Monocle, Issue 107
Japanese author who helped discover sushi chef Jiro Ono (before he had three Michelin stars)
Masuhiro Yamamoto has a glint in his eye as he discusses his work. “My job started with eating at all kinds of restaurants and learning from experience. Now, decades on, my job is to discover new talent before anyone else; I need to catch the changing state of food. The most important part of being a food critic is explaining my discoveries.”
Yamamoto was born and raised in the shitamachi (downtown) neighbourhood of Asakusa, Tokyo, where as a young boy he loved eating at restaurants with his parents. Sandwiched between the adults at the sushi counter, he would watch the preparation of each piece of sushi, poised for the moment it would hit his plate. A sushi master eventually took the young Yamamoto to other establishments to taste and compare dishes, providing him with a crash course in appreciating the culinary arts. As a teenager his love of sushi broadened to encompass the dishes he calls the soul food of Tokyo: tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet), soba, tempura, unagi (eel) and ramen.
Yamamoto was working as a critic writing about rakugo (traditional Japanese storytelling – picture a one-man theatre show) but was inspired to visit France in 1973 after becoming obsessed with the Michelin Guide. After opening the lid on a gourmet world in which critics played an important role, he decided to stir the pot himself and join their ranks when he returned to Tokyo.
“At that time, there were no food critics in Japan,” he says. “Authors wrote essays about restaurants and food but there was no criticism.” Shifting his focus from the stage to the food scene,Yamamoto set about the daunting task of visiting hundreds of guidebook-listed restaurants in the city, establishing his own benchmarks along the way. This resulted in the 1982 release of Tokyo Aji no Grand Prix 200, a ranking that gave rise to his subsequent career in food publishing, television and radio.
While observing that overseas interest has brought about change at some high-end Japanese establishments,Yamamoto says that restaurants focusing on staples such as sushi have remained largely unchanged. “When Japanese people decide on a certain style they believe it is important to evolve a pure element, rather than expand on it,” he says. While this may conjure up an image of stagnation, it’s this pursuit of excellence, believes Yamamoto, that’s cemented Tokyo’s position as the world’s leading culinary destination.
Drawing on almost six decades of dining, Yamamoto considers his experience to be perhaps the greatest asset in food writing. Eschewing lengthy note-taking while dining – he takes photos instead – he says that experience and unwavering focus allow him to recall the flavours of a dish. His longstanding curiosity for discovering the best way to enjoy food is reflected in a personal motto: “Eat food deliciously, rather than eat delicious food”.
Photographer: Ana Cuba
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