The Washoku World Challenge is organised by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries of Japan and included on UNESCO’s on the Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. This prestigious cooking contest held its 11th edition in early November. As Luxeat’s founder and Japanese food lover and explorer, I had the honour of being invited to be one of the judges. This was a delightful acknowledgement of my relentless quest to promote and bring a deeper understanding of authentic Japanese gastronomic culture to Europe. During the event Japanese culinary excellence was explored through the palettes and propositions of the six pre-selected regional (the competition is held in Europe, the US and Asia) chefs as well as through the insights shared by the prestigious Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassadors who participated in the event, as both judges and by giving their own cooking workshops.
Benefiting from diverse backgrounds and from six to eleven years of experience, each of the six contestants showcased their own interpretation of Japanese culinary excellence, through their local lens and through use of both Japanese and regional ingredients. They were:
Portuguese, Jefferson Elias Ribeiro da Silva from MASARY’S in Belgium,
Italian Donato Megaro of Yokin,
Polish, Lubomir Haponik, chef at Sachi Pantechnicon in the UK,
Along with the other judges, Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassadors Mr. Daisuke Hayashi, Owner Chef of ROKETSU; Mr. Hideki Matsuhisa, Owner Chef of Koy Shunka; and Mr. Yoshizumi Nagaya, Owner Chef of Restaurant Nagaya, I played a role evaluating the contestants. I have to admit I was highly impressed with the quality of the propositions of each of the contestants. I found each one bought something different, carefully thought out and inspired.
Chef Daisuke Hayashi, known for his vision at ROKETSU, London’s premier Kaiseki restaurant, spoke to me during the event about his approach to Kaiseki cuisine, an ancient Japanese dining tradition, focusing on the precise selection of seasonal ingredients to create a meticulous multi-course menu. He emphasised that he sources about 80% of his ingredients locally, combined with 20% from Japan, to ensure vivid flavours. He explained that his success is also because he shares the concept that Japanese cuisine goes beyond the food to become a complete cultural experience. “Japanese cuisine is really embedded in the culture. So it goes beyond the food, it is the service, it is the talk that you have with the customers, as well as the ceramics that are being used as well, as well as how you become mindful of the seasonalities, freshness of the ingredients, everything. Allow learning more about the culture and the background,” he advised.
Chef Hideki Matsuhisa was also a fellow judge and is the Owner Chef of Koy Shunka, the Barcelona restaurant that brings together Japanese techniques and Mediterranean ingredients with a name that translates to “intense seasonal aromas”. He runs several restaurants in the city, he spoke to me about the importance of learning about local tastes and incorporating traditional techniques to innovate new dishes. Explaining “if you consider the authenticity of Japanese cuisine, just think of what has been practised over centuries and years. What is being served and cooked right now in Japan would truly be authentic just by that definition. My definition of authenticity: it is more about how it’s been enjoyed by the customers, how the customers would put their dishes in their mouths and enjoy the combination of the flavours, if something is really, truly delicious. This is what results in the authentic dishes.” His innovative dishes are made with Spanish ingredients yet retain Japanese textures, they really exemplify his commitment to creating truly unique culinary experiences.
Chef Yoshizumi Nagaya of Restaurant Nagaya, a one-Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in Düsseldorf, Germany, offered me some of his insights into adapting Japanese cuisine to other parts of the world. Emphasising for example the significance of cutlery choices in shaping the dining experience. Saying “Western cuisine is often eaten with a knife and fork. And what that means is that all the ingredients that are used in the dishes will be combined in the mouth. So the food as well as the fragrance, aromas, everything will become mixed. Whereas Japanese cuisine is often eaten with chopsticks. And because you only pick up one part of that dish, you are enjoying that ingredient solely. And so that is a huge difference.” Going on to explain: “this shows up in how you enjoy aromas and fragrance. That is extremely important in Western cuisines. For example, you might use butter as the main component, as well as adding different spices, and rosemary, for example. Whereas with Japanese cuisines, the idea is that you take off any excess elements to really bring out the purity of the ingredients and how that pure ingredient can be enjoyed by itself.” Nagaya, thus highlighted the contrast between Western and Japanese dining practices, where Japanese cuisine focuses on savouring individual ingredients, showcasing purity.
The Washoku World Challenge not only demonstrated the exceptional skills and interpretations of chefs but also provided a platform for Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassadors to share valuable insights. These ambassadors, through their workshops and contributions, underscored the cultural richness and adaptability of authentic Japanese cuisine. I genuinely feel that such events contribute significantly to the global appreciation and understanding of genuine Japanese culinary traditions. As the 11th edition concluded, my hope is for the growth and expansion of such events to foster the spread of authentic Japanese cooking worldwide.