The New Generation of Chefs Pushing Japanese Food in Unexpected Directions

The New Generation of Chefs Pushing Japanese Food in Unexpected Directions

23 mins read

IN 1906, THE YOKOHAMA-BORN scholar Okakura Kakuzo published “The Book of Tea,” a brief tract for Western readers on chanoyu, the centuries-old, highly ritualized Japanese tea ceremony. He argued that the aestheticization of the humble act of drinking tea — “the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence” — must be understood as an ethos underlying an entire culture, from its arts and literature to the “delicate dishes” of its cuisine. His intent was to demystify, but his words had almost the opposite effect, heightening the sense of opacity surrounding both the Japanese approach to and the island nation itself, which from the early 17th century until 1853 was almost completely closed off from the rest of the world.

More than 50 years after Kakuzo’s treatise, the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, in his 1970 monograph “Empire of Signs,” described Japanese cooking in even more esoteric terms, arguing that it privileged the infinitesimal over Western abundance and was practiced “in a profound space which hierarchizes man, table and universe.” Today, Westerners remain in thrall to this vision of washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine, as forbiddingly precise, each ingredient presented sparely and simply within the narrow window of ripeness in which it has fulfilled its destiny, to reflect the ephemerality of life. (Never mind that this philosophy has only ever applied to kaiseki, the most rarefied level of Japanese dining.)

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So it’s slightly disconcerting to find a bag of Safeway-brand jalapeño Cheddar cheese bagels — surely not representative of the beautiful in any culture — in the kitchen at Hannyatou, a tiny sake bar in Seattle helmed by the chef Mutsuko Soma. Lumpy and craggy, the bagels are treated as a serious ingredient: pulverized, then calibrated with salt and koji (grains or legumes inoculated with spores of Aspergillus oryzae, phylogenetically kin to the mold that turns coagulated milk into blue cheese) and left to turn funky and fetid over weeks. Soma grew up north of Tokyo and came to the United States at the age of 18. She is one of several chefs outside Japan — expatriates, immigrants and nisei and sansei (second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants), as well as gaijin (foreigners), drawn, often circuitously, to the cuisine — who have opened restaurants in the past few years that are pushing Japanese food in unexpected, even counterintuitive directions.

Purists might dispute the idiosyncratic unfolding of kaiseki at the haute Odo, half-hidden like a speakeasy at the back of a cocktail bar in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, where Hiroki Odo has been known to forsake tempura in the agemono (fried) course in favor of a French croquette heavy with béchamel. There will be quibbles over the dashi deployed at the Los Angeles breakfast and lunch spot Konbi, since the chefs, Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery, leave the bonito shavings to steep and simmer longer than usual, privileging deep, brooding flavor over clarity. And downright bewilderment might greet the melting of Swiss cocoa powder into curry at Tatsu Aikawa’s cheekily named Domo Alley-Gato bar in Austin, Tex.

Yet however maverick or heretical on the surface, the work of these chefs is rooted in Japanese technique. Soma treats those jalapeño Cheddar cheese bagels as if they were soybeans en route to miso, and the paste they become achieves the same desirable tang of salty-sweet underground rot. Nor is there anything radical about these chefs’ attention to seasonality and place, tenets at the heart of washoku. It just so happens that the place in question is not Japan but Paris, in the 11th Arrondissement, where the American chefs Robert Compagnon and Jessica Yang of Le Rigmarole have adopted Japanese yakitori as, Compagnon says, “a framing mechanism for whatever is in season” — tiny charred tomatoes with puckering skins, leeks daubed with cod-roe mayonnaise — and made variants on the sour-spicy condiment yuzu kosho out of French citrus fruits as they come in and out of harvest. In Brooklyn, Patch Troffer, an American chef of Japanese descent who last year took over the kitchen at the farm-to-table institution Marlow & Sons, supplants wasabi with horseradish root grown in upstate New York. “It’s the food of the displaced and the diaspora,” Troffer says. “What happens when you don’t have the right ingredients” — a lesson he learned from his Japanese grandmother, who married a marine during the Korean War and wound up in South Carolina, making dashi out of canned clams and writing to Katagiri grocery in New York to beg for shipments of soy sauce and umeboshi.

Odo, a native of Kyushu, has had to adjust to the tastes and textures of American ingredients, as well as the bias of the American palate toward more flagrant flavors. The almost ascetic simplicity of classical kaiseki can be a cultural barrier; diners here “might feel like they’re eating nothing,” he says. (His American-born sous chef, Brian Saito, translated for us.) Foraged vegetables from Pennsylvania and upstate New York are delivered to the restaurant once a week. On a recent afternoon in April, they included ramps, whose garlicky punch would be considered too strong for dishes intended to accompany the tea ceremony in Kyoto, where Odo apprenticed in the cuisine. But “this is New York kaiseki,” he says, so he commits to richness and pairs the ramps with wild Alaskan king salmon, an oily fish that is marinated in bourbon — instead of sake — chosen partly for aroma and partly for provenance: It’s made nearby at Brooklyn’s Kings County Distillery.

For Aikawa, who at the age of 10 was whisked by his mother from Tokyo to a rural Texan commune, food tells the story of immigration and the meeting of cultures. “When I go to a barbecue, I bring a tub of rice,” he says. At Kemuri Tatsu-ya, the half-izakaya, half-barbecue spot he and the chef Takuya Matsumoto opened in 2017, he categorizes brisket as lean or toro, borrowing from sushi vocabulary the designation of fatty tuna. “I want to treat brisket like sashimi — put it on a pedestal,” he says. His take on Texas barbecue is straightforward (“out of respect”), but there’s a touch of miso in the sauce, and he anoints yakitori skewers of chicken skin with garlic salt and lime to honor his Mexican neighbors.

Within this cohort, several chefs revel in the juxtaposition of Japanese and Italian cuisine — the latter long beloved in Japan, where it is fondly called itameshi, and where local chefs obsess over perfecting Neapolitan pizza with kerchief-thin, pliant crusts and cooking spaghetti to the exact second of al dente. Amid the parade of yakitori at Le Rigmarole, Compagnon and Yang present pasta that shows a clear debt to Italy while resembling no codified recipe; even their noodle shapes and names — cushioni, for ravioli that look like doll pillows; faniciulle, from the Italian word for maidens, elaborately folded like demure hoods — are the chefs’ inventions. At Blackship in West Hollywood, which opened last December, the New York-raised Keiichi Kurobe presses shiso leaves into housemade noodles and garnishes dishes with them in lieu of basil. And a few miles away, in the Palms neighborhood, the best-known dish at Niki Nakayama’s n/naka is the pasta that materializes in the middle of her otherwise recognizably Japanese kaiseki: Derived from a genre of food called yoshoku — dishes borrowed from the West and freely altered with local ingredients to satisfy Japanese tastes — her spaghetti is glossed with mentaiko (pickled cod roe), as it might appear in Japan, then strewn with petals of razor-cut abalone and black truffles.

THESE DISHES CONFOUND Western notions of what Japanese food should be, in part because diners who haven’t grown up eating the cuisine often encounter it in the limited binary framework of high and low: austere sushi bars where the tab starts at three figures versus quick-turnover ramen shops, with few options in between. In adopting ingredients and techniques from other cultures, the new movement might even uncomfortably recall the Asian-fusion that started in the late ’80s, which was spearheaded by chefs of European descent. But where those chefs filtered Japanese cuisine through a Western perspective, taking Japanese elements out of context and subsuming and bending them to their will, today’s chefs are doing the opposite — viewing the West and its culinary traditions through a Japanese lens. As the thinking on diversity in America has evolved from the metaphor of a melting pot to a mosaic, in which each piece keeps its integrity while enriching the whole, the concept of fusion has become archaic, replaced by a more organic understanding of how food changes when people immigrate and have to adapt to the ingredients on hand.

By refuting rigid orthodoxy — and some inchoate standard of authenticity — these chefs remind us that Japanese cuisine is not some repository of edicts past but a lived and living tradition, as well as a pastiche, one that has borrowed unapologetically from other cultures throughout history, despite the country’s long seclusion. Tempura, both dish and word, was a gift from the Portuguese, whose language was brought accidentally to Japan when, in 1543, three Portuguese sailors on a Chinese ship made contact in southern Japan. Jesuit missionaries followed, ultimately passing on a recipe for peixinhos da horta (“little fish of the garden”): green beans dusted in flour and deep-fried.

Curry arrived in the 19th century, during the Meiji era, from India via the British Royal Navy, when the subcontinent was part of the Raj. It was considered a Western dish and thus pricey, until the late 1950s, when Japanese companies started selling instant curry that produced a dish milder and sweeter than either its British or Indian counterpart. Troffer modeled his curry after the best-selling S&B brand but with a lashing of heat; during the colder months, it’s served at Marlow as it often appears in Japan, with pork katsu, a cutlet gilded in panko. Aikawa took his Texas version further afield, finding kinship to Louisiana gumbo and Mexican mole as he wrangled more than two dozen spices trying to strike the right balance, recalibrating by the gram in batch after batch. He serves his curry straight or amped up into a near chili, which is stuffed in a brioche bun and topped by a hot dog that’s been patted down with panko and deep-fried so it suggests a hard-shell taco.

Ramen, likewise, has no time-honored history. According to George Solt’s “The Untold History of Ramen” (2014), the dish is said to have first appeared in 1910 in Tokyo, under the name shina soba (Chinese noodles); almost vanished during World War II, when flour was strictly rationed and street vendors were banned; and revived with imports of wheat under the midcentury U.S. occupation — when Americans hoped to keep the population sated and therefore invulnerable to the promises of communism — to eventually flourish postwar as a hearty and cheap lunch. Of all Japanese foods, it might be “the most open, the most receptive to change and experimentation,” the American-born chef Ivan Orkin wrote (with Chris Ying) in the 2013 cookbook “Ivan Ramen.”

Japanese chefs must typically apprentice for years before they get the opportunity to run their own kitchens, but Shigetoshi Nakamura won fame for his ramen shop in Tokyo while still in his 20s. Earlier this decade, he opened an eponymous shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and this year he converted the storefront next door to Niche, focusing on mazemen, a version of ramen that largely dispenses with broth. In homage to the neighborhood’s historic Jewish delis, Nakamura cold-smokes salmon in-house and drapes it over noodles in a loose sauce of cod roe and olive oil.

Even the California roll, often held up as an example of sacrilege, is believed to have been invented by a Japanese immigrant chef in the late 1960s, who, finding himself in Los Angeles without a reliable supply of bluefin tuna, swapped in an ingredient more plentiful on the West Coast, one with its own richness and heft: avocado.

AS THE CONTOURS and definitions of Japanese food have expanded, many chefs who are not of Japanese descent have also devoted themselves to this contemporary, freewheeling style, further collapsing and questioning the boundaries between the East and the West. Compagnon and Yang see their Paris restaurant as an ideal compact between cultures equally obsessed with mastery; as Compagnon says with a laugh, “France and Japan are the only two culinary cultures that respect each other while looking down on everyone else.” (Some of today’s most lauded French restaurants in Paris — including Les Enfants Rouge, Clown Bar and Abri — are run by chefs from Japan, whose compatriots back in their native country are equally scrupulous in their devotion to French cuisine.) Compagnon came to Japanese food by first studying Japanese language and literature, as did Orkin, who grew up on New York’s Long Island and lived in Tokyo for years. These chefs are quick to acknowledge their status as gaijin and students, not masters, of the dishes they’ve come to love. Orkin and Ying’s forthcoming book’s title, “The Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes from a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider,” addresses it directly, while Compagnon and Yang demur from calling Le Rigmarole a Japanese restaurant, speaking instead of a prevailing aesthetic and attention to technique.

For Troffer — whose half-Japanese mother didn’t cook Japanese food often but always had nori and a pot of rice at the ready — there is no distance between East and West. “I’m being very clear to myself that I’m not doing Japanese food,” he says. “I want to explore what it is to be Japanese-American.” The results reflect an attunement to the full range of possibility latent in each ingredient: He layers and deepens flavors by using dashi instead of water, “finding every little moment where an ingredient can slip its way in and add something,” he says. Nevertheless, his grandmother was skeptical when he showed her a photograph of his okonomiyaki, which he calls a sour cabbage pancake on his menu in homage to how she used to make it, with little more than shredded cabbage, soy sauce and flour. A fried egg is laid over it, in a flop. “She gave me the most disapproving eyebrow,” he says.

Yet in Japan, this would hardly be heretical. Freedom is built into the very name of the dish; broken down into okonomi and yaki, it means whatever you want, thrown on the grill. And although the okonomiyaki most commonly found throughout Japan originated in Osaka, there are a number of regional variations, including the Hiroshima style, in which the dish is built one strata at a time: first batter, followed by cabbage, bean sprouts, pork and noodles and, finally, yes, a fried egg, with the rest of the pancake shoveled over it and then flipped so the egg lands on top.

Sometimes Japanese visitors to Odo’s restaurant in Manhattan tell him that they miss the milder flavors of traditional kaiseki. But the chef remains firm in his mission. The strict etiquette and radical simplicity of the formal meal are “not very welcoming to Americans,” he says, which contradicts the Japanese principle of omotenashi, an elevated form of hospitality in which the guest’s happiness is the focus of all action and thought. Even in Japan, kaiseki can intimidate diners, particularly of the younger generation. To ameliorate this, Zaiyu Hasegawa, the chef of Den, a modern kaiseki spot that opened in 2008 in Tokyo, begins each meal with monaka, an everyday Japanese treat of adzuki bean paste smeared between mochi wafers. While his filling is elevated, studded with foie gras and persimmon, its appearance is not: The dish arrives at the table as the kind of sandwich cookie sold at convenience stores, complete with a paper wrapper. Later comes a salad with carrots cut into the emoji with hearts for eyes and a box evoking Kentucky Fried Chicken that contains wings shucked of bone and stuffed with sticky rice, nestled on a bed of straw.

The food is thrillingly irreverent, so at first you don’t notice how fastidious it is, how close to perfection. You laugh, and then you fall silent, the quick visual delight giving way to depths of flavor and something more elusive — a consciousness of food as past and present, at once memory and daily recurrence. The old ways meet the new — not in combat but in continuance.

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