There is an irony about Japanese cuisine: it is ubiquitous but at the same it’s one of the least-understood of the world’s great gastronomic cultures. Sushi is easily available from Norwich to Novosibirsk, but finding real Japanese cuisine is very difficult.
Club Oenologique writer and Japanese expert Aiste Miseviciute has a mission to bring Japan’s finest to Europe; in collaboration with All Nippon Airways, her Culinary Journeys events give European food lovers the opportunity to taste the best of Japan. Beyond taste, the events also aim to share the deep-rooted cultural phenomena surrounding cooking and food from this ancient country.
It’s hard to overstate just how culturally unique Japan’s restaurant scene and booking etiquette is, compared to the rest of the world. Some of the best restaurants in Japan are very small. The limited seating, of around 6 to 10 places, is reserved for regular clients or those who are lucky enough to be introduced by a regular client. This means waiting time is anywhere from a few months to over a year. In such establishments the chef is responsible for every aspect of the restaurant. This of course means that when they are away for any reason, the chef-owner’s restaurant will be closed. This illustrates the exclusivity of Culinary Journeys. As one client remarked at a recent event in Barcelona featuring Japan’s best sushi master Takaaki Sugita, “it’s easier to go to Spain to sample Sugita’s cooking than to book Sushi Sugita in Tokyo”.
Known as shokunins, these masters tend not to classify themselves as chefs but as something more akin to artisans. Their entire lives are dedicated to the excellence of their craft, which often means a lifetime perfecting a single dish.
The meaning of the word shokunin reflects the essence of Japanese culture and cuisine. Shokunin aim to perfect every detail of their speciality, from forging knives to selecting ingredients. It is a philosophy that is as much about a way of living as a way of eating.
For the latest edition of Culinary Journeys, a three-day event held at the Affinité restaurant in the Latin Quarter of Paris in early February, four shokunin shone some light on the complexities of Japanese cuisine.
Michelin-starred chef Tomokazu Maehira is a tempura master from the city of Sôka, north of Tokyo. For almost 30 years, Maehira has been perfecting the art of tempura by balancing fragrant seasonal ingredients in the kitchens of the historic temple of tempura—the Yamanoue hotel.
Born in California, Kentaro Nakahara is the world renowned master of wagyu beef yakiniku and inventor of the katsu sando sandwich, which, as served in his Sumibi Yakiniku restaurant, consists of meltingly delicate wagyu beef paired with a sauce that remains a closely-guarded secret.
Shingo Takahashi is one of Tokyo’s most respected sushi masters and disciple of the legendary chef Keiji Nakazawa. After 25 years spent learning the intricacies of preparing sushi, Takahashi pays tribute to his master through his classic sushi, which are often made to be paired with specific sakés.
And based in Paris, Toshitaka Omiya is a Michelin-starred Japanese chef renowned for his minimalism. He brings a unique and delicate touch to traditionally French ingredients such as warm foie gras with ginger and chives, or lobster with almond milk. He honed his skills by working in the kitchens of Parisian restaurants such as Arpège and Le Cinq and in 2015 he went on to open his own restaurant, Alliance.
Culinary Journeys reflects the shokunin philosophy: they are about the commitment to doing something with excellence. Echoing the success of previous editions held in London, Ibiza and Barcelona, this was an opportunity for lovers of Japanese cuisine, and those curious about this unique food culture, to learn more. Over three days visitors could experience the expertise of this complex world where honor codes, hierarchies and exceptional ingredients are mixed to create a recipe for an authentic cultural exchange.
Written by Club Oenologique staff.