Chefs with Issues: Why culinary Japan matters - and even more so now
June 3rd, 2011
01:45 PM ET
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Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. David Kinch is the chef and proprietor of the two- Michelin star Manresa Restaurant in Los Gatos, California. He is also a partner with Cynthia Sandberg in the biodynamic and organic Love Apple Farm - the exclusive kitchen-garden for Manresa.

With the terrible, heartbreaking tragedy and aftermath that has hit Japan, it is easy to overlook the country’s restaurant and hospitality industry and the devastating hit it has taken.

But the road to recovery will also include a resumption of travel and tourism and a return of a new sense of normalcy for the Japanese people as they get back to their lives, food and restaurant culture.

And, what a culinary culture it is.

Japan has always seemed a bit of a mystery, a final frontier to many who travel the world looking for great restaurants and cuisine. For Western cooks, it has always been a tough nut to crack.

For me, it was a seemingly daunting challenge, not only of language, but also of the Japanese reputation of preferring to be guarded - assuming (fearing?) that outsiders would not understand nor appreciate the experience.

The very best of Japan has always offered a far away promise, one of incredible ingredients and a genuine reverence for them. It’s about the passionate individuals who procure them, coupled with a complex regionalism and the appreciation and respect for old traditions.

At the same time, Japan is always looking to the future, unafraid of Modernism and other contemporary styles. All of this along with Japan’s deep cultural connections results in the very best of culinary traditions.

Over the past couple of years there has been a new openness from travelers visiting the country. For better or worse, the Michelin Guide helped diners discover places they may have never otherwise tried. It offered detailed information about amazing restaurants including phone numbers and maps - then, boom! It was like a giant door swung open and chefs started to travel there in trickles and then suddenly in droves.

And what are they finding over there? Most will shake their head in wonder and describe experiences as if they were newborn babies. I know that feeling.

There is impeccable technique at all levels of cooking in Japan.

Craftsmanship and quality of tools? Check. Technical skill level? It’s all there. Intimate levels of hospitality, with the chef whose name is on the door — more often than not — cooking in front of you, handing your food to you, making sure that you are pleased. And the flavors!

Most ambitious European restaurants in the past 35 years have had their share of Japanese externs and stagiaires passing through their doors. It first happened in France and Italy and then the trend quickly spread through Germany and Spain.

Many Western cooks had their first real exposure to Japan through these visiting cooks from Japan — their knives made Western tools seem almost primitive by comparison.

In turn, the Japanese cooks absorbed the best of Western restaurant culture, not only in the kitchen but also with new types of customer service and wine service.

This new highly skilled and trained work force returned to their cosmopolitan, well-traveled, and educated country - one that boasts a culture of connoisseurs - with the means to support new restaurants within a vibrant and extremely competitive scene.

It all lends credence to the argument that Japan in general, and Tokyo in particular, might very well be the greatest restaurant country and city in the world. Some might even argue that the best French and Italian restaurants in the world outside their respective countries might very well be in Japan.

Through my professional life and education as a cook, I’ve been to many countries and have worked and dined at great restaurants with people who are now my mentors and peers. It all helped shape what I regard as the fundamentals and foundation of what great cuisine is really all about.

You can’t fake quality ingredients and the better you source, the better your food will be.

I learned that you don’t manipulate products to the point where their intangible greatness and provenance is hidden, or worse, destroyed for the sake of fashion or novelty. I learned to treat the ingredients with respect. The reward is not only satisfaction and pleasure for the guest but to yourself as a cook.

I learned that God was in the details.

And as all of us cooks get older and more experienced, we realize how to keep it simple - when to stop adding ingredients, when nothing else should be removed. It’s the sign of maturity, of a quiet self-confidence, that one’s true original style is manifesting itself.

These are the qualities and characteristics that are present in all great restaurants, regardless of style, country or location.

The Japanese dining culture is important to me because it embodies these fundamentals and the very spirit of timeless, dynamic cooking in the globalized food culture we now live in. It’s a reminder of how a dedication to one’s craft, a search for knowledge and understanding of history, hard work and a genuine concern for the well-being of your guests are the true essentials in what we have chosen as our profession.

And then there is that flavor. I dream all the time about the food I have had there. I would never consider cooking fusion or Japanese cuisine at Manresa but, for me, there are many lessons to be learned and reminded of again and again.

Their chefs have a saying: a true measure of quality is when you can close your eyes and know what you are eating. I love that - the purity, a true respect for seasonality.

But most of all, I am drawn to the “simple” appearance of their style of cooking - a simplicity that is subtle in detail, such as texture, and devoid of any and all unnecessary elements. It’s only the good stuff with no place to hide.

This thought has had more influence on us at Manresa and how we try our best to craft a guest’s experience. We spend most of our time trying to apply these lessons in our "California" cuisine.

Our culinary world is growing smaller. It’s one where we can “virtually” visit any ambitious restaurant on earth via blogs and the Web and duplicate what they are doing in an instant. It’s one where we are confronted with shrinking resources and quality issues.

And, it’s one where the internationalist style of fine dining means the pursuit of creativity as the supreme value. It all renders restaurants into a boring sameness. This “new” world of Japan is a breath of inspiration and fresh air.

I can only hope that as Japan fights to recover, that this grand culinary landscape, both traditional and contemporary, will return in full and be poised to make its mark in this new spirit of openness to the world, as it deserves to be.

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Filed under: Asian • Bite • Chefs with Issues • Cuisines • Favorites • Japan • Japanese • Think • Travel


soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. A4yhvvbSQ0awu

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    July 25, 2013 at 4:52 am | Reply
  2. nina786

    hmmmm nice one....really good...:)
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    June 7, 2011 at 11:38 am | Reply
  3. Shirley U Jest

    Write on and right on David. Your article touched my culinary core. The Japanese have a wonderful cooking philosophy.

    June 3, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Reply

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