Remembrance at the Table

Photos by Erik Olsson

Photos by Erik Olsson

Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa’s herbed fish and edible candle represented much more than a decorative plate of food. Enclosed by a washi (Japanese paper) balloon created by artist Ryôsuke Harashima, it was also a candlelit vigil memorializing the victims of the March 11 Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami. Narisawa entitled the dish “Inori, Prayer,” and its symbolism befitted the magnitude of the occasion: Cook It Raw 2011, Ishikawa.

Begun in 2009 in Copenhagen in coordination with the United Nation’s conference on climate change, Cook It Raw is an annual workshop that challenges the world’s most highly acclaimed chefs to rethink energy consumption, ingredient sourcing, and local food culture. With chefs such as Yoshihiro Narisawa of Les Créations de Narisawa, Albert Adria, René Redzepi, Sean Brock, and David Chang participating, the event gathers the world’s culinary elite. Each year these chefs are sent into the wild to hunt, fish, and forage for the ingredients they’ll use to create one dish demonstrative not only of their culinary reputation but also of the event’s location. After the inaugural event in Copenhagen, the chefs traveled to the Collio region of Italy near the Slovenia border, then towards the Artic Circle in Lapland, Finland. The most recent event saw the chefs journey outside of Europe for the first time to AJK’s home: Ishikawa, Japan.

Ishikawa’s unrivaled combination of food and art was the impetus behind its selection. Narisawa emphasized the Noto Peninsula’s recent UNESCO designation as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS) as the promoting agent that pushed the nomination. The certification recognized the region’s collection of sustainable terrestrial and aquatic agro-systems known as satoyama-satoumi. Examples include agehamashiki hand-harvested sea salt, where farmers laboriously collect salt by evaporating seawater in sand fields, and teichiami fishing, a sustainable method of commercial fishing that uses a fixed net to catch migrating fish. The Noto Peninsula is home to several such centuries-old methods anathema to industrial-scale farming and fishing.

The bordering Sea of Japan and rich soil provide Ishikawa with some of the country’s finest fish and produce. Although average in land area, the region was second only to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) in wealth during the Edo period (1603-1868) due to its extraordinary rice production. Kaga yasai (Kaga heirloom vegetables) are famed throughout the country and used exclusively by the area’s best chefs. Seasonal ingredients are not limited to produce: locals identify fish, shellfish, and mollusks with specific times of the year. Squid and sea urchin are best in summer, fatty yellowtail (buri) and snow crab in winter, snails in spring, and mackerel in autumn. These stellar ingredients and high culinary aptitude made Ishikawa a natural choice for such a star-studded event.

In terms of art, the region has been a stronghold of fine craftwork including pottery, gold leaf, and lacquer since the Edo period. To this day, Kanazawa’s artisanal scene is rivaled only by Kyoto’s. With young artists increasingly forgoing the economically unstable and grueling lifestyle of the artisan in favor of more self-expressive contemporary art, Kanazawa has become home to a movement that sees traditional craft turning modern, epitomized by the iconic 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. With this in mind, Cook It Raw invited sixteen traditional and contemporary artists to design an original plate for each participating chef, and for the first time, Cook It Raw was about more than just food.

One of the participating artists, Ryôsuke Harashima, was originally raised in Chiba. After falling in love with kôgei (traditional craft) on a school trip to Kanazawa and Kyoto, he enrolled in the Kanazawa International Design Institute (KIDI) after high school and has made the city his home. Harashima frequently collaborates with traditional kôgei craftspeople and applies their techniques and materials in innovative ways. During an interview with AJK, he explained, “I try to reinterpret their crafts while maintaining a balance between function and unconventionality.”

Harashima’s washi balloon plate is an exquisite representation of this philosophy. He worked with the washi company Asakura, experimenting with dozens of types of paper in order to realize his aesthetic concept and achieve the functionality necessary to serve Narisawa’s dish. Although heavily tested and scrutinized under both his own and Narisawa’s exacting standards (Harashima submitted six models before both were satisfied with the design), he remained nervous to the final bite concerned that the material would not hold up for the length of the event.

By the end of dinner, his plate was not only still standing but also garnering praise as the highlight of the meal; the fragility and endurance of the plate poignant reminders that the Tohoku area faces a long road to recovery. Although served among many other dishes to a tableful of eager diners, Harashima’s and Narisawa’s “Prayer” was more than just another plate of food: it was a solemn message of hope expressed through the food and art of Ishikawa.