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An interview with Chef Hamada

by Lucy Sherriff

Written by
Lucy Sherriff

Noriyuki Hamada, a Japanese chef in Tokyo, uses food destined for the bin to create fine dining at one of the best hotels in the city. He was brought up foraging in the mountains, but now he lives in the capital, searching for fish that’s too ugly for the supermarkets and cooking with food he finds in the bin. Intrigued? We were too!

Journalist Lucy Sherriff finds out more.

Noriyuki Hamada has won the internationally-acclaimed Bronze Bocuse d’Or award. He is also executive chef at Hoshinoya Tokyo, one of the capital’s best hotels.

His inspiration for cooking? Rummaging in the garbage and buying the “ugly fish” from the market no-one else wants.

“I’ve found fish innards in the trash and used them in a fermentation to make an umami sauce,” Hamada recalls. “Most people don’t see value in the less popular foods. But I don’t treat the unwanted fish as ‘small fry’.

“What makes a fish valuable? It’s whether or not everyone wants it. I can save the little fish that usually don’t get put on the market. I can draw out value that makes the dish worth more than the sum of its parts. And in doing so, I raise the stock of the ingredients themselves.

“If people start saying, this little fish is delicious, that little fish is worth more to everyone. That, hopefully, will reduce the overfishing of mainstream species, and reduce the wasteful disposal of the unwanted fish who get caught in the nets.

Hamada says seeing the climate and environment change so dramatically, forced him to act. “I’ve witnessed global warming with my own eyes,” he says. “I visit the mountains [in Japan] the same time every year and I’ve noticed how the temperature has risen over time. Mushrooms and wild plants I’d been able to gather up until last year are now becoming scarce. In fact, last year I couldn’t pick a single mushroom.”

Now is the time to think critically about this issue. Up until now, we’ve taken as much as we want of the foods we like best, and we can no longer afford to continue down that road. A sustainable food supply as our primary source of food is the only option and that’s what sparked my interest using sustainable food in Hoshinoya’s kitchen.”

Hamada is no stranger to foraging and eating ethically. He was born and raised in the countryside in Tottori prefecture, and prepared dishes with local wild game and mushrooms and other mountain plants he found in season during his early career.

“When I go to the mountains, I only take a predetermined amount of the plants and mushrooms I find. Or, I take only what I need. When people who don’t come to the mountains regularly show up, they take everything they can get their hands on — even the sprouts. Then, a year later, there’s nothing there, because nothing had a chance to grow. Trying to take an entire year’s worth of something all at once is how nature gets destroyed.”

Hamada says it’s important to think about the food chain when creating a menu, but the Tokyo market is “coming close to treating ingredients like ‘things’ or ‘products’ and not ‘lives’”.

“In that regard, it’s difficult to cook in Tokyo. If I could actually talk to the fisherman, I could learn what the fish ate in the ocean that allowed it to grow. That helps me visualize what kind of flavor the fish will have, and what other ingredients I can use that will harmonize with that flavor.”

“I love cooking because it’s not a predetermined thing that has to be made a certain way. It’s something you’re free to create however you want.”

Normally, I don’t tell customers about my efforts,” he adds. “I’m always happy when a customer reacts to one of my dishes and says “This meal is delicious” or something similar. But the more in-depth topics, like my ideas and intentions for the dish, aren’t usually things I bring up before the meal. After they finish, I ask for their impressions, and after that is when I talk about sustainable food.

“With some customers, they understand. They say things like, ‘Your dishes are definitely different from others. You’ve really put a lot of thought into this.’ People like that are the ones I can have meaningful conversations with.

Hamada is a pioneering force when it comes to tackling eating ethically: “Only a small number of chefs doing this, most don’t yet realize the importance of sustainable eating.

“Frankly, most don’t even see a problem with the state of things today. They only have eyes for their short-term profits and are not concerned with the future.

He adds: “It’ll be hard to spread ideas like sustainable eating unless we can get more regular attention from the media.”

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