Food Trip: Lost in Observation
When you find yourself in Japan everything is Oishii meaning delicious. All the senses are put in play and the vivid eye-catching lip-smacking assault is both ancient and futuristic at once. From the delicate culture’s propensity for bowing, and meticulously wrapped gift giving, and fall on your sword or else punctuality and take your shoes off inside and then wear special shoes to enter a bathroom or else, and white glove service immaculate taxis, and prices that give you a big heart attacki, and no tipping; imagine all thati. I just got back last night from my first trip to Japan. I was thinking of Kurasawa’s Roshomon and frankly Godzilla. (They’ve rebuilt). I was remembering Shogun and Richard Chamberlain, Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai and most all Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson. I found myself lost in observation as I made a new travel and cooking show with celebrity chef Todd English. Todd and I really hit it off. We’re very much alike except they he is a handsome wealthy celebrity chef. I’m a good eater. The trip was a feast for body and soul and I look forward to returning there when I have more time to scratch the surface of a world that as Chef Todd says seems part "Blade Runner" and part "Planet of the Apes". Anyway the food was ambrosial from the finest quality and craft in sushi to the most luxurious melt your mouth Kobe beef that side of the Rising Sun. This is the first chapter in a TV series of Food Trips with Todd and a merry crew of producers and crew with an appetite for all this is Oishii !
My role is Director of Photography which means I am a lighting cameraperson who collaborates in the direction and production and sometimes does windows. I wear a fishing vest full of TV techno doodads and since who knows when lunch might be the deep pockets are often loaded with confections. On this trip I’ve found a local Japanese- nobody- can-eat-just-one fruit squishies. My handle is "Candy Man". I am joined by favorite sound recordist/boom microphonist and long time good friend, very French Canadian and tres charming Gilles sometimes known as Boom Boom . (Gerard Depardeau meets Bill Murray). Also on board Production Assistant and second unit photographer Anna a.k.a. “Nevada” (think Molly Ringwald meets Jean Luc Goddard), Consultant and creative producer Sissy ( conjure a female David Letterman also from Connecticut (when your name is Sissy you don’t need another one), Line producer Woof Man Yak , Cookbook Director and still photographer extrordinaire Annie Ispiru Drinkzo san. Rounding out our band were Guide and Fixer “It not possible” Reiko-san, and driver his head is shaped like an egg Hero-san. Both good eggs in a sort of inscrutable “ you crazy Americans” way.
So it’s a long story that took place around the other side of the planet over eleven days. Cast and crew flew courtesy of Swiss International so part of that deal with the devil of Zurich was Boston/ Switzerland/Switzerland Tokyo. Thirty hours plus later the troupe beams down on Narita airport and drives to the hotel Tobu in the Ginza. Tokyo “skysclaypez and evathang” OK so the rooms won’t be ready for hours. Let’s go scouting and start a little shooting. After all we’re all a bunch a daisies. Time to make new friends.
Off to a major Meji attraction. A temple festival where people are thronging and street vendors are hawking. Orange chinese lantern blossoms are sold here and there and garlands of the Physalis which hide a small tomato like fruit inside the flower hang all over the arcade, temple and pagoda backdrop. They are good luck and paint the scene with bright lines of intensity like natural neon. Here like everywhere in Tokyo is the juxtaposition of old ways and new ways. Ancient colorful elegance and the towering Times square Giant TV advertising signage coexist. Bullet Trains and Buddha. I take an image of a Rickshaw in heavy Tokyo traffic. Incense laden air breezes mingle with aromatic braziers of chicken and beef strips and salty whole little fishes. I wish you had smellovision. Young and old filter around munching and drinking at this big public party. Chef Todd gets Octopus doughnuts; takoyaki which are freshly deep fried eight leggers chopped up with vegetables from outer space to become fritters which are of course: oishii!) We try cabbage and martian vegetable pancake Edo style with a last second whole egg suprise inside. (Also oishii). Quenching Japanese beer is essential in the 95 degree summer heat of Tokyo. Our first language lesson will be the term oukyuu biiru or Emergency beer. It refers to the first quick beer needed asap while waiting for the immediate second one to be quaffed at leisure immediately following. We think we might fit in here.
This goes on for days with the great schleping of cameras and microphones and appetites. First night in Roppongi Hills finds our party at a high class sit down at Olives ( part of the English Empire). Chef Todd holds forth and the food is unsurpassed as it hits the eye and pleases the palate. Highest quality tuna sashimi and pasta with a Kobe beef bolognese are among the delights that leave us with that certain “Take me now Lord” satiation. The view from the restaurant is a highscaper look out on Roppongi which looks like a frame from some science fiction alien planet. Hotels and a giant upscale mall and the constant flow of pedestrians and cars and talking multi color signs twinkle in the landscape that goes on forever in the view from above. Perhaps an aperitif and then sleep. Countless culinary inspirations await on our food odyssey. Eat drink and be merry...tomorrow we diet.
Ready set go. Nobu Chefs create salmon tartare, monkfish liver pate and Kobe beef sashimi. A smoking street corner yakitori stand gives up skewers of chicken, chicken meatballs, and even chicken cartilage. (Always try at least once). Thunder and the smell of rain drive our band into the noodle shop of the goods. We come in make friends and with cameras blazing order the left side of the menu and eat it all crying like babies cause it is so perfect. Dumplings and hot and sour noodle soup and cold spicy noodles and martian salad. Oishii strikes again. I remember the name and address but I’m not going to tell you so I won’t have to kill you. Next the food trip hops a train to Odawara prefecture and visits the Asahi brewery. The countryside of verdant hills is beauteous and the inside of the brewery is like a beer sauna while the outside is just a regular sauna. Emergency beer please. Suck up some soba noodles with extraterrestrial flora floating on the oishii oishii noodles in dashi broth. Another emergency then hit the futon cause at 0400 (am) comes the main event. Tsukiji fish market is one of the largest in the world. At the predawn tuna auction serious tuna war lords vie for the fresh and frozen favorite fish flown in from the seven seas. Sorry Charlie. After inspection with hooks and flash light tail core samples and note taking lead to the intense sale with auctioneers shouting in different pitches and gyrations to coax best prices from the sashimi samurai. We follow our hero Chef from the auction to the endless rows of everything from the ocean. Motorized tractors will run you over so we watch our backs as we sample eel and urchins and the best maguro (tuna) ever. Other barnacles and clams peek out and spit, live fish and eels writhe in tanks and buckets, snails, cockles, crabs, shrimps, and things abound that I can’t describe or prefer not to. Fish anyone?
Daiwa Sushi in the Tsukiji market is a father son operation. The twin tiny shops are side by side with Papa san on the left and Son san on the right. Chef Todd and a friend from Tokyo wait for seats on the sonny side and join a great sushi diner atmosphere. The regular happy belly up to the sushi bar clientele suck up tremendously fresh and well prepared sushi as fast as it can be fashioned. The clapping hand to hand molding of slightly vinegared sushi rice is capped with jewel like slivers of what yesterday swan and scampered under the waves. Maybe it’s just me but this tuna is even better than the one I sampled in the market which was the best I ‘d had til this moment. Something tells me there’ll be a lot of that. It’s about nine am. Breakfast of champions no? Oishii yes. Chef feeds me a morsel and oukyuu biiru as I photograph the scene. For the first time in my sushi life the Uni, sea urchin is delicious. Previously I had found it to be sort of spitty outy. Not so oishii. Creamy and rich the interior of the purple spiney creature is the fresh quintessential taste of the sea at this sampling. Later that day we put the lens on creations at Aiwa Sushi. Breathtaking bijoux of fish and chef craft bedazzle but the Kobe beef purveyor awaits with thousand dollar cuts of fat laced pampered beef. We’re told that the cows are massaged in beer and later tastes reveal it is not wasted. Luxurious and rich the best of the best beef melts in the mouth and is a singular inspiration for the Chef and the food trippers. I wonder how Chef Todd will prepare it back in his kitchen. That night those still standing gather at Japanese Korean style cook your own on a built in table brazier beef. Expatriate Tokyoian friend Peter Dale leads cast and crew on a progressive tasting of tongue and three grades of the Kobe cow. It’s a “here’s to good friends” gathering with choruses of “Kampaii” and the clinking of glasses and the hubbub of a very busy happy establishment. Did I say oishii.
And then we ate more beef. Shabu shabu is a traditional form of cooking with gas driven boiling pots that cook quickly swished slices of meat then vegetable and then noodles in the resulting broth or nabe. Beer first and sake second all served by a hostess wearing traditional kimono set in a tatami mat room, shoes outside, good cheer inside. And then a street festival honoring the rice harvest is a huge event surrounded by thousands of yellow paper lanterns paying homage to the ancestors. Traditional dance and music, youngsters, oldsters, octopus donuts, million dollar ice cold melon, box steamed potatoes, buttery roasted corn, skewers and braziers and beers. Oh my.
Stop. Here comes the day off. Boom Boom, Annie Isprizu Drinkz, and I join Olives manager Glenn san and waitress Minako san for Onsen day. Onsen are the traditional Japanese bath houses where when you learn the rules (no shoes, no tatoos) adds up to spring fed hot mineral baths in a serene setting just a subway ride away across Tokyo’s rainbow bridge. Soak your troubles away in sessions broken up by visits to the beer and food purveyors of the Edo style marketplace in between the segregated communal baths. I feel better.
Being lost in observation apparently we cannot miss a trip to the Park Hyatt bar made famous in Sofia Coppola’s hit move Lost in Translation. Twenty dollar cover charge, twenty dollar cocktail, forty dollar cab ride, touristas. And then...
How about a restaurant that specializes in Tongue? Yep. Tongue and steak and skewers of vegetables and even liver sashimi. Oishii strikes again. So let’s rumble over to Robata Yaki. A fun form of brazier cooked foods in a traditional atmosphere where the cooks all yell out orders and confirm them and then deliver these to the dinner a long handled paddle. Incoming: beef, beer, grilled red snapper, beer, leeks, potatoes, corn. Did I mention beer? Ozzie Osborn and Cameron Diaz were there the previous week. It is the most expensive Robata yaki joint in Tokyo. There’s the beef.
Now all good things must come to an end and this crew ends where it started. One last visit to Ropopngi Hills where exciting cocktails, lobster claws in gazpacho, crab cakes and shrimps like you read about, sausages, and more exciting cocktails at the Oak Door bar are perfect. Dessert at Olives is crazy talk with soufflés and panne cotta high style. Good bye to Chef Bobby, his wife Jennifer, Glen san, and Minako. Only one thing left; Karaoke! Our crew winds it’s way among the hammered business men and endless conga line of too cool teenagers to a Karaoke that can’t be beat. Sissy is a star and Chef Todd wails out Lynyrd Skynrd and Steppenwolf. The flight back to Zurich comes along way to soon. Last minute shopping for souvenirs. Last minute thoughts about Japan. Lots of “oishii” and still not enough. We’ve barely made a dent but still we gathered some poignant tastes and inspiration on our way. I wonder what the Chef will do with them?