The certification program of Japanese Food and Ingredient Supporter Stores Overseas
Interview of Suppoter Stores UMU
Michelin Two-star Restaurant Committed to Using Genuine Japanese Ingredients under the Motto of “Kaiseki Cuisine That Can Provide Joy for Every Single Guest”
London / UK
Umu’s original kaiseki cuisine loved by the locals
Umu was the first Japanese restaurant in Europe to win two stars in the Michelin Guide. The restaurant, with a calm atmosphere like a hideaway, is located in Mayfair, downtown London. Mr. Yoshinori Ishii, the executive chef of the restaurant, has work experience at Kyoto Kitcho, Arashiyama, where he was promoted to sous-chef. After serving as head chef at the Japanese Embassies to the United Nations in Geneva and New York, he furthered his career at the restaurant Morimoto in New York, and moved to London after being appointed as the second executive chef of Umu in 2010.
Mr. Ishii states, “While we are committed to protecting the concept of kaiseki cuisine (multi-course cuisine derived from the tea ceremony tradition) and its techniques, our ultimate goal is to provide joy for every single guests. Here, serving celebratory dishes on the occasions of royal events or dishes made with wild game meat in the hunting season is accepted favorably, rather than forcing local people to appreciate Japanese events or the Japanese sense of seasons, which are unfamiliar to them. I believe that the genuine spirit of kaiseki cuisine lies in our devotion to providing joy for our guests, rather than styles or rules.” As a result, non-Japanese guests account for about 95% of all guests, and, during the dinner hours, kaiseki meals have recently accounted for about 50% of all orders. Mr. Ishii states that, when real connoisseurs of first-class dishes in the world visit his restaurant, they express their fervent desire to savor Umu’s cuisine there, instead of something they can eat in Japan.
Techniques and blessings of nature that Japan can be proud of
Mr. Ishii maintains that fish and vegetables produced in Japan, which is blessed with seas and mountains, are the best in the world. A representative Japanese-produced food distributed in Europe is farmed young yellowtail, which monopolizes the EU market. Mr. Ishii explains, “It features plenty of fat, soft meat, a strong flavor, and distinctive characteristics. You can serve it as sashimi immediately after opening the package. These features will be welcomed by people around the world.” He also says that frozen farmed scallops from Japan have a sweeter and stronger flavor than fresh locally produced scallops.
While working in New York, he was able to use fish flown from the Tsukiji market twice a week, so he was never concerned about lack of high-quality seafood. However, in the UK, he can neither use fish flown from Japan nor purchase delicious locally grown fish. Then, Mr. Ishii himself visited Cornwall in South West England and Portugal to teach the Japanese ike-jime fish preparation technique, aimed at preserving the quality of fish, to local fishermen. He states, “Umu owes some part of its current position to the ike-jime technique.”
In this way, Mr. Ishii feels that Japanese techniques should be utilized more fully. For example, Umu uses sea urchins produced in Iceland, but the only available variety now is shelled sea urchins packed in large boxes by a French supplier. Transporting them requires a high cost and they can be purchased only in a limited amount. Processing them requires effort and time. Mr. Ishii says, “Sea urchins are rapidly growing in popularity. They easily become out of stock, so we always feel frustrated. If a Japanese invests in a supplier in Iceland so that edible parts of sea urchins will be packed neatly and shipped just as in Japan, I am confident that I can sell them in huge amount.”
High demand for unique Japanese ingredients
Mr. Ishii states that chefs today are looking for ingredients that are easy to use and have special characteristics. He mentions young Japanese pepper leaves, Japanese pepper, green onion sprouts, and shiso spikes as Japanese foodstuffs that can meet such demand. When savoring kaiseki meals of Umu, all European chefs are fascinated with shiso spikes and Japanese pepper. The exotic aromas of these ingredients make a massive impact on Europeans. No restaurants but Japanese restaurants have used these foodstuffs yet. Here is a big business opportunity. “Japanese farmers grow Japanese pepper leaves in a uniform size of 2 to 3 mm in greenhouses, and harvest and pack them with great care. I believe that no one in Europe can produce such a delicious, beautiful, delicate and easy-to-handle product,” Mr. Ishii says.
He believes that there is still room for further sales growth of yuzu and wasabi, which are already easily available in Europe. “Since yuzu from Japan alone cannot meet our demand, we always purchase them from France. However, Japanese-grown yuzu are available for a longer time than French-grown yuzu. Thanks to high storage technology in Japan, Japanese-grown yuzu sell well even out of season. This is a great advantage.” He also explains that, although wasabi is produced in the UK, wasabi grown in Japan has much more excellent flavor and much stronger aroma than British-grown wasabi. That is because the natural conditions in Japan, including minerals in water, the amount of solar radiation, and sunlight filtering through tree leaves are suitable for the cultivation of wasabi. Here is also an unfulfilled potential.
Mr. Ishii mentions, “Although Japanese are generally thought to be good at listening to consumers, I don’t believe that they have succeeded in doing so outside Japan. Major overseas projects are often launched based on very limited information, without listening attentively to those who have long experience in working in the local areas, like me. Japan still has many unnoticed treasures that can be launched into global markets, but people in Japan may forget such treasures because they are too ordinary for the people. I believe that, if project developers in Japan listened more carefully to those working in their target areas, they could identify real local demand.”
Managing the quality of foodstuffs strictly by establishing a reliable channel
Although foodstuffs produced in Japan are excellent, Mr. Ishii currently faces difficulties obtaining foodstuffs that can satisfy his requirements. He sometimes hears guests say, “This is different from what I ate in Japan.” “Very delicate foods, including Kyoto vegetables, in particular may not endure several days of transportation unless we establish a reliable channel. We need trustworthy agents to connect us to foodstuff producers,” Mr. Ishii states.
Umu strictly manages the quality of foodstuffs. Let’s look at the process of fish from Portugal arriving at Umu. First of all, fish caught on the same day are checked at the port. Fish of “Umu quality” are carefully selected from among them and sent to Lisbon. The fish are again subject to quality inspection in Lisbon, and the person in charge of inspection contacts the restaurant to say, for example, “Today, we didn’t have good bonito, so I have cancelled your order here.” After arriving in London, the fish are inspected again and again before being delivered to the restaurant. At this stage, Mr. Ishii may receive a phone call and hear the caller say, for example, “Yoshi, I’m sorry that this fish and that fish didn’t reach the level of Umu quality. I didn’t have them delivered to you today.” Mr. Ishii continues, “Serving truly excellent dishes to our guests requires such a strict method as this. Unfortunately, I have been unable to use such a method for foodstuffs delivered from Japan. That's why I'm working to establish a channel on my own.”
Hoping to be an “interpreter” for the excellence of genuine Japanese-produced foods
Mr. Ishii has recently been struggling to launch into overseas markets vegetables grown at the Higuchi Farm, which has continued protecting seeds of traditional vegetables in Kyoto over 400 years. “The genuine Kujo green onion grown by Mr. Higuchi is very thick. When you bite it raw immediately after cultivating it, you will find incredibly sweet juice come from the green onion. Even when it is just lightly heated in oil, it is sweet, soft and extremely delicious. Even in Europe, where thick and sweet leeks are popular, Mr. Higuchi’s Kujo green onion will surely win fans.” Saying so, Mr. Ishii is confident about the vegetable’s great potential.
However, he states, "No matter how excellent the foodstuffs are, they cannot enter the general market without becoming a favorite at restaurants. I believe that the deliciousness of foods should be ‘interpreted’ by chefs. I always say to Mr. Higuchi, ‘I will work as an interpreter, so let’s demonstrate that genuine products can sell well even outside Japan.’” Mr. Ishii maintains that, if some genuine products sell well abroad, movements will occur in Japan to protect genuine products. “Unfortunately, Kujo green onions shipped through markets to London are mass-produced ones often seen in Tokyo. Eating them, I would not feel they are delicious. Spring onions from Africa, that are incomparably cheaper, taste much sweeter. Competent overseas chefs who can perceive the difference will never be interested in using such mass-produced Kujo green onions.” In 2016, in recognition of his long-time activities, Mr. Ishii was appointed as a goodwill ambassador with the mission to spread Japanese food, by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. He says, “My duty is to have local people here enjoy Japanese culture, taking full advantage of Japanese cuisine and using all expressive forms, including ceramic art, flower arrangement, and painting.” He spends most of his days off creating ceramic works, and arranges flowers displayed at the restaurant every day. He has an especially strong desire to spread Japanese-produced foodstuffs. That is why he supports foodstuff producers who make sincere efforts, and strives to establish procurement channels and spread cooking techniques, even if such activities bring him little profit. “I have continued doing the same things, regardless of being a goodwill ambassador or not. I will just continue pursue my own chosen path in my own way,” Mr. Ishii states with determination.