The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

From the sweet-tasting blue crab caught in Chesapeake Bay to the succulent steaks of Texas, from the wild salmon of Alaska’s equally untamed rivers, to the Coney Island hot dog, Cincinnati chili, and Mississippi mud pie, US cuisine has so much to offer. Certainly a great deal more than the critics who claim that America’s only contribution to global cuisine is fast food.

To demonstrate the breadth and depth of American creativity in the kitchen, selected restaurants across Tokyo took part in a two-week Taste of America campaign in early October, bringing some of the flavors of California, New York, and all points between to Japan’s food fans.

“We are trying to emphasize the diversity of American cuisine and we want to increase awareness among the Japanese public of the kinds of foods that can be made with delicious American ingredients,” says Rachel Nelson, director of the Agricultural Trade Office at the US Embassy in Tokyo.

This year’s Taste of America campaign was branded Trail Mix, further emphasizing the message that American cuisine can be a journey that encompasses a myriad flavors while at the same time being healthy, Nelson explains.

“We want people to understand the tastes that are available in all our regions,” she says, adding, “You can’t simply define American cuisine, because the country is so large, so different, and has been subjected to so many influences.”

Marking its fifth year in Japan, Taste of America was particularly keen to highlight some US regional specialties. Thus, each of the restaurants that took part in the campaign linked the items on their menus with a city or state in the United States.

To further emphasize that connection, many of the restaurants also carried tourism literature designed to encourage diners to continue their culinary journey in the city or region that is synonymous with the dish.

The Longboard Café, in the Odaiba waterfront district, unsurprisingly teamed up its recipes with Hawaii—and even went as far as to put on hula dances for diners.

Elsewhere, Mark Dommen, the renowned chef and partner in the One Market Restaurant in San Francisco, gave a talk on Californian cuisine, its ingredients and nuances. During his demonstration, Dommen whipped up a celery salad incorporating pomegranates, pistachio nuts, Californian olive oil, and dried figs.

Celery farms in California provide ingredients for Taste of America / PHOTO: COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA AGRICULTURAL EXPORT COUNCIL

Celery farms in California provide ingredients for Taste of America
PHOTO: COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA AGRICULTURAL EXPORT COUNCIL

Roti, a popular eatery that has become something of an institution in the foreigner-friendly area of Roppongi, was keen again to take part in Taste of America this year, and linked its menu to the state of Texas.

“It has been a good promotion,” says Ian Tozer, who opened the restaurant in February 2001. “It is good for the image of American cuisine in Japan in general, but more especially for the smaller, independent operators.

It also gives us the chance to create or present just one dish, and do that single offering very well,” he adds. “We like that.”

For this year’s Taste of America, Roti Roppongi served up its True Texas Chili, an authentic dish that Tozer says is done the “proper way”—eschewing beans and tomatoes and using only prime beef, home-made chili paste, and a couple of flavorings.

“It’s what Texans call ‘a bowl o’ red’, ” Tozer says. “We make our chili with US chuck steak, guajillo and pasilla chilis from California, and ando chilis from New Mexico. We went the extra mile to get these chilis directly from the States and the results were worth the effort.”

Roti is a high-end American bar and grill, specializing in serving authentic American food—which includes all the ethnic diversity that comes with such a broad definition, Tozer emphasizes. He adds that his personal passion for wine and American craft beer is also reflected on the menu.

“We work every day to provide great food with good, friendly service and a nice atmosphere,” Tozer says, speaking to The Journal. “It’s simple, really.”

Tozer has noticed a shift in interest among consumers toward regional US cuisine, as well as a growing taste for what might be described as “fad food,” particularly in the café sector, where pancakes, doughnuts, and ice cream have carved out a firm following.

Steak houses have also dramatically increased in number over recent years, he says, while defending one of America’s most well-known dishes.

“Burgers and fast food can be great,” he insists. “I was just in Los Angeles and I tried a variety of amazing new fast–casual operations that offered healthy, fresh food at the same time as being really innovative in their style and service, with new ways to improve on customer satisfaction.” LA, he concludes, “is rocking.”

Part of Tozer’s secret at Roti is to seek out traditional recipes and the old way of doing things, whether that be dishes that reflect the culinary culture of Cajun country, California, the Deep South, the Mid-West, Oregon, Seattle or Texas.

Tozer describes it as a “road trip” that also incorporates wine and craft beer with the food and the season. He refuses to reveal all the secrets of his kitchen—unique ingredients and techniques are part of what keeps Tozer’s loyal customers coming back, after all—but his hopes for Taste of America are high.

“I want the Japanese foodie consumer to be able to recognize authentic—and the not-authentic—and to appreciate all the extra work that has to go into making the difference,” he says.
“This often goes over the heads of customers, although a few get it—and we love them for that.”

Another restaurant taking part in the campaign is Lawry’s The Prime Rib, which has been a landmark in Beverly Hills since 1938 and operating in Tokyo since 2001. In March 2014, the restaurant reopened in new premises at Ebisu Garden Place, in Ebisu, Shibuya Ward. In this hub for culture and cuisine, Lawry’s has 330 covers and a 16-strong kitchen.

As the name suggests, Lawry’s specializes in the very best ribs, delivered to the table atop one of its signature “silver carts,” before being carved and served. Brought to Japan from Texas, the smallest serving—known as the Tokyo cut—is a mere 160 grams of prime beef, but the Diamond Jim Brady is a belt-buster at 510 grams.

“People come to our restaurant for our prime ribs because we are really the only place in Tokyo where you can get this quality and this service,” says George Amoah, head of guest relations. “It’s what distinguishes us from everywhere else.”

And he is just as keen for Japanese consumers to understand that America needs to be recognized for the quality of the cuisine that it serves up.

“Our Japanese customers can get a real sense and taste of American food, they realize that it’s very different from the image that they had before and many of them who have perhaps hesitated to go to the United States previously now say they want to go there,” Amoah adds.

The US Embassy’s Rachel Nelson admits that, “there has been a real misconception here in Japan of what American cuisine is. But, since we started the campaign in 2003, I’m confident that we are changing things.”

The evidence supports that. Today, the second-most cited reason for people traveling to the United States is for the food, second only to the nation’s national parks.

US-caught salmon eventually makes its way to restaurants in Tokyo.

US-caught salmon eventually makes its way to restaurants in Tokyo.

“I can’t really blame Japanese consumers for not knowing about our cuisine, because most Americans equally don’t know a great deal about the food that is prepared in other parts of the country,” says Frederick W. Klose, executive director of the California Agricultural Export Council, who has been in Tokyo to support the campaign.

“Traditionally, the food you ate was the food that was available in that region. So New Yorkers enjoy pizza and Coney Island hot dogs, but don’t necessarily know that down in New Orleans they have some fantastic gumbo and Cajun food,” he explains. “And that’s just because they’ve never been there.

“Fast food has become the exception and is available everywhere, but if you take that out of the equation and go to local restaurants, then the experience is completely different.”

According to Klose, it is a process of education to get the word out about the Dungeness crab and crisp Chardonnay wines of California, the subtleties of barbecuing from Texas, and the Latin American influences in Florida’s cuisine. Part of that education is to underline just how healthy US food can be.

“The image of US cuisine might be of burgers and fast food, but I believe there is a growing sense among consumers that US restaurants are using more organic and natural ingredients in their dishes, and that they are very healthy,” says Ryoko Nakamura, head of marketing at the Tokyo Marriott Hotel Shinagawa.

“That’s particularly so in West Coast states and something that we are trying to promote,” she adds.

The Marriott’s Lounge & Dining G is the social heart of the hotel, serving coffee and light meals through the day before being transformed into a contemporary grill and rotisserie venue in the evening, complete with cocktails and a selection of fine wines.

Another of the restaurants that took part in the Taste of America promotion is Vashon, which has outlets in Shibakoen and Nihonbashi. Both serve top-notch burgers and steaks, complemented by wine, craft beer, and hot drinks prepared by Seattle’s Best Coffee. And the coffee does not only come served in mugs; ground beans also are used in the seasoning of the restaurants’ steaks.

This year’s Taste of America campaign may be over but restaurants with US cuisine in their DNA are gearing up for the busiest period of the year.

“Thanksgiving is the most popular time for American food in Japan,” says Tozer of Roti. “Turkey madness will run for four days from November 26, and in that time we will prepare and serve around 400 turkey meals. Not bad for a 45-seat restaurant.”

And a pretty good sign that the Taste of America campaign and its knock-on effects are waving the flag effectively for US fare in Japan.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF: VISIT CALIFORNIA / ERIK ALMAS, TOKYO MARRIOTT HOTEL, BLT STEAK JAPAN, AMERICAN TASTE, CALIFORNIA AGRICULTURAL EXPORT COUNCIL

PHOTOS COURTESY OF: VISIT CALIFORNIA / ERIK ALMAS, TOKYO MARRIOTT HOTEL,
BLT STEAK JAPAN, AMERICAN TASTE, CALIFORNIA AGRICULTURAL EXPORT COUNCIL

“We are trying to emphasize the diversity of American cuisine and we want to increase awareness among the Japanese public of the kinds of foods that can be made with delicious American ingredients.”