I’m certainly not a fan of food fashions, ready to try every novelty and new trend; nor am I influenced by prejudice against innovations or worse still, by mindless traditionalism. It is not unlike the concept of identity: it can be dangerous, static and narrow-minded, but in actual fact it is only generated and strengthened through dialogue and comparison which create differences.
Among the intrusive food and restaurant trends we face today, the latest and most obvious is Japan-mania, a real kind of ‘Japanisation’: restaurants and sushi bars galore, and strong Japanese influences in what is known today as fusion cuisine, creative though it claims to be. As if this were not enough, minimalist furnishing and Zen-style architecture are appearing in our cities (and homes), ravioli and spaghetti are served on dinner services made for sushi and sashimi, and there are even publications and magazines about ‘discovering Japan’ in the newspaper stands.
We have also noted the presence of countless young Japanese in the kitchens of our osterie,here in Italy. This is a real invasion, but will create much more vivacity in the sector when they begin to strike out on their own. These kids do not worry me, because they work hard and are willing to do a tough job with little demand. What concerns me is the trivialisation of an ancient culture – its lifestyle, tastes, aesthetic models – I see perpetrated with a certain ignorance by large city fashionistas.
I confess that I am perhaps excessively fond of teppaiaki, sushi, tempura and sashimi; I am fascinated by the respect for fresh, seasonal ingredients in the Japanese daily diet, and the care taken over presentation and colour scheme on the plate. But I am strongly critical of the plethora of western-run Japanese restaurants, their cooks on a quest for creative expertise, indulging their whims in a Japanese style.
Not that I am a particularly energetic defender of traditions – I just can’t stand to see one of the most fascinating and complex food cultures in the world popularised in this way. It has reached the same extent as nouvelle cuisine and, more recently, the trend for Catalan food: a ridiculous aping with the ultimate consequence that anything good in these new styles and cultural mixtures is lost.
Recently I ate at Jewel Bako in New York. The name of this restaurant was on everyone’s lips and it was recommended by people of proven competence. It is run by two Americans and serves slightly revisited Japanese cuisine. The food was excellent and I ate very well. But I found myself in a stylish and minimal (in all senses of the word) restaurant, surrounded by skeletal models and absurdly attired dandies, spending $150 without wine.
A friend of mine always says that if you spend that much in a restaurant, you really can’t say you ate badly. And he’s not Japanese.
First published in La Stampa on August 7 2004
Carlo Petrini is the president of Slow Food
Adapted by Ailsa Wood