“‘Influence,’ as a word, means to have an impact on people,” said Don Gabor at the introduction of the Japan Society’s event Culinary Masters on Their Japanese Influences. Sometimes influence makes people change, and it can also be something that we give to others whom we mentor and nurture, he added. Chefs Michael Anthony and Marcus Samuelsson are two of the culinary personalities who contributed to the book Chef’s Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers & Cuisine written by Mr. Gabor and Ms. Saori Kawano, founder of The Gohan Society, a Japanese culinary non profit, and president and founder of Korin, the Japanese culinary shop.
Back in 1982, when Ms. Kawano first opened Korin, there was just a small group of American customers who came to her shop and who knew about Japanese cuisine. At that time, there was a big barrier between Western and Japanese chefs in New York. Most of her clients were Japanese chefs; she didn’t think that American chefs would use Japanese cooking tools. Thanks to chefs like Michael Anthony and Marcus Samuelsson, that has changed. Chef Anthony added, you can look around almost every kitchen in NYC these days, even in the one at Gramercy Tavern, and see Japanese knives in the kits of most of the cooks and chefs. They are often used for more precise cuts and knife work than Western knives. As Ms. Kawano stated, this is because “the presentation is like art.”
They also discussed the impact of The Gohan Society, a non-profit organization that seeks to share Japanese culinary heritage with chefs around the United States. For Ms. Kawano, this is about “making Japanese food more accessible to American chefs.” Chefs participate in exchange programs and in sharing ideas and information, taking them back to use in their own cooking or as Chef Anthony explained, “there’s a dialogue.” They also have a scholarship program that brings Japanese chefs into American restaurants to work on an internship and that sends American chefs to Japan to do the same.
Chef Michael Anthony shared his experiences working in Japan after finishing university. The country and culture hold a special place for him as it was where he fell in love with cooking and discovered “what he wanted to do.” Once he managed to work up the courage to go to a restaurant and to ask for a job, he gained a position in an establishment run by chef-owner Shizuyo Shima. “I learned from her my foundation as a chef,” he shared with the audience. “There’s not a single day that I don’t think of that experience.”
It was not only the technical skills and dedication to good craftsmanship that he took away with him; he also took away something inspirational and directional. The sensibilities underneath the surface of his cooking – American food combined with creativity and seasonality – reveal the influences of his time in Japan. He considers himself “lucky to be able to serve that food.” Even in his James Beard Award-winning cookbook, V is for Vegetables, Chef Anthony uses Japanese ingredients and flavors, distilling them for the home cook.
For Chef Marcus Samuelsson, his introduction to Japan came through meeting other young chefs who were culinary students alongside of him. He was impressed by their discipline and wanted to travel to Japan to experience that culture. He also wanted to eat fugu. What he found was that they “didn’t share a language but shared a passion for food.” For him, Japan was very transformative and provided another lens through which to view his new Scandinavian cooking, as both are island nations, have cuisine built upon seafood, and were not in the culinary mainstream.
Although he has been there many times, he remarked, “Japan always humbles and inspires me as a curious chef.” It’s not just about the ingredients, like fresh wasabi, not what we get that is green and comes out of a tube, it’s also about eating on a spiritual compass where there’s explanation needed as to why there’s no pork at a fish restaurant. He also feels that the Japanese have done one of the best jobs of incorporating food as an ‘ambassador’ by way of introducing their culture to others. He often feels like an outsider looking in when he’s there, not fully understanding it but adoring it all the same, which keeps a bit of the magic of the Japanese culture for him.
Chefs Anthony and Samuelsson are only two of the chefs who talk about the influence of Japan on their culinary style in the book Chef’s Choice: 22 Culinary Masters Tell How Japanese Food Culture Influenced Their Careers & Cuisine. This book is now in paperback and is available on line and in stores.
Thank you to Don Gabor, Saori Kawano, and The Japan Society for inviting me to cover this event for them. The photos this article, except the final one, are courtesy Ed Lefkowicz.