During the JPop Summit 2016, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Tasuo Saito of Japanese NHK Broadcasting’s popular show, Dining with the Chef. The program is in its 5th year. Chef Saito’s beautiful cohost, Yu Hayami, is a singer/actress and started participating in the show 3 years ago. The goal of the show is to convey Japanese cuisine and culture outside of Japan. Chef Saito teaches authentic cooking using ingredients and methods that are professional but he makes it look easy.At 27, Chef Saito worked at the Japanese Embassy in France. This experience triggered him to show appreciation through his cuisine. Dining with the Chef is an opportunity for him to show that appreciation and spread the food through the world. In Japan, people go to restaurants to eat good food and enjoy the environment. You may also drink sake when you go out which pairs better with saltier food so restaurants make food saltier. Whereas, When you cook food at home, you have to think of economy, cost of ingredients, etc. But home food can be healthy and balanced. Some of the dishes Chef Saito wants to introduce to the world is Japanese comfort food (mama’s food), for example, nikujaga (potatoes, onions, and meat stewed in sweetened soy sauce). Earlier in the summit, he had done an easy version of pork with ginger soy sauce marinade, a dish that typically has a variety of different ingredients in the marinade. Chef used ginger ale for a quick and easy version which tasted just as delicious as the original.
Presentation, technique, or flavor are equally important in Japanese cuisine. For example, Japan is the only country where you put the chopstick horizontally across the top of your place setting, and bring the bowls up to your mouth. There are 5 ways of cooking: fried, stir fried, boiled, steamed, raw. Traditional dishes have 5 colors: red, green, blue, white, black. Examples of common black colored food are shiitake mushrooms, nori, black mushrooms, black beans, and black rice. There are 7 different tastes, sweet, salty, spicy, savory, sour, bitter, and umami can be combined together for a complex dish.Presentation is probably the biggest change in Japanese cuisine over the last decade. Young chefs are getting inspired by Asian fusion and bringing it back to Japan in the form of creative presentations. Fifteen years ago, it was more popular to have family style meals, and now the family size is smaller so individual portions have become more popular. Chef Saito believes that what we see as Japanese fusion is closer to the traditional way presentations. Japanese cuisine used to have 7 or 9 courses with a variety of small dishes as we often see now with contemporary Japanese dining. Chef Saito vividly remembers a fish teriyaki dish he had in Washinton DC 2 years ago. The presentation was different with edible flowers and was a little bit spicy. He thought it was very impressive because the base of the traditional dish was the same but the condiments were different. The organic movement is also coming up in Japan. Farm-to-table has been alive in Japan but is picking up more steam now as it reaches global popularity.
His advice to aspiring chefs who want to specialize in Japanese cuisine is to watch their show on NHK World. Just kidding. Instead, chefs should really emphasize basic skills. If you can do the basics, you can use your inspiration to do anything else. Mastering basics takes at least 3 years. Be able to explain what you made with your own words. Think about the person eating, be able to explain why you want to serve something a certain way to that specific person. The word kanji character for the word eat in Japanese, taberu, has “good” inside the “house” so eating means “good inside the house” or “people with good” meaning meeting with people is a good thing. Chefs should keep these things in mind as they hone their craft.
During my interview with Chef Saito and Yu Hayami, I noted that the landscape of Japanese food in Japan seems very similar to that in America. People seem to eat out for the same reasons and to enjoy comfort foods for the same reasons as we do here. As Food Network and cooking shows like Master Chef occupy a regular time slot in household televisions, does Japan see its chefs rising to the same celebrity status? His co-host proudly proclaims that Chef Saito is among the most popular with his energetic character. Although in general, Japanese chefs are very serious as they present a traditionally serious cuisine.
Gender roles in the culinary world seem to have the same challenges as in America for female chefs. Japan is still fairly traditional in their view of gender roles for women as home cooks so on TV there are more female chefs but fewer internationally award winning chefs (Michelin, James Beard) female chefs. We often see more women excel as pastry chefs than executive chefs. Chef Saito believes different inspirations between men and women and hopes to see more female chefs on the horizon.
If the clip below of Dining with the Chef where he makes chicken wing karaage entices you to travel to Japan, Chef Saito’s tip is to go to specialty stores not general restaurants. Also, tempura in Japan is light and fresh and very different from tempura in America. A definite must have in Japan.
*The preceding article was based on an interview with Chef Saito and Yu Hayami with help of a translator. Both co-hosts’ answers through the translator were interwoven into this article and is not verbatim.*