In a place like Hawaii, where pancit and sushi can share space with barbecue ribs and cioppino at the party table, the presence of sashimi at a fancy restaurant would seem natural, whether the menu is Japanese or not. After all, the sashimi platter has a place of honor at the fanciest of local celebrations.
But the uneventful in these parts can be noteworthy in realms more rarefied.
Take the world of haute cuisine, where classic French cuisine had reigned supreme for centuries. One historian — who actually was served sashimi at a French restaurant — has theorized that Japanese food, techniques and concepts have an established presence in the fine-dining world in the U.S., permanently loosening the dominance of French cuisine.
Hawaii-born Samuel Yamashita, a history professor at Pomona College in California and connoisseur of fine cuisine, made note of that unexpected 2011 dinner course and examined it through a historical lens. He found that in the previous 30 years, Japanese chefs had been traveling to France to learn from nouvelle cuisine chefs, and those iconic French chefs — among them Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel and Joel Robuchon — had been visiting Japan and gaining exposure and appreciation for the country’s cuisine.
THE ‘JAPANESE TURN’ IN FINE DINING IN THE UNITED STATES, 1980-2017
Free lecture by Samuel Yamashita
>> Where: Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa
>> When: 3 to 4:30 p.m. April 17
>> Cost: Free
>> Info: firstname.lastname@example.org
>> Note: Samuel Yamashita’s latest book, “Hawai’i Regional Cuisine: The Food Movement That Changed the Way Hawai’i Eats” ($68 hardback, $19.99 paperback), will be released by the University of Hawaii Press on May 31
That cross-cultural influence led to a “reimagining” of fine dining in Europe and the U.S., said Yamashita. He calls that shift the “Japanese Turn.”
“By the second decade of the 21st century, Japanese culinary influence had become a given in fine dining,” he said of his 2011 meal.
But even in the 1960s and 1970s, French cuisine had been undergoing a revolution, laying the groundwork for the Japanese Turn. It was then that nouvelle cuisine, emphasizing creativity, freshness, lightness and natural flavors, steered away from the heavy sauces and complex preparations codified by Auguste Escoffier.
“Nouvelle cuisine had a lot in common with Japanese cuisine,” Yamashita said, and that commonality contributed to making the “turn” possible.
BY THE 1980s and through the 1990s, increasing numbers of Japanese culinary students were studying in France, and there was a big jump in the study of Italian and French cuisine in Japanese cooking schools. Japanese chefs began to work in France, and to open French restaurants in Japan. Yamashita said that by 2010, Tsuji Culinary Institute, one of Japan’s most prominent culinary schools, was sending nearly 300 students to France a year for internships, and Tsuji even set up schools in France with Bocuse.
Yamashita calls Hawaii an “outlier” with regard to the Japanese Turn. But he notes that one chef, inspired in part by his Hawaii heritage, combined the influences of Japan and Europe, pioneering what became Euro-Asian cuisine.
Roy Yamaguchi, son of a Maui-born man and raised in Japan on a U.S. Army base, never forgot the flavors of his father’s cooking. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, he landed in Los Angeles in 1976 and through the early ’80s worked at such fine-dining restaurants as L’Ermitage, which served nouvelle cuisine, and Michael’s, “an avant-garde, cool California-chic restaurant that served farm-to-table cuisine,” the chef recalled. This was during the time of the California cuisine movement, which, like nouvelle, emphasized fresh, local and seasonal ingredients.
By the time Yamaguchi opened 385 North in Los Angeles in 1984, he was already delivering Euro-Asian menus. He said the cuisine was built upon his classic training and reflected both his heritage and the influence of the fine California restaurants where he had worked.
“I was showcasing my own style, of Asian influences with so-called French overtones,” he said.
Menus included such dishes as scallop mousse flavored with a hint of ginger in a French red butter sauce; steamed oysters and sea urchin wrapped in Napa cabbage and served with a seaweed cream sauce; and duck salad with crispy potstickers, mangoes and hazelnuts, tossed in raspberry vinaigrette.
Said Yamashita: “A lot of chefs cooking this way were of Japanese ancestry, including Roy, and when they opened their own restaurants, their cooking became more Japanese. (Ruth) Reichl noted it right away; so did (Jonathan) Gold.” (Reichl and Gold were restaurant critics at the Los Angeles Times.)
THE LAST STAGE of the Japanese Turn started in 2010, said Yamashita. It involved the wide acceptance of Japanese ingredients, culinary techniques and concepts, such as umami. From that point, he said, Japanese cuisine was “naturalized” as haute cuisine in the U.S.
The turn ended as a movement in 2017, he theorizes, for a number of reasons. One was the expansion of elite Japanese restaurants to the U.S. In Hawaii, for instance, Sushi Ginza Onodera opened in 2014, while Sushi Sho made the same move in 2016.
Other culinary changes also were afoot in the early 2000s, as “smart casual” restaurants began gaining traction. Restaurants such as the Pig & the Lady, MW and Town offered somewhat elevated versions of familiar foods in an informal setting. The growing number of these venues impacted white-tablecloth establishments, leading to closures, Yamashita said.
Yet the influence of the Japanese Turn continues.
Yamashita’s cases in point: Taco Maria, a Mexican eatery named the L.A. Times’ 2018 restaurant of the year, is headed by young chef Carlos Salgado, who uses such ingredients as miso and dashi to increase umami in his moles. At Orsa & Winston in Los Angeles, where chef Josef Centeno uses both Italian and Japanese ingredients in his dishes, Japanese classics such as chawanmushi and okayu are regularly on tasting menus. And at the other end of the country at Gramercy Tavern in New York, chef Michael Anthony “tsukerus (pickles) so many things,” said Yamashita. “He’s using the Japanese technique to increase umami.”
Then there’s David Kinch, whose use of Japanese ingredients Yamashita calls “extraordinary.” The chef of the three-Michelin-star Manresa, a New American restaurant in Los Gatos, Calif., uses four kinds of konbu to make his own dashi. Yamashita said Kinch goes as far as filtering water to make it resemble water from Kyoto as closely as possible, all in the name of creating a specific dashi.
Beyond the realm of chef-led restaurants, though, has the Japanese Turn had lasting impact?
Yamaguchi offers an emphatic yes.
“Take a look at some of the television commercials for national chains,” he said. “One of the latest commercials I’ve seen shows a teriyaki dish, and a lot of national chains have gravitated toward Asian ingredients. When you see it as an ad pitch, it has become mainstream.”