********** Yoshinori Ishii Executive chef of Japanese restaurant UMU in London ******************

------------------ 英国の日本料理店 UMU 総料理長 石井義典 のつれづれなる話 ------------

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Japanese traditional crafts 日本の伝統工芸品

A little while ago, I had a visit from producers of Japanese traditional tin casting industry of Takaoka city, Toyama prefecture. Since I was a child, I have always been familiar with brass crafts and casting, also I had opportunities to observe art objects made out of tin and other sort of silverish materials for purpose of tea ceremony in Kyoto, however I was not aware that dedicated producers still exists strongly in particular districts where the tradition had continued to be inherited from one generation to the next. 
What appeared from their medium sized luggage were some of their tin and brass collections. Despite their metallic nature, the crafts carried warm calming sensation, and needless to say, wrapped in beautiful form. On the contrary to silverwork’s sharp sophistication, the crafts had almost ceramic-like appeal in their soft figure which I felt was extraordinary. Their softness is in actual touch as well, some of the crafts in fact could be reformed according to owner’s will, benefitting from the special characteristic. I have already started putting my thoughts into how and what purpose should I enjoy this uniqueness and also their strong flow in heat conductivity.
Including from the side of culinary aspect, Japanese culture sometimes lacks in wholesomeness and ability to harmonize with other cultural aspects, due to over concentration on polishing the tiniest detail. This conflict can be seen especially in the mixture of unique Japanese quality and contemporary western society, where simpler furnishing and decorations becoming more and more favoured over detailed designs. Certain Japanese meticulousness sometimes can only be appreciated in certain Japanese environment. The reason why the craft I felt was most appealing out of the samples the producers brought was not the detailed one requires this sort of meticulousness, but rather was the one with beautiful lively outline which embraces the nature of material, could be the fact that now I am in London. 
One of their primary reasons for this visit to London all the way from Japan was due to an honourable request from one of the most renowned restaurant in UK which is famous for its extremely sophisticated and modernized food. The needs for their products in Japan reduce year by year rapidly causing numbers of producers to decreases at the same time. However if the remaining producers continue to pursue creating true crafts as well as answering needs of contemporary world, Japanese traditional industry can exists powerfully and be inherited to next generation, with its significant individuality still at its core. 

Monday, 2 April 2012

Japanese cuisine outside of Japan 海外で日本料理を続けるということ

I’ve always believed Japanese culinary culture to be both unique and high quality. Setting aside patriotic prejudice and observing as a person, I still see the great characters that elevate this almost art-like food culture to first class, such as the pursuit of the best ingredients, persistency in achieving top presentation and services, and above all, the culinary techniques.  From prime industry to market circulation system, thorough on-going training of professionals in various trades, maintaining traditional methods of construction and ceramic arts, the inheritance of the art of tea ceremony and flower arrangement from one generation to the next, philosophy of hospitality, all this seemingly very diverse personalities integrate with each other and to create one of a kind Japanese culture.

As mentioned, Japanese culture is steeped in tradition and history, this has helped develop a very specific set of beliefs and is also relevant to the cultivation of the land and the environment itself. However, these characters do not always impress audiences in the way that they are meant to.  It is perfectly normal that non-Japanese audiences with completely different backgrounds and customs to have difficulty understanding or accepting the form and quality of Japanese culinary culture for example  when the live turbot  is killed and prepared, it is done in a specific and  skilful method to enhance the texture and has to be considered. In most cases Japanese chefs have a quite way about them and how they work together as opposed to the European culture where the norm is to be in very loud and busy kitchens. When viewed by other cultures it may seem unbalanced the attention to detail that goes into every aspect of what we create.

Nowadays, “fusion style”, a mixture of Japanese food and foreign culinary culture, becoming more and more standardized in many countries, which I know  is an inevitable change in the process of pursuing culinary excellence, but still using Japanese formality and rules. The new style might not be acceptable  to  Japanese as “Japanese cuisine”, however to locals, it still is understood as Japanese or, at least, “unique culinary art performed by Japanese chef” even to those who do not eat fish or whose principle food is meat, the fusion restaurants’ contribution to Japanese culinary culture is magnificent.

Despite the fact that more and more Japanese chefs are becoming active in foreign countries , the Japanese food does not have a chance to be understood as culinary art unless the locals are open to trying “sliced raw fish and simply boiled rice”, and the fusion restaurant are often chosen as a place guests to have first experience. The reasons why very traditional, rather formal restaurants are not their primary choice can be learnt from the fact that there is no long established authentic Japanese restaurant famously exist in abroad, yet. In some major cities, Japanese food is well-received that even broken into precise categories such as Kaiseki style, authentic sushi, regional speciality, diversity of noodles, however these cities are still the few special ones.

The Japanese restaurants in most cities, on the contrary, often provide sushi/sashimi using local fishes or convenient set meals or fusion style, rather than traditional style, and London is not an exception. Reinforcement of the immigration law, limitation in ingredients, even with all the hardships we have to overcome, staffs at Umu have to as a team devote ourselves to deliver great culinary experiences, enjoyable by guests with different origins. Moreover, our first priority should be to work hard daily basis in order to continue showing the Umu’s means of existence in London.

There are 2 particular questions that asked most often during Japanese culinary related interviews or conversations;

First, “it must be hard to pursue Japanese culinary art in foreign countries”, and I answer, “Chefs are fortunately well-received in society. There are certainly some difficulties but positively thinking, I can find amusement in overcoming those hurdles.”

The other is, “it must be fun and easy being a chef abroad”, then I would say, “you must be kidding! The immigration law is becoming harder on us worldwide rapidly, let alone the cost of applying for visa. Ingredients aren’t as rich in variety as in Japan, and if I’d chose to purchase products from Japan, then there’s the problem with cost again. And last but not least, the communication can be disaster sometimes!”.

No matter where you choose to pursue cooking, hardships and excitements always co-exist, everywhere. 




“海外で日本料理を続けるのは大変でしょう”→ 料理人としては休みがいっぱいあって楽しいですよ!日本のような過当競争もないし、料理人の社会的地位も高いですし。ハードルはたくさんあるけれどポジティブに考えればそれをクリアーする楽しみもいっぱいあります!

“海外で日本料理を続けるのは楽で良いですね”→ 冗談じゃない!日本人を雇おうにもビザが世界的に取れなくなってきているし、それにかかるコストも尋常じゃない。材料も日本のように豊富ではないし、日本製を使おうものなら全てに輸送コストと関税がかかる。何より言葉が分からん!