Japanese chef Masayuki Okuda is well known for his skill in reproducing Italian dishes 10,000 kilometers from their homeland, but what's unique about his approach is his use of the many traditional vegetables found in Yamagata, in northeastern Japan, that are at risk of disappearing. Owner of the restaurant Al Checciano, Okuda's obsession with ingredients is not only winning him culinary accolades; he is now known as the leader of a local revolution that is striving to preserve the region's rich agricultural culture and biodiversity.
Okuda's passion for ingredients and regional food led him to join Slow Food's network of Terra Madre cooks in 2006, and he has since attended the international gathering in Turin every two years to share his vision.
“Chefs shouldn't choose a dish and then the ingredients... I work from the ingredients. Cooking with fresh ingredients that are harvested the same morning I prepare them, means I have to have flexible recipes.”
Yamagata prefecture became famous in the west after the Oscar-winning film Departures. In Japan, the region is known for its rice plantations, which are the largest in the country, but also for the fields of traditional vegetables that are still grown here. Intrinsically linked to the local gastronomic culture, they include zusayama chicory, one of the most important foods after rice during the Second World War, and the tonojima cucumber, bitter and delicate, commonly used in the past to make homemade pickles.
Despite these long traditions, the arrival of industrial varieties and the scarcity of young farmers mean that many of these heirloom vegetables have started to disappear even from this corner of Japan.
In Yamagata, the whole community has been mobilizing to save those that remain: children are growing traditional vegetables in school gardens and are learning to appreciate their "grown-up” flavors. Yamagata University is also getting involved, and research led by Professor Egashira Hiroaki has identified 150 traditional vegetable varieties at risk of extinction.
Hiromasa's research is important for Masayuki Okuda, who searches out and uses these varieties in his menus. He hopes that by serving heirloom vegetables in his restaurant, other chefs and home cooks will be encouraged to do likewise and they will be preserved.
The story of Masayuki Okuda, the Yamagata schoolchildren, Professor Hiromasa and the heirloom vegetable varieties is told in the fascinating documentary, Reviving Recipes. In the film, director Watanabe Satoshi takes the unique approach of capturing the reactions of people sampling the forgotten vegetables, rather than just laying out the facts.
“Those who work with crops are always concerned about loss. With the modernization of farming, they wonder if their traditional ways may have become outdated. That is why it needs to be documented now. That way, the knowledge can be passed on to children.”