David Chang, one of New York’s most prolific restauranteurs (the Momofuku stable), writing recently on the food blog/magazine Lucky Peach, waxed lyrically on about Tokyo’s food. Mostly good, and well-known, points, but a couple of comments are in order. I’ll excuse the gratuitous expletives and the overuse of the superlative ‘best’…maybe that’s intended for the hipster audience.
His overall point, that Japan (specifically Tokyo) borrows magnificently from other food cultures, and lends out its aspiring chefs on secondment to top restaurants from Yountsville to Modena, is spot on. But I think the point can be driven deeper – the Japanese have a gift for internalising the culture of other countries, presumably more so in the post-WWII era than before, and to a certain extent, combining that with a highly-developed indigenous culture, to create a synthesis that, in style and quality of execution, isn’t matched anywhere else. The key words here are ‘internalising’ and ‘indigenous’. I don’t think they’re just copying the food – the chefs, but perhaps even the kids with crazy outfits in Harajuku, are looking at, and living, the culture, the music, the film, the clothing that they’re interested in, whether it be American, Italian or French. There is a passion (to use a hackneyed word) and depth to the research that shows through in the simulation, a stage set, that is a Tokyo restaurant.
Equally, this painstaking simulation is not being dumped on a blank substrate – Japanese culture, and food, are obviously immensely developed, and years of low immigration have had the perverse effect of maintaining a certain purity in both cultural practice and practitioners. Your average person really gets their food culture, they’ve grown up with it, haven’t necessarily seen much else, or have only seen it through a Japanese cultural filter. So the French, Californian, or Italian food in Tokyo has a distinct Japanese imprint, if only in the attention to detail, the arrangement of the room, the handling of light and space, the exceptional quality of the ingredients (as Chang points out). Thus, the simulation becomes a simulacrum.
Here I would characterise Chang’s comments on Italian food, if not French, as slightly ignorant and perceptive at the same time. Italian food does not just have to be pasta, as anyone who has spent time in, say, couscous-laden Trapani (Western Sicily) or rice-growing plains of Po Delta, can attest. But Italy does have a strong resistance to change, as well as an internal food culture that Italians feel, rightly so, is well worth preserving. But, here’s the difference with Japan: people, from what I can see without having interviewed hundreds, actually don’t want to eat much imported food. Even outside Italy, while one sees plenty of well-heeled Italians at ethnic street-food stalls in East London, but most Italian tourists pile into Soho’s Princi, which they know from Milan.
Here, in my humble opinion, is the difference with New York and London – two other world cities with very good food. I would argue that neither America nor England have the same quality of indigenous food, that substrate, that Japan has. America, as a country so young and foundationally built on immigration, can have no ‘native’ food culture. So everything in New York is a simulation, for better or for worse. England perhaps had some interesting food before WWI and WWII, and in the last 20 years, chefs such as Fergus Henderson (St John in Clerkenwell is the best one of his) have done a heroic job resurrecting the old recipes, but again, it’s all (re)created: the average youngish Londoner seems, from my own anecdotal experience, to care more about what he/she drinks and smokes, and where, than the food. So both New York and London seem to produce copies, more or less acceptable, of foreign food. But their copies, particularly in London, are mass-produced, soul-less affairs, more reminiscent of an accountant’s spreadsheet, redolent of return-on-equity and price-points, than the work of single mad chef. New York is a bit better, but again, rising rents, the internet, the phenomenon of food as something one watches on a screen, have taken much of the fun out of the restaurant scene.
There are plenty of exceptions, particularly outside of Manhattan – for instance, Sake Bar Zabb, an simulated izakaya , set in a poorly-ventilated basement in Jackson Heights, a neighbourhood in Queens previously only known for really bad Indian (i.e. Pakistani and Bangladeshi) food sitting in pools of fetid grease. Curiously, Zabb, which shares the name with an excellent Michelin-starred Thai restaurant upstairs, is run by an enthusiastic Thai man who has sourced hundreds of objects from Japan to create his little sarariman‘s drinking hole, complete with foaming pitchers of Sapporo and squishy raw octopus in grated horseradish.
Moving on to a controversial point, in this most politically-correct of cities: the last difference I would point out between the New York restaurant scene and Tokyo’s, is the makeup of the cooking staff. Look around any good, but perhaps not top-end, restaurant in much of New York – most of the cooks are Hispanic, with a smattering of Bangladeshis, African-Americans, Chinese, etc. I can’t help thinking that the French or Italian food coming out of those kitchens must, in a majority of cases, necessarily be totally disconnected from the culture and experiences of the cooks making it. Surely, if food isn’t just something you put in your mouth, and is a cultural or communicative experience, the fact that the person cooking the food hasn’t grown up with it, or at least taken a multi-year deep interest in it, surely must detract from the ‘essence’ of what one is served.
Unless Japan has changed in the 5 years since I last was there, most of the cooks are Japanese, and the Japanese chefs have often spent years in Western kitchens learning about food they’re cooking and the context it exists in.
I’m sure some will object to these comments, but the fact that restauranteurs such as Danny Meyer and Andrew Tarlow are moving over to a no-tip policy could lend some support to my view: the extortionate tips in New York only go to front-of-house staff. This means that the cooks, the people who obviously matter more, are being paid much less than the decorative foliage swanning around the dining room, their fawning equal parts strafottenza and passive-aggression.
I would end by pointing out some of the finest, most interesting, most passionate (again that word) food in New York still comes from the kitchens that are family-run, or at least held firmly within a given ethnic group: the sushi bars (Hibino in LIC is a fave), the absolutely stonking Thai joints in East Elmhurst/Woodside (start with Zabb Elee, Kitchen 79, Khao Kang, & Paet Rio), the filthy but delicious regional Chinese stalls of the Golden Mall in Flushing, or that joyous margarita-meat-and-arepa extravaganza that is the Colombian restaurant Delicias in Woodhaven.