National / Politics

Tokyo looking for chefs willing to forgo washoku profits for diplomatic outposts

JIJI

The Foreign Ministry is stepping up the recruitment of chefs to serve as “food diplomats” at Japan’s embassies and other diplomatic outposts abroad to add glamor to government receptions.

But the availability of skilled chefs who can meet the daily needs of ambassadors and consuls-general, especially when it comes to washoku (Japanese cuisine), is shrinking amid a tourism boom that is fueling interest in Japanese food even as its popularity grows overseas.

“Washoku is becoming a powerful diplomatic tool for Japan,” Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in a Diet speech in January. “In many countries, presidents and prime ministers willingly visit our diplomatic residences, making it important to retain excellent chefs at those venues.”

A panel of business leaders, scholars and other advisers in the Foreign Ministry said in a report last August that Japanese diplomatic establishments are expected to “serve the best Japanese cuisine.”

But compensation for state chefs is “not necessarily attractive in comparison with that of skillful washoku chefs working in Japan or in Japanese restaurants overseas,” the panel noted.

Chefs who apply to work at diplomatic establishments abroad must register with the ministry. Registrations, however, dropped from around 100 a year to 82 in fiscal 2016, and 51 in fiscal 2017.

Alarmed by the decline, the ministry plans to work with major hotels and restaurants to make cooking stints at diplomatic establishments a more common part of a chef’s career, a senior official said in the Diet in March.

State chefs earn an average of ¥300,000 per month — a salary paid privately by the heads of the diplomatic outposts and partly by the government, which kicks in ¥170,000. Under the fiscal 2019 budget, the ministry will increase the subsidy by as much as ¥30,000, depending on the skill of the chef.

In October, the ministry opened Twitter and Facebook accounts to publicize its chefs’ activities via social media and on its website.

As of April, the ministry had attracted nearly 10,000 followers, drawn by photos of the chefs’ exquisitely prepared meals. Recent posts contain references to a meal served to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and dishes cooked up for a send-off party held for Cambodian students departing for Japan.

In some cases, the work of state chefs has even improved Japan’s diplomatic ties.

A soup developed by a chef at the Japanese Embassy in Manila, for example, has become so popular that Philippine Cabinet ministers occasionally drop by to enjoy it, according to the ministry.

The Foreign Ministry will continue efforts to secure “key behind-the-scenes diplomats.”