Great Escapes

03.11.14

Chef Ooe Is Rehabbing Fukushima’s Food Scene at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

Three years after a tsunami devastated the Tohoku region of Japan, one chef is risking the reputation of a major hotel brand to convince patrons that the area's food is safe again.

In 2013, the Park Hyatt Tokyo stirred up local controversy when it began promoting the use of produce from the Fukushima region in its in-house restaurant, despite concerns that fail-safe means of measuring radiation in food had not yet been established.

The Fukushima prefecture was one of the hardest hit during the 2011 disaster, suffering devastation from both the earthquake-caused tsunami and the ensuing meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The fallout has been enormous. While life is slowly getting back to normal, radiation-level checks remain a daily occurrence and fear still permeates much of the activity in the area.

The Park Hyatt Tokyo, which turns 20 this year, has enjoyed a vaunted international reputation since it served as the setting of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation in 2003. So, why did the luxury brand decide to put so much at stake and introduce produce from the devastated region on its menus?

The man behind the decision was Kenichiro Ooe, Chef de Cuisine at Kozue, the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s signature Japanese restaurant. The internationally trained Ooe is a big name in his native Japan, having served as Kozue’s leading chef and concept creator since its inception in 1994. His seasonal menus are kaiseki-style: elaborate multi-course meals served on a series of small plates. However, Ooe is known for pushing the limits of traditional Japanese cuisine by turning these fixed-menu feasts on their heads through the inclusion of unconventional recipes—some inspired by comfort cuisine—and larger portion sizes.  

But his newest culinary challenge—inspired by the devastating events in Tohoku—is his biggest one yet: reincorporating produce from the tarnished prefectures of the northeast in his kitchen. Now, on the three-year anniversary of the disaster, his project is fully realized. He isn’t just assisting the area by purchasing locally-grown food, he’s also spotlighting its safe usage in a series of monthly showcases at his restaurant.  

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Chef Kenichiro Ooe. (Alice Marshall Public Relations)

The cause is a personal one for Chef Ooe, who was born and raised in Yamagata, one of the six prefectures in the Tohoku region. “I immediately thought to myself: what can we do to support the Tohoku region? We must put a spotlight on the produce from the area.” The fruits and vegetables of Japan’s northeast play an integral part in the seasonal harvest that sweeps across the country each year. “The migration of produce,” as Ooe coins it, “moves north in the warmer months, much like the sea bream.”

Although Japan is small geographically, it has a very diverse climate, providing the nation with natural fruit harvests throughout the year. “After the decimation in Tohoku, the shortage of produce was felt nationwide. Incredible amounts of food were imported from other countries,” he explains. 

“When we look at the healthy produce being grown in the different parts of Tohoku today, we know that things are finally on the mend.”

Ooe understood the importance of Tohoku’s harvest as a crucial part of Japan’s self-sustainability, so his mission was clear: to use his influence as the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s main chef to propel the region back into Japan’s natural agricultural cycle. He visited the region three times within a year of the disaster. His first trip was just four weeks after the tsunami to observe the devastation. He returned six months later in the autumn when people were finally getting back on their feet. “No food production had occurred. Nothing. It was all about cleaning up until the end of 2011.”

On his third trip, exactly a year after the destruction, he noted that the rubble had finally been cleared, and the fields flattened. “There was the desire to get back into the swing of things – support from Japan and overseas came, and people were starting to work with local farms and fisheries.”

There was a problem, however; the tsunami that caused the partial nuclear meltdown in Fukushima triggered a radioactive shower that seemed like a modern-day version of Carthage’s salted earths. Could Tohoku ever regain its reputation as one of the nation’s most fecund regions? The answer wasn’t clear. But Chef Ooe was determined to dispel the rumors that all food from the region was categorically unhealthy, so he took a team from the Park Hyatt Tokyo to assess the area.

“We started checking every piece of food for radiation levels before we were even going to consider bringing any of the produce down to Tokyo. Our findings were quite surprising. Some areas far away from Fukushima registered more radiation than other farms close by. A lot of the freshwater fish in the mountains away from the coast had to be discarded and restricted.”

But there was hope.

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Brandon Presser

“Locals started having their harvests tested in the second year after the tsunami.” There was an immediate movement for total transparency. “Everyone wanted people to come and see that a large portion of the food was consumable, and the items that weren’t up to radiation standards were being thrown out right away.” The Japanese government quickly installed measures to test all of the new crops in the region, and fully subsidized the endeavour to keep food production costs on par with the unaffected areas of the country. “All produce is submitted to the local authorities, and all purchasing goes through approved government channels. Local authorities are so keen to get their produce back on the market that they check it religiously and with rigor,” Ooe explains. 

The Japanese government released a statement in 2013 confirming that the nation “adheres to the food radiation norms known as the Codex Alimentarius, set by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.” These international standards test for radioactive isotopes in several elements including Iodine and Cesium, and insure that the produce and seafood under scrutiny are of a superior quality on a global scale.  

With a system of checks and balances firmly in place, the hotel began acquiring produce from Tohoku in 2013. “I have a responsibility to my patrons to provide the best produce available, so this wasn’t charity,” Ooe says. “I was only taking the top items available. I want the area to restore the reputation it once had. There is a history of great fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables here. The only way to resurrect its status is to do selective purchasing and tout the best produce that is coming out of the region.” For extra precautionary measures, the Park Hyatt Tokyo performs a private check on the acquired produce to reconfirm that radiation levels are indeed within globally accepted parameters.

The chef isn’t shy about acknowledging the weight of the Park Hyatt brand and its buoying effect on re-educating the global community that the threat of radiation needn’t be all consuming.

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Brandon Presser

To remember the destruction of the earthquake-tsunami three years ago, Kozue has planned six months celebrating the region’s produce. “There are six prefectures in the Tohoku region, and each month we showcase a different prefecture’s produce.” In late-2013 the first three prefectures (Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi) were feted as part of what the chef calls his “Tohoku Heroes Showcase.” Ooe produces a fixed menu with an accompanying handout that lists the indigenous ingredients included in each small plate. For example, during Fukushima month, there was a dish with konjac from Fukushima City, nemeko mushrooms from Koriyama City, and yams from the Ishikawa area.

Visitors to Tokyo can have the full Tohoku experience and help support the struggling farms when the series picks up again in September 2014 for the last three months of the expo, featuring food from Akita, Aomori, and his native Yamagata.

“Truth in food has always been in my motto. It is important to acknowledge that there are areas that will simply never be the same after the events three years ago. But when we look at the healthy produce being grown in the different parts of Tohoku today, we know that things are finally on the mend.”