Feature

Why Are So Many U.S. Chefs Obsessed With Japanese Food?

By Jamie Feldmar  |  November 16, 2015
Credit: Phoebe Bradford

Last month, I went to Japan for the first time. Like many people, I had dreamed of traveling to the Land of the Rising Sun for years, but unlike some of them, my dreams were driven primarily by one thing: food. As I started planning my trip, it quickly became apparent that many people in my professional life— chefs, fellow food writers, bartenders, etc.— were nothing short of obsessed with the place. Everyone had a list, a lead and a guy who knew the freshest sushi, the best tempura or the strongest coffee. No one could stop talking about how amazing Japan's food was.

Consider the results of the Western food world’s fascination with Nippon: we experienced an explosion of ramenya beginning around 2008, when the Japanese chain Ippudo opened its first location in New York. We were deeply moved by the story of an octogenarian dedicated to making the perfect rice. We all, apparently, have a crush on matcha and okonomiyaki right now, and our new special-occasion meal is omakase. (Alternately: cat cafes.) The common thread? All of these things started in Japan and made their way over to the U.S. 

But I wanted to know why. What is it about Japan that draws so many chefs and food lovers to board a 15-hour flight to a tiny island where English is not widely spoken, restaurant reservations are essential but difficult to make, and you’re generally left feeling overwhelmed and mildly confused by everyday interactions? And conversely, why were these niche Japanese delicacies and techniques making their way back onto plates in the U.S.?

After two weeks eating and drinking my way through Kyushu, Kyoto and Tokyo, I have a few hypotheses, but no official answers — so I turned to some of the chefs and writers who encouraged me to go in the first place. What they had to say is by no means a definitive conclusion, but there are a few recurring themes that shed valuable insight into how and why Japanese food culture has captured the food world’s collective imagination — and what that means for the future of our cuisine. 

Shokunin at work

Craftsmanship is real: This is, without a doubt, the aspect of Japanese society that Western chefs are most enamored of. All across the country, you’ll encounter shokunin, which translates literally to “craftsman” or “artisan,” but in Japan means much more — shokunin spend unknown hours working to achieve perfection, often of one technique, fulfilling an obligation that’s both material and metaphysical. “The quiet pursuit of perfection — that unwavering dedication to a single ideal — is what I think is the most beautiful element of Japanese culture,” says Matt Goulding, the author of the recently released travel guide Rice, Noodle, Fish, who dedicated the book to Japan’s shokunin. It’s a far cry from the Western kitchen model, where cooks bop between stations, learn a wide array of techniques and change employers every few years. “That’s what drives chefs to go to Japan — they recognize that the level of dedication there exceeds anything we see in the Western world,” Goulding says. 

Yakitori skewers

It’s highly specialized: Running in tandem with the emphasis on craft is the focus on specialization — most restaurants in Japan are single-subject, with limited menus (and often limited seating), and diners plan accordingly. “Japanese people don’t go out and wonder what they’re going to eat tonight. They go out specifically seeking soba, or tempura, or sushi, and go to a place where the chef is focused on perfecting that one thing,” says Justin Smillie, chef-partner at NYC’s Upland, who has family in Japan and travels there often. The result is a deeper understanding of the ingredients and techniques involved in making said dish, often resulting in an exceptionally high-quality version of it. “In most parts of the world, a chicken is quartered. At a Japanese yakitori, it’s meticulously cut into 36 pieces and carefully grilled,” says Smillie. “That just goes to show how sophisticated the food culture there is.”

Ramen from All'Onda in NYC

Less is more: In Japan, seasonal ingredients are treated with great reverence, which largely means leaving them alone and letting their natural flavor shine. “A very smart kaiseki master from Kyoto once told me that Western cuisine is the cuisine of addition, and Japanese is the cuisine of subtraction,” says Goulding. Indeed, many of the chefs I spoke to with experience in Japan say that the way the culture there has influenced their own kitchens most powerfully is the idea of restraint. “What I respect most in Japanese cooking is that it’s all about simple manipulation of high-quality ingredients,” says Chris Jaeckle, chef and partner at the Japanese-inflected Venetian spot All’Onda and the fast-casual Uma Temakaria in New York. “It’s something that I preach to my cooks all the time: you’re only as good as your ingredients, and simple cooking is the hardest thing to do well.”

Chicken at Lawson's

There’s no such thing as a bad meal: It sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s true. Even the food that should be bad is really, really good in Japan — 7-11s stock colorful bento boxes and rice balls, Lawson’s (a ubiquitous 24-hour convenience chain) is famous for their addictive fried chicken and conveyor-belt sushi is fresh and seasonal. “I have literally never eaten a bad thing there,” says Ken Oringer, the chef-restaurateur of Uni, Coppa and Toro in Boston and New York. “They take every piece of food seriously.” It’s not just at restaurants, either — Japanese grocery stores and department-store food emporiums are the stuff of legend, stocked with aisle upon aisle of perfect seasonal produce, seafood, pastries and more (much of which is bought and consumed as gifts). “You have to try really, really hard to buy bad ingredients,” says Smillie. 

It’s mysterious: Although the Japanese deeply value hospitality, and visitors tend to come back raving about their dining experiences, it’s nearly impossible for outsiders to crack below the surface of the culture. Michael Anthony, executive chef and partner at Gramercy Tavern and Untitled in New York, who lived and worked in Japan for two years early in his career, says: “You could live there forever and never be fully accepted and acclimated into the culture.” Oringer, who’s been traveling to the country for nearly 20 years, readily admits that “there’s still so much I don’t and probably will never know — Japan always leaves you wanting more.” 

Dominique Ansel torches a Frozen S'more at the Tokyo bakery

It’s the future: Despite the aforementioned impenetrability, there is a wave of cross-culturalization taking place. Dominique Ansel, who just opened the first international outpost of his popular French patisserie in Tokyo, cites the abundance of French-trained pastry talent as one factor in his decision, but adds that “I’m really curious to explore the more creative side of things — there are great chefs in Japan that have a real sense of humor and wittiness in the food that they're creating.” And the exchange goes both ways: Western concepts like Dean & Deluca and Garrett’s Popcorn (and, of course, Starbucks and Hooters) operate in Tokyo to great success, not to mention outposts of restaurants like Union Square Cafe and Grand Central Oyster Bar. Copenhagen's Noma, arguably the best restaurant in the world (if not the most cutting-edge), even popped up in Tokyo in January of this year for a month-long stint. Anthony, who has traveled back to Japan with Gramercy Tavern staff, believes that “in the next five to 10 years Japan will be the most desired place for young cooks to study,” mentioning fermentation and preserving as the next wave of skills Western chefs can learn from Nippon. And the reverse is true, he adds: “I think Japan is ready to accept ideas from the outside too.”