And he's visiting Bangkok.

Shinobu Namae, executive chef of two-Michelin-starred L’effervescence in Tokyo, is a leading voice in the sustainability movement in Japan. He will also be in Bangkok this Mar 20-21 to take part in the {Re} sustainable food forum, when he will host a dinner in partnership with Garima Arora of Gaa at Bo.lan.

A staunch supporter of small and organic growers, Namae has been instrumental in popularizing the United Nations University Farmer’s Market in Tokyo and helped create the Itadakimasu Forum, a symposium that brings together top chefs and producers from around the country. Last year, he introduced a food-waste upscaling program to create compost from scraps in the kitchen at L’effervescence and appears in “Wasted,” a film about food loss.

 

The topic of sustainability is still relatively new in Japan. Why?

I think that in Asia in general, food is underrated because we tend to see food as a commodity, without valuing it as part of the culture. I believe that this attitude is changing little by little, but people still want cheap and tasty food. If you always make decisions based on the lowest price, then someone has to suffer—maybe the producer, or the restaurateur.

 

You have said that the future of food in Asia is “post-colonial cuisine.” Can you talk about that?

Asian countries like Singapore are completely westernized and seem to be divorced from their own culinary roots. This happened in Japan as well, after WWII. I am the child of colonization. I didn’t respect Japanese culture growing up and instead looked up to western countries like America. When I was in school, we always had school lunches with white bread instead of rice, even though Japan is historically a rice-eating country. We were never served typical Japanese food like rice with grilled fish and miso soup. It’s really weird when I think back on it, but that’s how other countries’ food culture came to dominate ours. So I naturally pursued French cuisine as a chef.

 

Because Japanese cuisine didn’t have the same cachet as French cuisine?

I saw the world of Japanese cuisine as really strict and narrow-minded. But after I came back from traveling around the world, I changed my mind because I met beautiful people in Japan, like farmers and craftsmen. I realized that we have wonderful producers and artisans and started to think about how we can support them. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Japanese cuisine has remained so unchangeable over the years – out of a need to maintain traditional crafts. It’s both a good and bad thing. Keeping tradition means that you are responsible for keeping it correct, but you also give up your personality. I chose to go my own way and abandoned Japanese traditions, but now I’m coming back to them – not by following the same exact rules but rather trying to evolve. This is what I mean by “post-colonial” cuisine. It’s the theme I’m basing my work on for the next 10 or 20 years: How can we build a new food culture, based on the land where we are standing, that respects local farmers and artisans? I want to be connected directly to these people and try to make their lives happier, which makes our lives happier as well.

 

What are some of your ideas of how to move Japanese cuisine forward into the future?

We need to change our status as chefs and restaurant workers. Otherwise, future generations won’t want to go into it. It’s underrated and disrespected.

 

We know that the restaurant industry is really hard, with terrible hours and pay. Is changing working conditions part of your mission?

Yes. We can’t change things like the cost of rent, but one thing that is changeable is guest satisfaction. If people can pay slightly higher prices, we can shorten working hours. So we need to try to change people’s minds, to show them that the food has more value. In essence, you are trying to bring to light the connection between food and the lives of the people who produce it, and also those prepare and serve it at restaurants. We need to educate people. We should make transparency of production a priority. If you buy coffee, you should know how the farmers live and work. Do they work hard? Honestly? Patiently? We are paying for their efforts. That’s why I include a list of the farmers with my dishes, to tell their stories and make people more aware.

 

Any other thoughts on how to make the industry more sustainable?

The food self-sufficiency rate also defines the richness of the food culture. In Japan, it’s around 40%, which means that we have to rely on imports. As a result, we have to focus energy on building up other industries, which leads us to further undervalue food. Raising the self-sufficiency ratio could improve the quality of food and the economy. 

 

What will you be talking about at the {Re} Food Forum and why is it important for you to participate?

Economically developed countries have led the sustainability movement, but we haven’t heard about these issues from the perspective of developing countries. In places where poverty is widespread, they’re not in the position to prioritize sustainability, and it’s really difficult to start that conversation as an outsider. But having this forum in Bangkok and bringing people from all over Asia together, we can share our experiences and start talking about it.

 

Shinobu Namae will be talking at the {Re} Food Forum on Mar 20, 2018. He will be holding a masterclass on the traditional Japanese stock, dashi, also on Mar 20, at 11:30 am. His ‘"our hand" dinner with Gaa chef Garima Arora will be held at Bo.lan on Mar 21. Go to wwww.re-take.asia for tickets.

Melinda Joe is an American journalist based in Tokyo, Japan who writes for the Japan Times, Gourmet Magazine Sweden and SCMP Style Magazine in Hong Kong. 

Shinobu Namae

Shinobu Namae