Chef Yuki Tanaka is only 29 years of age, but his background is nothing short of extraordinary. His acclaimed restaurant in Tokyo is one of the most popular spots for both foodies and international travelers; it ranks as the city´s #1 on Trip Advisor. This passionate chef sources the highest quality ingredients directly from farmers and fishermen in Mie Prefecture as he knows that the food there is special, thanks to the region´s climate and geography. When he learned that ten thousand of fish could not be sold as a result of the pandemic, he came up with some innovative concepts to support the industry.
Yuki Tanaka studied the secrets of Japanese cuisine at the renowned Kikunoi Restaurant in Kyoto for four years. Then Tanaka – fueled by passion and driven by curiosity – backpacked through 16 countries in Europe and America. Tanaka was always armed with soy sauce and Kombu (edible seaweed) and offered to work for free at several eateries in order to learn from the locals and master his craft. His extensive travel opened his eyes and one of his key findings was that a region’s food culture is always born out of locally grown ingredients.
When he returned to Japan, his burning desire was to integrate the Japanese culture into his cuisine. That´s why Tanaka headed back to his native Prefecture Mie to build a relationship with farmers and other producers – determined to implement an excellent “Farm & Seafood to Table” concept.
Blessed with the ample fruits of both the mountains and the sea, the prefecture has long been known as a treasure trove of food. “Mie receives an abundance of rain, so lots of minerals from the nearby mountains flow into the sea,” Tanaka explains. “That makes the seaweed and shellfish rich in nutrients, and those become food for bigger fish,”. Not surprisingly the region is also home to one of Japan’s biggest aquaculture industries, producing Ise-madai, abalone, and many other fixtures for the high-end Japanese cuisine.
In 2015, the young culinary prodigy finally opened Ise Sueyoshi, an exclusive, traditional Kaiseki style restaurant in Tokyo that seats only 11 people at a time. The multi-course dinner reflects the different seasons and expresses Japan´s culture through fresh ingredients. Tanaka´s concept was well received and within two years the acclaimed small restaurant was ranked among the Top 10 in the world on TripAdvisor.
When Tanaka learned about the devastating situation in the fish industry caused by the pandemic in his native home, he rose to the occasion and decided to help those people who had underpinned his success.
His first focus was the Ise-madai fishery, which had an access of 20,000 due to lack of demand. With a retail price from 20 to 50 dollars per Ise-madai sea bream fish, this caused a financial catastrophe. Besides, this red sea bream, known as the King of Fish in Mie´s ocean, has long been prized as a bringer of good luck and is essential at weddings, children’s festivals and other celebrations. The red sea bream is caught throughout the year, but it is said that they taste best in spring when they accumulate fat and nutrients in preparation for the breeding season.
As a great thought leader, Tanaka realized quickly that he was forced to think outside the box if he wanted to positively impact Mie’s aquaculture in the devastating pandemic. If there wasn’t enough demand for a whole fish, perhaps a frozen meal would be more popular? The creative Chef had a winning recipe as he serves bowls of sea bream with chazuke, a traditional Japanese dish made by pouring green tea over rice, at his restaurant Ise Sueyoshi. In fact, it´s one of his restaurant´s highly popular summer signature dishes. In cooperation with the fishery team, the optimal time to cut and freeze the fish for a version that people could enjoy at home — by just adding hot water – was determined.
The items went on sale online and in stores across Mie Prefecture and became an instant hit. “It tastes so fresh and there is no wateriness you might expect from a frozen product,” says chef and food writer Higuchi Naoya. “The soup is light but comforting with such deep umami. It’s a waste not to savor it.”
The success of the chazuke has led Tanaka to start a new project called Mie no Megumi (The Bounty of Mie) with a broader mission to preserve the regional food culture by coming up with creative ways to use excess supply and create a highly sustainable food chain. This excellent project is well aligned with MGTO´s ambitious SDGs goals; ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns and conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for a sustainable development.
Last November, members of the sustainable project hosted an online class for a high-school cooking club. Tanaka served as the moderator and talked about the pressure local producers were facing and challenged the students to find new ways to use the fish and produce. Inspired by chef Tanaka, the entire cooking club joined the project, keen to support the local industry with creative ideas and innovative concepts.
A resilient recovery from the disruption to lives and economies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic calls for a robust regional response. Thank you, Chef Tanaka for rising to the occasion and for your incredible leadership. There are positive things that come out of every crisis, no matter how devastating. It´s mostly the disasters that fuel innovation and bring out the best of people.