Ideology of Cuisine

“The Ideology of Japanese Cuisine,” my article on the cultural significance of food and agricultural methods, will be out in April in a publication by the University of California: Gastronomica.

It got me to thinking about food, in general.

It’s wearisome, isn’t it, to read about food without dwelling upon how it is grown, produced, and served.  Sort of like the Lily Allen lyric:

I want to be rich and I want lots of money
I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny
I want loads of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds
I heard people die while they are trying to find them

So little irony in American prose.

But let’s face facts: The great, celebrated food of Japan is a remarkably recent phenomenon, as late as the early 1980’s, which coincides with the betterment of food in the U.S. and U.K., and can be tied to excess capital flowing out of the hands of old money and into the hands of younger, private equity.

The private equity folks, unlike the old money people, wanted to show off their money, not hide it, and by having others see and envy their celebration, it felt more real to them.  So that foie gras and farm-to-table and seasonality?  It has significance.

It’s not about the food, never is.





Noodles, Pizza, & Bread

Profit margins in restaurants are notoriously slim, and the high-end joints, funded chiefly by private equity, are the exception.  In these establishments, breaking even is the (elusive) goal.  Basically, they are private clubs for the investors where they are treated to the hospitality associated with exclusivity.

For those who are upset about income disparities: Dining out at pricey joints while hammering away about the 1% is reminiscent of Alexander Cockburn, the wonderful Leftist writer, having a column in The Wall Street Journal.  You entertain those who you seek to oppose through your contradictions.

More on profit margins.

One reason why you see more burger joints across the U.S. is that ground beef is among the few cheap proteins that satisfy with fat, and have even more appeal with salt and by being fried, to create more profit for a restaurant.  Private equity knows this: McDonald’s is pretty much blue chip stock and shows up in many of our portfolios.  And Shake Shack is an asset of the Leonard Green Equity Fund.

There’s big money in burgers.

Even more money in three other menu items: Noodles, pizza, bread.

A pizza that costs the customer $14 has a food cost of about 90 cents.  Bread sold at bakeries for $4-6, depending on size and grains used, has comparable margins.

Best of all are noodles: For $18, you get a bowl of ramen noodles at places like Santouka.  Served in a salty, oily broth made from water and pork bones, the cost is about 60 cents per serving.

Meanwhile, establishments, with PR budgets that can employ dozens, convince food writers to celebrate both the high end and low end joints.

And private equity enjoys every bite.

The context for the food and descriptions of it are established by money, which is covert, and what is served and written about shows up within that hidden context.

More to the point would be food served that benefits those who produce it, the customers served, and their communities.  You see this approach in countries that do not have bottom line or profit margins dictate these matters.

In these countries, restaurants are seen as cultural experiences, fundamental to employees, customers, and communities, and to some degree they are subsidized by those with authority.

Prices are lower, time spent dining is longer, wages are sometimes higher.

But until contexts can be added to the rubric of private equity, you will see more high-end joints, burger joints, and noodle and bread and pizza erode communities by vacuuming away money.  Most of these places are not owned by people who live where they work, and the money ends up in private equity.

You deserve a break today.


Five Things To Learn from Japanese Gastronomy

Working a lot in Japan, and writing about the culture, its diversification and trends and changes, has led to increased understanding of how, in a broad sense, a Japanese approach to gastronomy differs from that of other regions and cultures.  This approach can inform and shape the cooking of those who come into sustained contact with it.

  1. Texture.  The texture of a food in Japan is paramount.  So, for example, slicing pressed tofu into thinner strips before frying can seem to improve its flavor.  Actually, it is the sensory perception of texture on the tongue that alters the experience.  Stewing turnips or poaching an egg.  Many examples introduced into many unlikely dishes.
  2. Heat.  The narrow range of flavors in most Japanese food means that the experience of  eating must be enhanced or heightened in other ways.  Temperature is key, with raw fish the most obvious example, but the warmth of grilled freshwater eel or the heat of a broth are other examples.
  3. Presentation.  The colors, timing, and plating of dishes adds a great deal to what is served.  Dishes are presented in succession with a timing that is established between the server or cook and the person eating.  This becomes ritualistic in high end or kaiseki dining,  but is also seen even when a Western breakfast is presented.
  4. Small Plates.  So much of the food in Japan comes to the table in bite-sized portions, whether it is a stick of grilled chicken or a piece of raw fish.  Savoring the small thing, which can be seen as representative of a larger or longer narrative, is symbolic, cultural, and in tune with how people eat ideally.
  5. The Thing Itself.  Food items are presented and prepared with a singularity that emphasizes the thing itself.  While sauces are part of the cuisine, and certain foods combined (like seaweed, rice, yuzu, and fish), the focus is on the thing itself.  There is no disguising what is on the plate, and there is an intensity, potentially, of flavor.

These are five things that appear to be true about Japanese gastronomy.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji: A huge, sprawling number of buildings and open lots in downtown Tokyo, near Shiodome, where everything edible from the sea is sold.  It’s been there a little over a century or so, and day after day, foreign guests arrive early in the day to snap photos and, if allowed in, to watch the blue fin tuna auction.

But what’s odd is: Why?

What’s the attraction?

Tsukiji is a slaughterhouse, and if this is an attraction, why not visit the abattoirs of Chicago to watch cows and pigs and lambs meet their end?

The living things at Tsukiji are penned in, boxed in, laid out flat in styrofoam containers holding ice.  Space is at a premium, and animal welfare is not a consideration.

Nor is sustainability.  The enormous blue fin tuna sold at auction are an endangered species.  So are many varieties of the animals sold at Tsukiji.

There isn’t a priority for the future, and that’s due, in part, to another feature of Tsukiji: It’s based on cartels.  Families and syndicates going back there of four generations who control the trade and set the prices.

The great anthropologist Ted Bestor described the Tsukiji families in his wonderful, long book, “Tsukiji.”

So if you’re a person who wants to get involved in Tsukiji as a vendor?  Not happening.  The system isn’t based on merit nor on providing consumers with value.  It’s about maintaining a closed system.

So with all that–a slaughterhouse atmosphere, inhumane conditions, little or no sustainability, and cartel control–what’s the appeal?  Why the glorification?

Why, it must be a cultural experience.

For foreign visitors who want an experience, however, that’s more pleasurable and satisfying, it would be better to visit the sprawling Ohta Market.  That’s where all the fruits and vegetables arrive in Tokyo.  It’s colorful and lively, and rather pleasant, all in all.


Return from Philadelphia

Just across the street from the hotel in University City was a really terrific, Montreal-style bagel place called Smear’s, and block after block there were food trucks with food inspired by the cuisines of Vietnam and regions of the Middle East on offer.

The diversity of flavors, and the enthusiasm of vendors, all that made matters appetizing.  Even without eating, the pleasure of seeing good food, and watching the enjoyment of people eating, all that added a lot.

Like walking through Reading Terminal on Sunday: People lining up, laughing and talking, for what some call subs and others call hoagies, plates of fried chicken, pastrami, meatloaf, and so on.  This town loves meat.

But there is an abundance of other things.  Like Pearl’s Oyster Bar.  In NYC, now in Philly, this joint is killer.

Meanwhile, back home, it’s a homemade turkey cheeseburger, the latest episode of, “Homeland,” and a short walk for a brioche stuffed with salty, minced ham, leeks that were MIA, and some nondescript cheese that was also MIA, all for $5.50.  And this at “Boston’s best bakery.”  Puh-leeze.

Give me Philly, any day.

On a separate note:


Philadelphia: Food, and almost nothing but Food

Here is why I am in Philadelphia:

10:45-11:45 a.m.


Academic Bistro (6th Floor)

Scott Haas, PhD, psychologist and author of “Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant,” interviews Daniel Giusti, former head chef of Noma and current head chef of Brigaid.

2-2:45 p.m.


Academic Bistro (6th Floor)

Scott Haas, PhD, psychologist and author of “Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant”
Karen Stabiner, Columbia Graduate, School of Journalism, author of “Generation Chef”, and journalist for Saveur and theNew York Times
Lisa Abend, author of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices” and food journalist for Saveur and The Guardian

DREXEL UNIVERSITY’s 3rd Annual Chefs’ Conference, and I’m honored to have been invited as a guest speaker to talk about my book, “Back of the House,” and to interview the very estimable Chef Dan Giusti.

I met Dan two years ago in Kyoto; he was then executive chef with NOMA, and I had helped to arrange that entire restaurant’s three day stay at Hyatt Regency.

Being in Philadelphia is a real pleasure.

It’s been about four or five years since I was last here.  Then it was to do a video with Chef Marc Vetri for the Breville food site.  Marc is a very cool guy.

I know the city pretty well, been here a lot since childhood, we used to go on school trips, had relatives outside the city, and wife grew up in Cherry Hill.

So yesterday walked from the Sheraton in University City all the way to 2nd & Market.  Hung out in Reading Terminal, which was a Sunday madhouse, and minus the best thing about it, which are the Amish farmers who sell buttery, salted chickens.

Wound up at Sonny’s: A terrific Philly cheesesteak joint: “With whiz,” and I was good to go.

That night, a lively cocktail reception for guests and sponsors.

Then dinner at Amis, a Vetri place, with D, a college housemate I had not seen in years, and she was as lovely as before.

This morning, it was Spread’s, a Montreal-style bagel place.  Poppy and lox spread!

The food in town is big, a lot of it is salty, and I drank a lot of water.  The food scene is really stunning, easily in the top two on the East Coast, with only NYC better, and flavors are gutsy, influenced by Italy, driven by ingredients, and not about the chef, but rather what’s on the plate.

Philadelphia this visit seems friendlier, more diverse than ever, the geezers who made it unpleasant are either dead, in nursing homes, or in Florida.  The folks I have been talking to have open faces.

Big Nights Out

Is there any place better in all of Cambridge, Massachusetts than Night Market in Harvard Square?  Nope.  You might as well be in an izakaya in Japan–what’s on offer are small plates and bites of yakitori, noodles, rice dishes, and delicious, seasonal vegetables.

It’s a pan-Asian scene, the chef is said to be Taiwanese-American, young guy, gleeful, and energetic.

Staff are wiry, some head to fingers tat covered, and there’s humor and alacrity in service.

Wish they had beer on draft and big bottles of good sake, but, hey, it’s fine as is, and with Park across the street, a very good pub, all is good.

And the prices are great: $40-50, dinner for two, tax and tip.

Thinly Sliced, Fried Tofu

Why the thinly sliced, fried tofu I brought back from Kyoto tastes better than what I buy here, which also is made in Japan, is not anyone’s guess.

The tofu I bought is fresher, made each morning, no doubt, and when you toast it, it gets crispier.  And when you add pickled vegetables, like radish, the savory taste is accentuated.

I also brought back kombu and bonita flakes from a shop in Nishiki market belonging to a friend’s cousin.  Talk about dashi!

All this leads to indoor living.

Spring is Here!

European starlings are noisy beginning early in the day.  Green shoots are bursting through the soil.  It is light around 615 AM until about 6 PM.

In February, we ate more meat in one month than we do in four months.  Maybe five or six dinners with beef.  It must have been the cold and darkness.  The protein and fat made up for that.

Now with Spring, food served here is lighter.

Pasta, scallops, fish, shrimp.  Lettuces from the Veneto.

Soon there will be the first mushrooms of the season.

Each day brings news of days to come.

I empty the house of dozens and dozens of books.  Put them out curbside, books I will never read, books I do not remember buying.

Papers from almost forty years ago: Rejections from publishers, acceptances from publishers, bank books, expired passports.

Then before you know it, summer.