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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010

World's top chefs forage locally for inspiration


Special to The Japan Times

Earlier this September, chef Yoshihiro Narisawa of the Michelin-starred restaurant Les Creations de Narisawa, in the Aoyama district of Tokyo, joined 15 of the world's top chefs to make dinner in Levi, Lapland, 170 km above the Arctic Circle.

News photo
Forest foraging: Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa of Les Creations de Narisawa, finds unusual ingredients in the forests of Levi in Lapland, Finland. MELINDA JOE PHOTO

Wandering ankle-deep in a plush carpet of lichen, Narisawa collected wild mushrooms, picked berries and plucked herbs from the Lapland forest. Some of his colleagues hauled in nets of fresh-water fish, while others peeled away the inner layer of bark from birch trees and snipped the roots from the ends of muddy river reeds. Everything would be eaten.

The chefs had convened in northern Finland to take part in a unique culinary conference called Cook it Raw. At typical culinary conferences, chefs usually give presentations that demonstrate the techniques used in their restaurants. Cook it Raw, however, attempts to address larger concerns. The event aims to raise awareness of environmental issues and local-food culture. Instead of a trip to the supermarket, the chefs are given the chance to forage, hunt and fish for the ingredients that they then use in their dishes.

Cook it Raw's organizers, Alessandro Porcelli of the marketing and promotion consultancy company Nordic Gourmet Tour and food journalist Andrea Petrini, created the concept last year after receiving a request from the Danish government to coordinate an event that would coincide with the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen. The first incarnation of the event focused on cooking techniques that require little or no energy. The event's objectives have since expanded to include the promotion of sustainable cuisine and the role of ecology in general.

It's an admirable goal, but is it possible for a small group of chefs to save the environment? Maybe not, but the organizers of Cook it Raw insist that chefs have an important role to play in changing people's mindsets.

"Cook it Raw is a way of looking at the future," says Petrini. "It's not solely about food but more of a social vehicle, one where we can talk about issues like the environment. Through food, you can speak to (people of) all languages."

A vocal advocate of organic farming and woodland preservation in Japan, Narisawa sees events such as Cook It Raw as an opportunity to broadcast the message of conservation to a wider global audience. Speaking at a culinary conference in Madrid last January, he delivered a speech outlining the need to maintain healthy forests worldwide and urged people to go out and spend time in nature.

News photo
Illustrated food chain: For September's Cook it Raw event in Lapland, Finland, Yoshihiro Narisawa created a bear, grouse and rabbit consomme, which he poured over strips of wild hare served with a sauce of lingonberry and blueberry. MELINDA JOE PHOTO

The 41-year-old chef routinely visits the countryside across Japan to gather ingredients and inspiration. This year, he has based a menu at Les Creations de Narisawa on the theme of "the forest" and is serving dishes that incorporate unusual flavorings such as tree bark and sap.

"By using edibles collected from the forest that might not otherwise be considered ingredients for food, I've learned to reevaluate our natural surroundings and I have witnessed firsthand the speed at which the environment is being destroyed," he says. "In this way, I hope to inspire my clients to think about what they can do for the environment."

At September's Cook it Raw, Narisawa crafted a dish of bear, grouse and rabbit consomme, poured over strips of wild hare and splattered with a blood-red sauce of lingonberry and blueberry. The composition was a dramatic representation of the food chain meant to emphasize the amount of life required to sustain life.

"Most people buy their meat at supermarkets, in pieces that look more like fish than meat," he explains. "Even adults are divorced from the reality of what they're eating. My point is not to get people to stop eating meat but to waste less of it."

Although plans have not yet been finalized, Porcelli and Petrini are eager to bring Cook it Raw to Japan next year.

"Japanese food culture is very much rooted in ritual, which brings a totally different dimension to the simple act of eating. It becomes almost a spiritual experience, a religious act," Porcelli explains. "What we would also like to highlight, if we stage Cook it Raw in Japan, is the great knowledge and skills Japanese chefs have in using the raw materials and ingredients that are served each day at their restaurants."

Cook it Raw is a big and private event, but Narisawa is eager to take smaller actions that would also prompt the public to consider the importance of eating locally produced food. Such an opportunity arose when he was asked to collaborate on a project to promote Gifu Prefecture's "Wellness + Eco" initiative, a local government-sponsored program that designates certain places, products and traditional crafts of the area as "treasures of Gifu Prefecture."

From Oct. 13 until Nov. 3, Narisawa will be serving special dishes that showcase ingredients from Gifu at his restaurant. The menu, called "Gifu x Narisawa," includes charcoal-dusted Hida beef, ayu sweetfish from the Wara river baked in a dough packet made of salt and flour, and bread baked with chestnut-tree powder and Japanese white-birch sap. He had already visited Gifu on several occasions to source ingredients for his restaurant and was impressed by the unspoiled nature he discovered, as well as the quality of the foods. The campaign, he hopes, will encourage others in Tokyo to explore rural areas outside of the city.

To kick things off, Narisawa and his wife, Yuko, will host an outdoor gourmet and nature fair in the courtyard in front of Les Creations de Narisawa on Oct. 11, from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. The event will feature booths selling local products, such as essential oils and wooden handicrafts, and an exhibition of lanterns made from traditional washi rice paper. Representatives will also be there offering information about Gifu's natural regions and local foods.

The biggest draw, however, is the food. Narisawa is preparing a number of small dishes using Hida beef and other ingredients from Gifu, and guests will be able to sample these for free. It's first-come, first-served, though, so make sure you're early. Exactly what's on the menu, he says, is still a secret. You'll just have to go to the fair to find out.

Les Creations de Narisawa, 2-6-15 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku; (03) 5785-0799. Nearest station: Aoyama-ichome (Ginza, Hanzomon, Oedo lines). For more information, visit www.narisawa-yoshihiro.com


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