From chefs to bartenders, Japanese food and drink has touched the lives of many people. It’s been a catalyst for changing lives and bringing new conversations to culinary communities across the globe.
For Akiko Katayama, promoting Japanese cuisine has become a life-long pursuit and Yamato Magazine had the pleasure of interviewing her about her experiences. A tenured food writer, host of the Japan Eats! Podcast and representative of the New York Culinary Academy, Akiko is a leading expert in the world of Japanese food and beverages.
Read on to learn about how she became a food journalist, what it means to judge top-ranking chefs and how the story of Japanese cuisine continues to evolve.
Great to chat to Akiko. You’ve made a name for yourself in the food world with your mission to demystify Japanese food and make it more accessible to people across the globe. How would you define what makes Japanese food so unique?
Japanese food is unique for many reasons. For example, Japanese people say “Itadakimasu” (thank you for the precious food) before each meal and “Gochisosama (it was a wonderful feast”) after the meal.
What is behind is a profound gratitude towards nature that gives us what we need to nourish ourselves. The gratitude is extended to whoever was involved in preparing the food for you, such as cooks and farmers.
Seasonality is a big part of Japanese cuisine too. There are 24 seasons instead of four in Japanese culture and chefs chase the ingredients of the season. The brevity of each season makes it even more precious to taste a certain ingredient whose flavour and nutrition are at its peak, such as bamboo shoots in spring and pacific saury in fall.
Also, craftsmanship runs through Japanese food culture. It is not unusual to find a food producer, chef or brewer whose family has run the business for many generations. As a result, their work is highly skilled and refined, yet they still try to perfect what they do. It is a similar mindset to martial arts practitioners.
As a prolific food journalist, you’ve written for various publications. How did you get started as a food writer?
In my childhood, reading was my favourite activity. At age 6, I even asked my teacher if I could be a writer (she said yes, of course). Then I rediscovered my passion for writing after living in a corporate world.
To make a long story short, I was working at a consulting firm in New York, but something was missing in my heart. I was not looking forward to getting up in the morning to go to work. Then the 9/11 terrorist attack came. I asked myself, “Would I regret my life if I died tomorrow?” The answer was clearly yes. I had to do something to change my life.
I worked overtime every day back then, but after coming home late at night, I spent hours writing a proposal for targeted Japanese magazine publishers to get a regular column. After a few weeks, I finally completed the proposal and I sent it to four publishers. Three of them told me to come back when I have been published. Luckily, one of (and the best of) them just lost their New York correspondent and was looking for someone to fill the position. It was the beginning of my writing career.
I chose the genre of food because food truly connects people regardless of where you live. Also, I was fascinated by a chef’s mindset to focus on the moment to create the best dish for the guest.
You’ve also been a judge on several cooking programmes such as Iron Chef America and The Final Table. Can you describe the feeling of being a judge and what it means to critique so many promising chefs when you’re in this position?
I always feel an enormous responsibility, knowing how important it is for chefs to receive fair criticism because the judgement can affect not just their reputation but their business. I try to be as objective and analytical as possible when I evaluate their work.
Criticism should not be a punishment. It should be a constructive process for a judge to understand what the chef does and for the chef to learn how others take his/her work. Ideally, judging should be a collaborative process between the judge and the chef to advance the existing food culture
Through your work with the New York Culinary Academy, you’ve aimed to promote a stronger understanding of Japanese food in the US. How have you seen that understanding from the general public change from ten – twenty years ago?
Japanese food has been increasingly popular globally for the last decades. There are approximately 30,000 Japanese restaurants in the U.S. only and the number has been growing solidly.
As a result, people have become more curious and knowledgeable about Japanese food. For example, Japanese sake used to be seen as a hot, headache-producing cheap distilled beverage (it is brewed and the alcohol level is about the same as wine). Now many diners in New York understand the types of sake such as junmai and nigori and know which one is their favourite.
The Japan Eats! podcast is a great tool for helping to improve awareness of Japanese food. How was the podcast started and what areas of Japanese culture are you planning to explore in future episodes?
Thanks to the increasing popularity of Japanese food, people often ask me questions about it. I felt strong demand for a good, reliable source of information on Japanese food culture about five years ago.
I casually spoke to a friend of mine at Heritage Radio Network. They were thinking about the same thing and looking for a native Japanese person to host a show. Japan Eats! was born right away.
Through all the work you’ve done to raise the profile of Japanese cuisine, have you found that your own understanding of it has changed overtime?
Yes. My knowledge and understanding of Japanese cuisine have widened and deepened tremendously. When I lived in Japan, food was not a subject of study and in fact, I did not like Japanese food at all. Now I appreciate how precious it is every day from its history, the underlying unique mindset to culinary techniques.
It is fascinating to interview people on Japan Eats! how non-Japanese people interpret Japanese food from a fresh perspective and broaden its possibilities. I think their objective view and curiosity are truly beneficial to the future of Japanese cuisine.
Are you planning on releasing any new books in the future?
It is in the works. It will be a bilingual Q & A book about Japanese food culture. It will cover the basics as well as fun facts that even many Japanese people don’t know.
What’s your best piece of advice for anyone who wants to pursue a career as a food writer?
Food is such a broad genre and everyone has his/her personal idea about food. I think it is important to have your own niche to stand out, such as which part of the food chain you want to specialise in, what ethnic food, food politics, etc