The meeting point is at the entrance of Meguro Park. Hundreds of families have chosen this park for a Saturday picnic, and the kids are jumping and running everywhere, following the first butterflies or picking up wildflowers. We are a mixed group of Japanese and foreign travelers, willing to participate in this peculiar event that FoodStudio has organized for the first time in Japan. We vaguely know that Food Studio comes from Norway and has been organizing getaway events all around the globe. Norway is such a far removed place for the average Japanese person, who may only know about its expensive tax system and the social services that seem to work wonderfully. I feel having such an experience on an ordinary Tokyo day is such a wonderful privilege, and the excitement, mixed with curiosity floats in the air.
We are told that in Norway, before venturing into the forest to go on a hike, there is a typical dish that the hikers usually have before getting into their adventures. We are served a warm sour cream porridge as a starter. It tastes crisp and sweet, and instantly I feel like I am transported to faraway Norway. It is not usual to taste a porridge like this in Japan at all. Then we drink hot cranberry juice; this is such an enjoyable juice because it’s so light. At last, we are given the most extravagant ingredient of the day: smoked flakes of reindeer heart. We drop them onto the sour cream porridge and their smoky saltiness adds an extra texture to the smoothness of the porridge.
After the warm up meal, we suddenly feel thrilled for this adventure, and I feel like this little walk in the mundane Tokyo streets suddenly becomes a unique experience. We join the multitude walking along the riverside. I see a twenty-something girl wearing a new pink kimono. Her hair is arranged tight and impeccably, and she walks gently, contemplating the river, enjoying a glass of rose wine; this is the perfect picture.
We turn around the corner, and there is Ben Symes from Fuglen Tokyo waiting for us in a small neighborhood park. He has set up an elegant small coffee making studio in the park. Gathaithi, with hints of blackcurrant, nectarine and cherry is the coffee he has selected for us today. Ben prepares the coffee just as Norwegians used to do when making coffee out in nature, a technique called kokekaffe. The way it works is to boil the water until 90C, and add coarsly hand grinded coffee directly into the kettle, and to leave it soaking for 5 minutes. It is essential to keep it at 90C, in order not to burn the coffee and to have its oils and flavors dissolved. When the time has passed, Ben opens the lid of the kettle, grabs a spoon and gently pushes down the grinded coffee that still floats up to the surface. We are all a little bit perplexed by it, and as far as we know in Tokyo, we have never seen anything like it, and we are witnessing the usual rituals of making coffee being rewritten in front of us. Once all the coffee has settled at the bottom, Ben gently pours the coffee into our cups. It has a rich fruity aroma and tastes bitter, with a soft texture. This used to be the traditional way to brew coffee in Norway, and we all become fans of it.
Some drops of spring rain start dropping, and we hurry to look for shelter at our next destination. We are welcomed into the restaurant Beard run by Chef Shinichiro Harakawa. Coming from the rain that has gotten intense, “Beard’s has a welcoming atmosphere; with a large counter area that faces directly into the kitchen. The layout is designed for direct interaction with the visitors. I feel like I was invited to my best friend`s kitchen.
Chef Shin exudes a calm confidence; he is slim and tall, and has a short beard. His movements in the kitchen are unrushed and organized. I watch him grind a carrot with fine delicacy, and somehow I get the impression that he is the kind of person that teaches you by being an example himself, rather than telling you orders that must be obeyed, right to your face. “I thought the kitchen was a place to fight and work”, he tells us, as he remembers his days working at a French restaurant. “Until I visited San Francisco, and met a group of chefs that were in contact with the local producers, and had a different approach to cooking”. That inspired him to open his own restaurant in a residential area of the Meguro district in Tokyo, far from the buzz and noise of the main avenues. Chef Shin has close relationships with his producers, one of them being Sumie Hasegawa, an organic farmer who produces the vegetables that Shin uses in his restaurant. She lives in Saku City at Nagano Prefecture, with her husband, daughter and two dogs. Sumie used to work full time as a designer before she spent two years learning at an organic farm. Then Sumie started her own-managed farm, producing enough vegetables to deliver to up to 20 restaurants. She still dedicates to design from organic calligraphy work to designing logos and brochures which details the type of vegetables she has produced in the season.
Mrs. Takashi also joins us today. She teaches traditional Japanese cuisine, to her students, in Tokyo. Her regard for organic ingredients is evident, as she tells us about the dangers of MSG (monosodium glutamate) in Japanese foods. She has prepared for us a wide variety of Japanese home cuisine ingredients to taste: handmade dashi (with kombu and bonito flakes), organic konnyaku (yam cake), fuki vegetables garnished with sansho pepper, handmade kakinotane (crunchy spicy snacks), tofu with sesame sauce and shiitake mushrooms soaked with sake. Among the wide variety of ingredients, I am blown away by the organic shiitake mushrooms. Real shiitake mushrooms take years to grow in their natural environment, and Mrs. Takashi tells us of their incredibly high nutritious value. “They are literally like eating medicine”. Their earthy aroma and deep umami flavor fill my mouth instantly. Mrs Takashi leaves us with the words: get to know where your food comes from, get to know your farmer and producer! They will introduce you to their producers which makes your network grow and grow.
As the day grows dark, the rain outside weakens, and Chef Shin prepares a special course while we are enjoying a glass of Bøgedal beer and bread with butter. Chef Sin is using organic ingredients delivered directly from the organic farm of Sumie. He makes a grated carrot salad, a green leaf salad with parmesan, seared flounder with sweet potato puree, and vanilla ice cream served with pan-seared oranges and a hint of rum. Such a delicious finish for the most unexpected cherry blossom day in town.
Words by Alberto Miura
Photographs by Svein G. Kjøde