PEOPLE – Knowing a lot of recipes doesn’t make you a good cook

05 Nov 2003

I am convinced that what we should tell to our children now is the importance of the “individual-to-individual communication”, because I think it underlies all relationships of mutual trust and a more healthy way of being around the whole world.

We’ve been prioritizing the economic value of efficiency such as convenience, handiness and speed. As a result, it has coerced us into developing artificial additives, pesticides and chemicals and has just made our life more instant and convenient. Yet, on the other hand, it has weakened connections between our neighbors, put the economy above everything else and created a distance between producers and consumers. This process has led to changes in the definitions of food; seasonal products all year round seem artificial, our taste has become less sensitive, and people tend to eat without any imagination, while many people are suffering from overeating. We have survived helping each other in each community. Isn’t it necessary for our own happiness to care about others’ feeling and be aware of the importance of contacts with each other and how we feel as a whole?

I felt uneasy sometimes in the kitchen in my restaurant wondering if I was cooking something that I could serve with full confidence. This is the beginning of my interest in food education. Some things I cooked didn’t satisfy me. I thought a lot about recipes, stock-making methods, cooking tools and, of course, a style of cooking of my own. Also, I doubted the ingredients themselves, but talking with people at the market did not solve the problem. I got even more anxious on seeing actual farms. I visited as many farmers and producers as possible (of rice, wasabi, bonitos for stock, soy sauce, sake and so on) and had talks with them, asking them to make samples and tasting them in return for listening to their complaints. They had some confusion about organics. I visited government offices and agricultural associations and attended various meetings to find out what “organic” really means. As far as I know, as of May 2003, there are only two farmers who have the “Organic Certification” in the Kyoto prefecture. Now farmers teach me about problems such as nitrogen oxide as a nitrogen source and pyramid agriculture. Just criticizing does not make things better, so I asked myself what I could do. My desire to obtain good ingredients is growing stronger and stronger. At the same time, a sense of crisis is increasing as such pure things disappear.

Take soy sauce, for example. Soy sauce made from concentrated fish stock is now widely distributed for its handiness and efficiency in production, which inhibits production of a good soy sauce with traditional methods that does not meet the demand and would cost too much even if it satisfies consumers better. I felt this negative cycle would speed up the pace towards the end of the earth, though it will break down some day in any case. To postpone doomsday, I think it is important for consumers, distribution and producers to be conscious of “food” and “life.” As a target, I’ve also tried to approach the younger generation, who will shoulder the responsibility of the future, not those who have experienced success by themselves, because I thought there would be less of an effect for the people with fixed and biased points of view.

In the lecture I gave to 160 children in their 4th grade, I talked about the passion and the love that goes into producing something, not only food, in dialogue style. Starting from what they ate for breakfast, we traced an ingredients, storing and a marketing route, discussing the production environment and also the personalities of producers. I asked them some questions. Don’t you want to say something to farmers, fishermen and all the people who provide your food for us seriously and earnestly? What is the purpose of study? Is it just to become rich and have a job with a good position? Each person has his or her own area of strength and weakness; don’t you think we have to improve our ability to use our strengths to make up for our weaknesses? As a way of developing capacities, competition could be one thing, but fighting just for yourself means our extinction. I conveyed the importance of improving the knowledge and sense about “food” as a useful ability for people, alongside mathematics and languages. I really want them to eagerly study and train to learn the sense of “food.”

Here are some of the children’s comments about my lecture:

1) It was the first time we imagined the places where vegetables are grown.
2) I want to be like Mr. Tokuoka.
3) I didn’t know that the color of egg yolks changes according feed.
4) I thought I would eat breakfast properly without oversleeping.
5) I won’t leave any food,thinking about people short of food and the people who made it for us.
6) (In an extracurricular activity designed to create a contact with nature and farmers) I’ll work hard on this kind of activity.
7) I was impressed by the word “It’s hard to imagine our distant future but we can look back on the past”.
8) I want to be a person who is useful for the world.

I encouraged children’s mothers and teachers in a kindergarten to compare vegetables from a supermarket with fresh ones from a local organic farm on the day. I also asked them to compare mass-produced soy sauce with an original brand from the Kiccho restaurant made using a traditional method. I then asked them what differences they noted. I explained they should pay particular attention to the differences in the touch, sound, texture, appearance, smell and taste of the foods and to fully utilize the five senses whilst eating, and to try to imagine the scenery round the farms or factories where the food had been produced. I pointed out that to make this effort little by little would revive and improve these latent abilities and to one day make it equal those of people who have eaten what we call good food since their childhood. I explained that it was quite natural if they could not feel it at first, and that the sense would strengthen over time through the constant comparison when cooking or eating. This is a study/exercise to increase understanding of the passion of the producers by imagining who makes things and where.

I believe that imagination helps us improve communication among producers, distributors and consumers. Hopefully, it would also lead to closer relationships in all communities. When I visited farmers, I realized just how hard their lives were. I think that producers have had the hardest time of all, but I don’t think that it’s their fault alone. I wouldn’t even blame distributors and processors. I blame ourselves. Are you cutting corners on everyday? Aren’t you forgetting to come up with new ideas? I ask myself the same questions in my restaurant. “This has to be the size!” ”This has to be the price.” This stereotyped thinking is no use. Knowing a lot of recipes doesn’t make you a good cook. The most important thing to be a good cook is to put the right ingredient in the right place and use a specific recipe. I could make a fine dish even from the tail of a fish. You should try to use unusual recipes on your boyfriend’s birthday. You should use Bicchotan charcoal grill instead of an oven on a special occasion. I would use the best ingredients for my family. Go and bring your kids to a local farm and let them see and buy some nice vegetables. Your kids must learn how to recognize good ones and gain wisdoms and experiences. Most of all, the tie between people and the earth and also within your family would become stronger. Talk to farmers and other people. You will find hidden aspects in which comes through to you.

Finally, I would like to speak about the tea ceremony, which includes many 0f the important elements that I tried to explain above. “Chaji” originally meant the tea ceremony in general, but now it means the proper way of entertaining guests with a meal (kaiseki). When having this kind of ceremony, the host prepares a room from a few days before, pays attention to the utensils and their arrangement— including the tableware to show the purpose of the meal—thinks through the menu, chooses the tea, the flowers, the sweets and the incense carefully, and opens his heart to his guests. The guests all perceive a sense of consideration and gratefully drink the tea. I think this heartfelt exchange and spiritual experience are the essence of the tea ceremony. The etiquette and manners of the ceremony are, in other words, a modern-day protocol for mutual deep communication between individuals. Etiquette and manners are not necessarily tools to make your appearance nice and stylish, but to create an environment and a balance where you could communicate more smoothly and naturally. That is, I think, the core of the life. It is also a reason why people—even those who have nothing to do with the tea ceremony in different cultures—may find it interesting. I believe that the tea ceremony has survived—changing itself without fading away—because it represents the essence of life. As one of my educational activities, I hold events in which grown-ups can experience a genuine Chaji-kaiseki meal. I think that I should be responsible for taking a tradition and conveying a message to people. I would be more than happy if people found a bond in special experiences.

Behind materials and methods are people’s passion, love and themselves. It is very important for us to imagine who made them and where and to try to feel their passion. At the same time, we should cook them in a way to make people imagine. Why don’t you think we need to do our best to deepen our knowledge about food, working on a better relationship with farmers and other food producers? Why don’t we become more sensitive towards natural products and think hard to find ways to protect our environment? The time has come to do this, to get together. I personally am determined to find a way and to make progress little by little—even if I have to do it alone.

Kunio Tokuoka is cook at the Kiccho restaurant (Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan)

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