japan because foreign chefs have very few opportunities to learn about Japanese cuisine,” he said. “We need to pass on the appeal of the real thing overseas.”
One way the city plans to do this is by collaborating with the Kyoto-based nonprofit group Japanese Culinary Academy, which consists of chefs from Kyoto and other areas.
Kikunoi, a restaurant in the Gion-Maruyama district, is the first establishment to take part in the new program. It is hiring a Frenchman, the son of a chef at La Ribaudiere, a Michelin one-star restaurant in western France.
Julien Verrat will arrive in late January or early February to work at the restaurant for two years.
Kikunoi, a Michelin three-star restaurant, has for some time been accepting as cultural trainees foreign chefs who want to study traditional Japanese cuisine.
Imad Saade, a 26-year-old chef from Lebanon, came to Kyoto in September to learn about washoku after previously studying French cuisine.
In Beirut and in several other Middle East countries where his family runs Japanese and other Asian-themed restaurants, Japanese food is “very popular,” Saade says. But Japanese dishes served at these restaurants, such as sushi rolls and tempura, are “commercial” and not traditional, he adds.
“I love the taste of Japanese food and its freshness. It is healthy cuisine and really different from all kinds of other cuisines.”
However, Saade laments that finding the right ingredients, particularly vegetables, outside Japan is difficult.
The reputation of Japanese food for being healthy is one of the reasons why it has been catching on abroad. This reputation is derived in part from its use of “dashi” stock extracted from dried kelp, bonito flakes and mushrooms and use of fermented seasonings made from soybean and other ingredients.
Dashi is used in various traditional Japanese dishes, such as miso soup and simmered foods. Together with soy sauce and other seasonings, it helps reduce caloric intake and the danger of obesity compared with dishes that use oil or animal fat.
But washoku has other dimensions as well. In the Cultural Heritage listing, it is “associated with an essential spirit of respect for nature that is closely related to the sustainable use of natural resources.” It also “favors the consumption of various natural, locally sourced ingredients such as rice, fish and vegetables.”
Kayoko Ikeda, a senior research professional with Mitsubishi Research Institute’s food and agricultural business group, notes the important contribution that Japan’s four distinct seasons had in shaping traditional cuisine. “The different climatic conditions result in all kinds of ingredients,” she said.
The use of seasonal ingredients, the choice of utensils and the way in which food is prepared and presented are also important features of washoku, Ikeda said.
These are the kind of things that Saade has been learning during his time at Kikunoi — while also studying the mentality of its chefs.
“They remain calm and always concentrate,” he says.
Chef Yoshihiro Murata, president of Kikunoi and chairman of the Japanese Culinary Academy, welcomed Kyoto being designated as a special zone where Japanese-style restaurants can hire foreign chefs, saying that creating such an environment is necessary for spreading appreciation of Japanese food overseas.
“Now we will be able to properly convey our techniques and teach the concept behind dashi and Japanese food,” the 62-year-old Murata said.
But he doesn’t cling to the idea that chefs trained in Japan must return to their countries and cook Japanese food.
“A French chef who learns Japanese cuisine can go home and cook French dishes,” he said.
As Murata sees it, this will still benefit Japan’s primary industries because if foreign chefs take away a knowledge of Japanese food and decide to use Japanese ingredients in their dishes, it will boost exports of agricultural and fishery products.
According to the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, the number of restaurants overseas that advertise themselves as Japanese more than doubled to about 55,000 as of March 2013 from some 24,000 in 2006. In turn, the government is aiming to double exports of agricultural and food products from about ¥450 billion in 2012 to ¥1 trillion by 2020.
But while the government may be rubbing its hands at the prospect of boosting agricultural exports, there is also work to be done at home to boost appreciation of washoku.
Murata admits to feeling “a sense of crisis” when he found that schoolchildren were unable to identify Japanese dishes. This is what prompted him and other chefs to urge the government in 2011 to apply to have traditional Japanese cuisine added to UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage list.
“When we visited an elementary school on a food education program, children couldn’t distinguish Japanese dishes from Western ones and were asking their teachers what they are,” he said. Their favorite dishes, he recalled, were “curry rice” and “spaghetti.”
People may be celebrating the Cultural Heritage listing, but Murata points out that it comes with a heavy obligation.
“We’ve made a commitment to the world, as a nation, that we will protect and carry on our food culture,” he said.
Foreign chefs coming to Kyoto to learn more about washoku will certainly hope this is the case.