The James Beard Foundation Masterpiece Dining

July 2008

James Beard House entrance

  • At a collaborative event held by the James Beard Foundation and the Umami Information Center (UIC) in July, Chef Kunio Tokuoka presented Umami: A Modern Japanese Degustation at the gastronomic haven of The James Beard House.

    The James Beard Foundation is a non-profit organization that works to promote advancement within the culinary world and awards scholarships to aid in the education of outstanding chefs. The foundation was set up following James Andrew Beard's death in 1985 to honor his achievements. He was anointed the "dean of American cookery" by The New York Times in 1954. After James Beard's passing in 1985, the Manhattan townhouse in Greenwich Village in which he lived was reopened as the James Beard House to help keep the culinary arts alive. It serves as a place for famous chefs from across the world to showcase their culinary skills, and all its profits go toward the management of the organization.

    The James Beard Foundation and Umami Information Center came together to mark the centenary anniversary of the discovery of umami. Kunio Tokuoka ― a chef of traditional kaiseki Japanese cuisine ― who hails from the highly revered and elegant Kitcho restaurant in Arashiyama, Kyoto in Japan created and served a multi-course dinner as part of the James Beard House's Masterpiece Dining series. The event, entitled Umami: A Modern Japanese Degustation, took place at 7pm on July 29 and introduced the concept of umami to diners through a variety of dishes.

    With reputed chefs such as David Bouley, Michael Romano and Tadashi Ono, and food journalists such as Florence Fabricant of The New York Times and Josh Ozersky of New York Magazine in attendance, the event was packed with American culinary influentials who had come to enjoy an evening of umami. Beginning with an hors d'oeuvres reception, the dinner lasted five hours with each dish on the menu inspired by umami. The food served was both delicious and beautifully presented. And as the evening progressed, lively discussions about the meal and umami could be heard around the room. In addition to a meat and a fish course, Tokuoka also served his signature, umami-rich risotto -- a subtly Japanese variation on the Italian classic. Umami-rich desserts also proved to be something new for many people, and with mango soup, green tea ice cream and caramelized sweet potato on the menu, there was no shortage of novelty dishes.

    Chef Tokuoka prepared for the dinner at the Bouley test kitchen over a period of four days. He also met with the media during this time to do interviews and shoots. The day before the event, the final preparations and set-up took place at the James Beard House. Former Kitcho chefs Yoshinori Ishii and IsaoYamada, who both now work in well-known New York restaurants, helped Chef Tokuoka secure some of the Japanese ingredients locally. And after Chef Tokuoka was able to test the ingredients and recipes out, the menu was finalized. The champagne and wines served with the food were procured from famous Californian wineries through the generous efforts of the James Beard Foundation.

    This dinner was the 5th in the Masterpiece Dining series -- an event that was held for the first time in 2007 ― and Chef Tokuoka was the first chef from Japan ever to participate in this event. Diners were particularly delighted with the lanterns that Chef Tokuoka carved out of large daikon radishes and presented with the entree. In line with a traditional Japanese tea ceremony concept, Chef Tokuoka used the lanterns to create atmosphere and encourage the diners to interact with one another. Speaking to diners at the event about umami, Chef Tokuoka said that in Japanese cuisine, matching dashi with other ingredients is crucial. He then went on to say that the reason why Japanese cuisine is regarded as healthy is because it uses very little oil as an ingredient or during the preparation process. One of the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine is to allow the diner to enjoy the natural flavors of the ingredients. The flavor one gets from dashi is alone satisfying, so by skillfully using dashi and umami, one can feel very satiated without having to use large amounts of oil.




    It is not just about having umami in a dish. It is also important to consider things such as how umami should be eaten, and with what ingredients it should be combined. Understanding the importance of knowing which ingredients to use is understanding the food industry. Chef Tokuoka believes that increasing the awareness of both food producers and consumers is crucial. He hoped that the dinner provided a chance for people to change the way they think about food and umami.


    The James Beard Foundation: http://www.jamesbeard.org/


    Click to download the event report.

  • James Beard House entrance

    Chef Kunio Tokuoka

    Chef Kunio Tokuoka

    Japanese daikon radish candle presentation

    Chef Tokuoka talks about umami

  • Chef Kunio Tokuoka

    Chef Kunio Tokuoka

    Japanese daikon radish candle presentation

    Chef Tokuoka talks about umami