The recent appointment of a new head chef at The Square, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair, caused a minor stir among gastronomic folk. For the first time in London, a Japanese chef is leading the brigade at an elite French restaurant.
One glance at Yu Sugimoto’s CV, however, would show that he is well up to the task: he spent nine years at Le Meurice in Paris under the tutelage of Yannick Alléno and Alain Ducasse, so his mastery of cuisine is as haute and French as it comes. The Square’s new owner – Marlon Abela, who also owns the resolutely Japanese Umu, in Bruton Place – describes the kitchen’s cooking as “modern haute cuisine with a Japanese sensibility”.
In Paris, Sugimoto was far from alone. About 40 of the city’s restaurants have Japanese head chefs, and there has long been a mutual culinary respect between France and Japan, based on both countries’ extensive and noble restaurant tradition.
As Abela notes, “Japanese chefs have become fundamental to top Italian and Spanish restaurants too. They take everything – and I mean this positively – very, very seriously: the food, the restaurant, the technique are all embedded in their culture.”
The vogue in the food world for all things Japanese, though, is not restricted simply to Japanese chefs cooking French food. When you can find a sushi bar on every street corner, yuzu juice in supermarkets, wagyu beef in steak restaurants and sake being sniffed and swirled as seriously as wine, even in non-Japanese restaurants, something is clearly afoot.
Take another Japanese import: wasabi. A pale green rhizome that looks a little like ginger and adds a sweet and pungent kick to sushi and sashimi, it is now being grown by enterprising Dorset farmers in old watercress beds. A far cry from the bright green paste in tubes – mostly horseradish, mustard, colouring and sweeteners with precious little true wasabi – The Wasabi Company’s fresh, genuine version is being snapped up by both Japanese and European chefs.
Top-grade wasabi is not an easy crop to grow. “It was a case of trial and error,” says company co-founder Jon Old, “and there was a lot of error in the trials, but we got there in the end.
“There are lots of top British chefs who wouldn’t put imported ingredients on the menu, but because we grow the wasabi here it ticks the local and seasonal boxes.” Mark Hix’s restaurants and The Pig hotels are customers, as is Brett Graham at the two-Michelin-star The Ledbury, who has used it with slow-cooked short rib of beef, smoked onions and bone marrow, or in a starter with scallops and a seaweed and herb oil.
Having visited many of his Japanese restaurant clients all over Europe, Old has diversified into selling products he has seen in their kitchens: vinegars, sauces, seaweed, oils and various kinds of miso. Miso paste is made from fermented soy beans and first became a buzzword when Nobu Matsuhisa’s eponymous restaurants started serving his famous miso-marinated black cod more than 20 years ago. Miso is loaded with umami, the so-called “fifth taste”. It is a word chefs have bandied around freely for a while and it is now gaining currency among the general public. Originally isolated and described in 1908, it is a sort of savoury, meaty quality in food that can be detected on the palate, along with saltiness, bitterness, sourness and sweetness.
Western cuisine has always contained umami – roast beef, anchovies, Parmesan, tomatoes and mushrooms all contain the glutamates responsible for umami – but it is only recently that European cooks have given it the same status as the four other basic tastes.
The recent fashion for seasonal tasting menus owes much to Japanese cuisine too: the traditional kaiseki menu is exactly that, a meal consisting of a series of small dishes, each involving different techniques and reflecting a particular season, with the design of the crockery and the flowers in the dining room almost as important as the food itself. At Umu, chef Yoshinori Ishii not only prepares the food, he makes some of the pottery and arranges the flowers; and, in his efforts to find ingredients as fine as those from his homeland, he also collaborates with farmers and fishermen. He works with a farm in East Sussex, Nama Yasai, that provides him with a wide range of Japanese herbs, vegetables and salads. “Ikuko and Robin at Nama Yasai share my passion and respect for nature and the seasons. Their approach is the same as that of winemakers, growing varietals according to the land, exactly like farmers in Japan.”
In Cornwall, meanwhile, Ishii is teaching fishermen how to kill their catch using ikejime, a technique that is humane – a sharp spike is inserted into the fish’s brain and it dies instantly – and delivers flesh free from the sourness of lactic acid that conventional methods can induce. And because it also involves thoroughly bleeding the fish, more of the flesh can be used.
“Ikejime can only be used on line-caught fish and each fish needs to be handled individually, so we rely on fisherman who share our respect for fish and fishing. Practising ikejime allows us to use the entire fish – nose to tail. We therefore need less fish, but because the fish is better quality – sashimi grade – fishermen can demand a higher price and don’t lose out. It’s good for the fisherman, the environment and the diner.”
Ishii calls it his “fish and chips revolution”: one day, he hopes, even the battered cod in your local chippy will have been killed using this ancient Japanese technique. For the moment, however, Umu is one of only a handful of restaurants that buy ikejime fish: Jidori, on Kingsland High Street, for instance, or M Victoria St, where head chef Michael Reid serves ikejime kingfish with ponzu gel.
But as restaurateur John Devitt, co-founder of the pioneering udon noodle restaurant Koya Bar, on Frith Street, points out, Britain is only just starting to wake up to Japanese food. “We’re not there yet. People still come to the restaurant and ask for sushi.”
He believes the level of craftsmanship and dedication found in Japan is hard to replicate in London. “There’s a coffee shop I go to in Tokyo – not very big, maybe 15 covers – and the guy who makes the coffee is happy because he’s doing his own exquisite thing. It’s not about being busy. We can’t compete with that here.
“Chefs are starting to understand ideas like umami, though, and some Japanese words are becoming more familiar. But there are lots of people outside Japan buying Japanese knives, for instance, without any idea how to use them properly.” Devitt is planning more Koya Bars in Canary Wharf, the City and King’s Cross.
It is not just Japanese food that is booming. Sake is starting to appear on wine lists (technically, it is actually a beer): many sommeliers are evangelical about its qualities and London is home to the Sake Sommelier Association, founded 11 years ago to promote the understanding and appreciation of this most Japanese of drinks. Subtler in flavour and aroma than wine, each sake has its own distinct flavour profile, from fruity to earthy: umami-rich flavours of soy sauce or mushrooms are not uncommon. Last August, wine guru Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate included sake ratings for the first time since 1998: 78 were judged “great” by Martin Hao, the magazine’s Asian wine reviewer, and the top sake (a junmai daiginjo from Niigata) scored an impressive 98/100.
High-quality sake is available in a clutch of top restaurants – The Clove Club, Restaurant Story, The Ledbury – or online from Japan Gourmet, which stocks 70 or so different types, as well as shochu (the Japanese spirit made from rice, barley, sugarcane or sweet potato) and seasonings: soy sauce, yuzu and mirin.
Meanwhile, The Wasabi Company’s Old has found a new way to interest the British in Japanese produce: he does a roaring trade in wasabi plants (from £7.50). “They won’t produce exactly the same quality of wasabi as the water-grown rhizomes, but you can plant them in a shady spot in the back garden and they will flourish.” Every part of the plant has some of the wasabi flavour: the leaves will add a kick to a salad, for example.
He also sells yuzu trees (£59): a citrus fruit somewhere between grapefruit and clementine, it is an essential component in many Japanese preparations, including ponzu, a sauce made by simmering mirin (sweetened rice wine), rice vinegar, dried tuna flakes and kombu (seaweed); the mixture is then sharpened with yuzu juice and used to season tataki (seared slices of meat or fish), or as a dip for shabu-shabu (a Japanese hotpot).
Yuzu trees demand a little more attention than wasabi plants, according to Old, “but if you keep them sheltered for the first couple of winters, they will be fine”. For his customers, at least, interest in all things Japanese is definitely growing.