Can A Cooking Competition Work To Promote A Nation's Cuisine?


The judges, Mr. Kimio Nonaga of Nihonbashi Yukari in Tokyo and Mr. Shuichi Kotani of Worldwide Soba in New York, carefully observes the two contestants at this year’s Washoku World Challenge”Akiko Katayama

Japanese food is more popular than ever around the world. There are approximately 118,000 Japanese restaurants outside Japan in 2017, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan (MAFF). This number has increased by 30% since the same statistics two years ago. “Traditional Japanese cuisine” (Washoku) was granted the status of an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2013, just as “Gastronomic meal of the French” was recognized in 2010.

Now a record number of non-Japanese people are not only eating Japanese food, but also learning how to cook it. There are reputable sushi schools in the US such as the California Sushi Academy and the Sushi Chef Institute. Also, the Culinary Institute of America, a.k.a. the Harvard of culinary schools, has been offering a program “Japanese Advanced Cooking” since 2016, which is taught by a traditional kaiseki chef from the Tsuji Culinary Institute, an equally renowned culinary school in Japan.

Since the Spanish government turned to its profound food culture to promote the nation’s tourism and has massively succeeded in the last decade or so, food is becoming an important part of national policy and strategy in many countries.

Japan is one of them, and the Japanese government is actively promoting the popularity of their unique culinary tradition. For instance, MAFF organizes “the Washoku World Challenge”. It is an annual cooking contest since 2013 where Japanese cuisine chefs from all over the world compete in technical expertise and passion for Japanese food.

If you are interested in going to Japan and participating in Japanese cooking training seminars in Japan for free, this is it. But to get there, you must qualify at one of the five cities worldwide (Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Bangkok, and Osaka). The six chefs who pass the qualifiers will be invited to the final tournament in Tokyo.

2018 is the 6th year of the contest, and the New York regional tournament was held on September 21 at the Institute of Culinary Education. You would expect to find a roomful of aspiring chefs there, but alas, there were only two competitors.

Why only two? Mr. Masahiro Shimane, the deputy director at MOFA said, “There are a couple of reasons. One is the cost. For regional tournaments, participants must pay travel expenses themselves. This year, the UN Assembly occurred around the same time, which raised hotel room rates and airfare drastically. So staying in New York for two nights only for the tournament could cost $2,000.”

The second and perhaps the more significant reason for not having enough contestants, was the criteria of applicants. In order to participate, the applicant must be of non-Japanese nationality with experience in cooking Japanese cuisine over two years of experience as a chef. In other words, you need to work at a Japanese restaurant for at least two years just to apply to participate in the contest. The Japanese government aims to educate a global audience what the authentic Japanese cuisine is. So it makes sense that the qualification is so specific.

But is it the right way to preserve the culinary tradition? You may recall the term “sushi police”. In 2006, MOFA proposed to start certifying “authentic” Japanese restaurants overseas and received strong negative reactions. The project faded away, but the argument of how to preserve the authenticity outside Japan remains contentious, especially in the times of culinary globalism.

Mr. Shimane of MOFA is open-minded. “When California rolls came out and became popular, most Japanese scorned and disapproved it as sushi. Nowadays it is one of the popular items at casual sushi restaurants in Japan. Personally I think it is OK to open the doors to the contest’s applicants who have less experience at Japanese restaurants. But there are different opinions.”

There are important elements that everybody agrees to regard as the essence of Japanese cuisine. For example, one of the tests at the contest was “katsuramuki”, a quintessential knife skill to cut daikon radish into extremely fine pieces that resemble art, because knife skills represent respect to ingredients and the craftsmanship of knife makers.

The two contestants at this year’s New York tournament were Mr. Samuel Flores Garcia from Mexico, and Mr. Christopher O’Hearn from the US. Both impressed the judges with their outstanding level of skillsets (Mr. Flores Garcia eventually won the first place and will compete in Tokyo on January 28th and 29th, 2019).

“It is a great surprise to find these talented chefs at the contest who will hopefully serve as Japan’s culinary ambassador in the future”, said Mr. Shimane.

Which type of ambassador the Japanese government should find remains a question: authentic chef or free-spirited culinary mind who could grow Japanese cuisine on local soil?

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