Professor Yamashita on the Influence of Japanese Cuisine in America

Samuel Yamashita is the Henry E. Sheffield Professor at Pomona College, and he has been doing research on five food projects since 2009. He completed the first in 2019 when he published Hawai’i Regional Cuisine: The Food Movement That Changed the Way Hawai’i Eats (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019), a pioneering study of Hawai`i Regional Cuisine. He also has written about an important moment of Japanese culinary influence in “The ‘Japanese Turn’ in Fine Dining in the United States, 1980-2020,” which appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Gastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies. He expanded this paper to include art and architecture in “The ‘Japanese Turn’ in the Art, Architecture and Cuisine of Europe and the United States, 1860-2020,” which will appear in the Journal of Japanese Studies. Last year he began a study of the new culinary hyperlocalism that appeared in global cities along the Pacific Rim in this century and published an exploratory essay entitled “The Quest for an Ideal Culinary Hyperlocalism” in the spring 2022 issue of Gastronomica. As part of that project, he recently completed “How to Make a Hyperlocal Cuisine: The Case of Niki Nakayama.” He also has translated selected writings by kaiseki cuisine chefs for what will be the first anthology of its kind in English. Finally, he is currently writing a history of Japanese foodways from prehistory to the present, and several chapters in his Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 1940-1945 (University Press of Kansas, 2015) dealt with the food situation in World War II Japan, and “The Food Problem of Evacuated Children in Wartime Japan, 1942-1945” appeared in Katarzyna Cwiertka, ed., Food in Zones of Conflict (Ashgate, 2013).
Yui Kurosawa '26 interviewed Dr. Samuel Yamashita on November 10, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Samuel Yamashita.

How did Japan-French relations and history influence the way the French viewed Japanese chefs and integrated Japanese elements into their cooking? Was there also a “reverse turn” of French influence on Japanese cuisine? 

I think the story has to begin with the opening of Japan at cannon-point in the 1850s and 1860s by the Euro-American powers. Of course, they came with a particular worldview: they saw themselves as “enlightened” and “civilized” and Japan as “unenlightened” and “barbaric,” and this assumed a frightening form in the 19th century. It allowed the Western powers and the U.S. to force non-Western countries to open their ports to Western traders. Underlying all of this was the Japanese perception among intellectuals, at least, that European powers and the U.S. were superior. Eating meat and drinking milk were seen as a source of that power and were taken quite seriously. Western-style restaurants opened in Tsukiji and Yokohama. But it meant that Japanese chefs who wanted to cook Western food felt that they really should go to Europe. So the first Japanese to do this were chefs who apprenticed at hotels. A young chef would start there as an apprentice, then he would be sent to France for a couple of years, usually three years, then he'd come back. This was a pattern that we see very clearly from the 1930s onward. That continued to be the case through the 1960s, but it changed in 1970 because of the International Exposition in Osaka, where there was a French pavilion. The French restaurant in that pavilion had a huge impact. What happened from 1970 is that the number of Japanese who wanted to study French cuisine went up dramatically. One of the top cooking schools is the Tsuji Culinary Institute based in Osaka. In 1980, Tsuji started a new program where a student who had completed the three-year program would then go to France for a year. And what Tsuji did was to set up cooking schools in two château near Lyon. They would send about 200 students a year to their program in France. These students would spend half a year studying French cooking, then they would spend the next six months working at one of the restaurants in Tsuji’s network of 500 French restaurants. So this meant that by the end of that year, those students had had four years of culinary study, and a lot of them went back to Japan. The problem was that in Japan, the number of French restaurants has remained pretty stable and has not increased much at all from the 1970s to the present. This meant that there were no jobs for these chefs trained in French cuisine, and many had to open their own restaurants. I went to one of these places in Kanazawa, and the night that we were there, we were the only guests. You can't make a very good living if you just have two customers a night. That's what happened in the wake of this glut of French-trained Japanese cooks. 

In the 1960s the younger chefs in France mounted an opposition to cuisine classique, the traditional French cuisine with its heavy sauces and big portions, and this movement came to be known as “nouvelle cuisine.” This emphasized fresher ingredients and emphasized the importance of seasonality. It also meant smaller portions. The nouvelle cuisine chefs recognized that what they were making was a lot like the best Japanese food, especially “kaiseki” cuisine. So they started going to Japan, these top chefs, and ten of them opened restaurants in Japan. These are some of the famous French chefs—Alan Chapel, Joël Robuchon, Paul Bocuse—and they all opened restaurants in Japan. Initially, when these French chefs were asked if they were “going Japanese,” they would say, “Oh, no, of course not, that's impossible.” But by 2010, Joël Robuchon described his food as “Japanese-inspired French cuisine.” That's a pretty dramatic admission. 

Was there a reverse turn to French influence in Japanese cuisine? I don't think so. I think the Japanese chefs who trained in France brought back knowledge and mastery of French techniques and so forth. They might have modified what they learned a bit to reflect the Japanese situation. For example, I noticed on a recent trip to Japan that there was a lot of emphasis on vegetables from a certain place, everybody knows that Kyoto vegetables are famous—Kyō-yasai—but there was now “Nara vegetables.” That’s a kind of modification. 

You coined the term “Japanese turn” to characterize Japanese influence on fine dining restaurants in the U.S., especially as the restaurants began to use Japanese ingredients and condiments, employ Japanese culinary techniques, and add Japanese dishes to their menus. What were the three waves of the “Japanese turn,” and do you predict a fourth? 

The first stage of the Japanese turn found French chefs experimenting with Japanese ingredients and condiments. Chef Akira Hirose who trained in France under Joël Robuchon at the Hotel Nikko in Paris remembers seeing Robuchon add soy sauce to a vinaigrette for langoustine appetizer. David Bouley, a famous New York French chef, noticed that his fellow French chefs loved Japanese cuisine and toyed with it. Bouley said "They changed the vegetables a little bit and made tasting menus, but they didn't know how to use Japanese ingredients in their cuisine." What was happening was a kind of exoticism that chefs found using Japanese ingredients and condiments playfully, without full knowledge of these ingredients and condiments. 

That changed in the second stage of what I call the Japanese turn. The second stage started in L.A. with Japanese American chef Roy Yamaguchi, who told me in an interview that he “invented Euro-Asian cuisine in L.A. in 1980”. It appears that this concept of Euro-Asian cuisine then became the vehicle for the Japanese turn in the U.S. A number of chefs working in L.A. began to use more and more Japanese ingredients, condiments and techniques at the restaurants where they were working. The leader of the Japanese turn in New York was a lawyer-turned-restaurateur named Barry Wine. He and his wife opened a restaurant called the Quilted Giraffe, which became the most expensive restaurant in New York City. Wine's customers noticed that there was something “Japanesey” about his cooking. So they urged him to go to Japan. He went to Japan in 1985 and came back transformed. He brought back Japanese plate-ware of different shapes and colors. He added more and more Japanese elements to his menu. Because Wine's restaurant was a leading restaurant in New York, this had an impact on everyone else. If you look at interviews with the chefs at the top restaurants in New York, they talk a lot about starting to use Japanese ingredients, like miso, soy sauce, things of that sort. This was in the late 1980s and through the 1990s. So that's the second stage of the Japanese turn. In both L.A. and New York, it represents what I call the broadening and deepening of the impact of Japanese cuisine. They’ve moved far ahead of what was done at the first stage when people were just adding some soy sauce or things of that sort.

But the third stage is the most impressive because what I call the naturalization and integration of Japanese ingredients, condiments, techniques and dishes and concepts took place, and we see this in L.A. beginning around 2012 or 2013. There's a chef named Josef Centeno, who opened a restaurant called Orsa and Winston at that time. He began to use high-quality Japanese ingredients. By this time, the fish markets in L.A. and New York were getting top-quality fish and shellfish from Japan. Centeno took advantage of that and started serving kinmedai and Hokkaido uni and things like that, which chefs hadn't been using. We also see Japanese influence on chefs who weren't making anything that was or looked Japanese. The best example is a really fine Mexican American chef in Costa Mesa named Carlos Salgado, who had a restaurant called Taco Maria. He began adding dashi to his stews and soups, and I think he said he used miso as well. This was interesting because people not doing anything vaguely Japanese were now using Japanese ingredients, condiments and techniques. There is a chef in New York named Michael Anthony who has a wonderful Michelin-starred restaurant called Gramercy Tavern. He's making classic American food, yet he uses Japanese culinary techniques. For example, he uses Japanese tsukemono techniques and pickles kombu. Then he adds it to certain dishes and finds that it really deepens the flavor profile of the dishes and adds something that wasn't there before. The other good example of the third stage is David Kinch, who had a three-star Michelin restaurant in Los Gatos called Manresa. Kinch used the highest-quality kombu to make dashi. He got kombu from Rishiri Island, north of Hokkaido, which is where premium-grade kombu is made. He used that to make dashi in his restaurant, and he even made something he called dashi butter for vegetables. But Kinch told me that he saw Japanese technique, especially dashi, as a way to compensate for the problems created by the nouvelle cuisine. Nouvelle cuisine was lighter and not as heavy as the cuisine classique, and dashi was a way to intensify the flavor profile of dishes. Dashi was also healthier than a lot of the butter-rich and the concentrated sauces that had been typical of French cuisine before the nouvelle cuisine. But anyway, that's the third stage. It represents the naturalization and integration of Japanese culinary influence. 

I think the fourth stage might be represented by the complete naturalization and even the bastardization of the use of Japanese ingredients and culinary techniques. When dining halls here use dashi-no-moto (soup stock) and less high-quality Japanese ingredients and condiments on a daily basis, that might represent the fourth stage. 

“Umami” (savory tastiness) and “shun” (seasonality) are concepts that are unique to Japanese cuisine that have now spread throughout the culinary world. Language often reflects cultural values. Do you think that there are elements of Japanese cultural values reflected in the concepts of umami and shun

The umami question is pretty easy to answer, because umami was actually discovered by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. It's now widely recognized as the fifth taste. Chefs and even ordinary people recognize that tomatoes, parmesan cheese, mushrooms, cheese and so forth taste the way they do and are appealing because of umami. Did you know that tomatoes are full of umami? Tomatoes and parmesan cheese together? It's dynamite! Shun, as your question suggests, is quintessentially Japanese. Shun is usually translated as seasonality. The seasons and nature have been important in Japanese culture since the Manyōshū was compiled in 765 and are still important in Japanese poetry and literature from that point on, into the present. 

What's interesting and fascinating is that Japanese traditionally divide shun into three moments. There's an early part called hashiri, defined as the very beginning of the harvesting period, when "the products are expensive, but their taste and scent are weak." There's a middle period called shun, which is the "the peak of the harvesting period, when the taste and scent of the plant is at its best." And then there's a stage called nagori at the end of the season when the taste and scent of the plant have declined from its peak. Apparently, there are kaiseki restaurants that have customers who want a particular vegetable in the nagori stage. A well-regarded contemporary kaiseki chef in Kyoto named Hisao Nakahigashi wrote, "I have many customers who savor the withered taste of these vegetables. This may be the very Japanese palate that values wabi and sabi. Whether it's a bowl of late-season ”hamo” (conger pike), peak-season matsutake mushrooms, or candied late-season sweetfish, there's nothing lacking in this cuisine that likes late seasonality." I think these words hashiri, shun, and nagori express seasonal feelings with great delicacy, and this is one of the unusual features of Japanese cuisine. It's a concept that is so well developed that Americans might not be able to understand it well. 

The other concept that Americans have trouble with is “omotenashi” (hospitality). If you go to the best Japanese restaurants in Japan, at the end of the meal, the chef and the maître d’ accompany you to the door and see you into your taxi. This happens in L.A., at a restaurant called n/naka on Overland. The chef, Niki Nakayama, makes what she calls “California kaiseki”; she has two Michelin stars. At the end of the meal, she comes to the table to thank the guests. Most Americans think, oh, she's so cute and so humble. What they don't realize is that that's part of the omotenashi tradition. And as part of the tradition, chefs also keep track of who came on what day and what they ate and drank, and Nakayama does this too. 

Have you observed any unexpected or surprising effects of the spread of Japanese cuisine in the U.S. that are completely unrelated to the culinary world?

The popularity of sushi, ramen and J-pop created a kind of Japanese wave. Those things have been very popular among young people. I never thought that ramen would become so popular among young people, but apparently, it has. Sushi is a little pricier, but I think sushi, ramen and J-pop represent a moment when a Japanese cultural wave began to have a huge impact in the U.S. Now it's the Korean Wave and K-pop. Similar developments are occurring in the Korean food world in the U.S., too. So I think that's the only thing I noticed about that. 

If you were to start a Japanese fine-dining restaurant in LA, how would you design it? What are some of the details you’d pay attention to? How would you put together your team of chefs? 

Well, my answer is going to disappoint you because I wouldn't do it. What I would do instead is to offer a space for a branch of one of the great Japanese restaurants. So for example, I would love to see Kitcho, Kikunoi or Minokichi, great kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto, open branches in L.A. I'd like to see some of the great tempura restaurants open a branch here. If you've ever been to Mikawa Zezankyo or Mikawa in Tokyo, I'd love to have them open a branch in L.A. I'd love to see Nodaiwa, the great unagi (eel) restaurant in Tokyo, do so as well. Nodaiwa has been around since the 1790s. I'd love to see one of the top soba restaurants open a branch in L.A.; my favorite is a place called Sarashina Horii in Azabu Juban (Tokyo). Then there's a famous tofu restaurant called Sasanoyuki in Ueno (Tokyo) established in 1691. I'd love to see them open branches in L.A.

Yui Kurosawa '26Student Journalist

Emma Brick, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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