That is a joke, I hasten to add. In truth I turned into a complete jelly upon being introduced to the maestro of El Bulli and I think the photo perfectly captures my pitiful, gurning food geek meltdown.
So overawed was I that I didn’t even ask for a reservation (damn! I bet no one has thought of that before either).
This was at last month’s Tokyo Taste - a gathering of pretty much the greatest chefs in the world: Heston Blumenthal (a few days before his hygiene crisis), Adrià, Joël Robuchon, Grant Achatz - who I guess is now up in that stratosphere - Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, Pierre Gagnaire, Williem Ledeuil (a personal hero) and Juan Mari Arzak. The only glaring absentees, I suppose, were Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, but as the event had a distinctive ‘molecular’ bent, perhaps that wasn’t so strange. Then again, Nobu was there demonstrating his, these days, rather dated Californication of Japanese food (along with the nowfamiliar anecdotes about trying to persuade Americans to eat raw fish).
I’ve been lucky enough to eat at a few of the assembled chefs’ restaurants - and in the case of Robuchon, even work in his kitchen (as described in my last book, Doing Without Delia,which is just out in paperback - oh go on, you know you want to...) - but one of the Japanese chefs’ demos particularly whetted my appetite. I had to go and try his food.
This was Tokyo-based Yoshihiro Narisawawho offers his take on haute cuisine and has a Michelin star or two. One of his signiature dishes was a hunk of rare Japanese beef, rolled in ashes from leeks that had been cooked to, essentially, charcoal. The meat looked astonishing, like a lump of granite. (Sorry about the shit photo - taken on my phone)
He also demonstrated how to extract the essential flavour of soil using - I think - a piece of equipment from the perfume industry (an essential element of a top restaurant kitchen’s arsenal these days, apparently). He used the resulting oil as a flavour for soil soup. (Again, another phone pic).
Now, my past experiences of the taste of soil - tentative tastes of mud pies made as a toddler; unfortunate face-first dives at school playing football on a muddy playing field; a dodgy walnut, and so on - didn’t have particularly appetising associations. But I was intrigued, after all, they had given the guy stars and Adria and Blumenthal both ate there during their stay in Tokyo.
So, I toddled down to Aoyama, a posh shopping district of Tokyo close to Harajuku - an area I knew really well because my family and I had spent some time living there in 2007 while I was researching my next book, Sushi and Beyond - What the Japanese Know About Food.
And, you know what? The soup was sublime. It genuinely did taste of soil, but in a good way - if you can imagine. There were also hints of chestnut, mushroom and truffle. Man, it was good. I had the beef/lump of coal, which was superb too, despite being rolled in what was, essentially, ash.
Actually, aside from Blumenthal - who put on a great show, with lots of dry ice, a demo of his Sounds of the Sea dish, which diners eat while listening to sounds of the sea on iPods, and a free gift of ‘new born baby’-flavoured wavers and frankincense breath freshener hidden under the audience’s seats - it was the Japanese chefs, such as Kunio Tokuoka, from the legendary Kyoto and Tokyo kaiseki restaurants, Kitcho, who really knocked me out.
Another was Seiji Yamamoto, who explained how he was determined to find out how best to prepare pike conger eel (hamo, in Japanese). It’s a popular fish in Japan, but a real bugger to prepare as it is full of thousands of tiny bones. Chefs are specially trained - and use a special knife - to chop small portions of the fish something ridiculous like 30 cuts per centimetre - in order to render the bones edible.
So, he took an eel to a hospital for a CT scan, to better understand its bone structure and then, after some more research, completely revised the centuries-old method of preparing it, changing the angle at which he cut the bones. It sounds absurdly nerdy, and it’s the kind of thing that gets non-food obsessives all eye-rolly and brings out the ‘oh for goodness sakes, it’s only food’ heretics out in force, but it’s also deeply admirable as far as I am concerned and epitomises the thoroughgoing, meticulous approach of Japanese chefs, and the Japanese, towards food.