Monday, March 14, 2016

Nick vs. David Chang


David Chang, of Momofuku fame, wrote a piece recently in his trendy food magazine, Lucky Peach about Why Tokyo is the World's Best Food City. As a long-time resident of the city - and one who is admittedly getting a little tired of uncritical fealty and knee-jerk, cliched pronouncements about food in Tokyo - I felt the need to set the record straight a little bit. Particularly in response to a guy, whose just blowin' shit out of his ass. 

Yeah, Tokyo's got some great food. But the best in Japan? Let's take a look at Kyoto or Kanazawa or... And in the world? Give me a fuckin' break! Madrid! Donostia! Rome! Paris! And any number of of other places! Whenever I leave Tokyo, I find myself indulging in better fish, meat, veggies, breads and pastries than I can ever find anywhere in Tokyo. Fact really is that Tokyo's got a lot of food, much of it on the just OK side of things. 

Below is Mr. Chang's article, with my rebuttals. The gauntlet is thrown! That said, David, got a job for me to write for your magazine?

- Nick

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It’s pointless to engage in any debate about which city has the best food without mentioning Tokyo.

Yes David, Tokyo should be mentioned, but it also should be measured, compared and held up to something more than a statement about the nature of pointlessness. Assumptions are best put to the test, critically and pointedly.

Tokyo is the answer I give when friends and I kick around the question, Where would you live for the rest of your life solely for the food? Why? Because Japan as a country is devoted to food, and in Tokyo that fixation is exponentially multiplied. It’s a city of places built on top of each other, a mass complex of restaurants.

Cool, you would live for the rest of your life in Tokyo solely for the food – and you give up such a lame answer as to why. Is Japan really a country devoted to food? I would say it’s devoted to consumption. Much of it, and Tokyo in particular is like a giant vertical shopping mall, with thousands of chain restaurants ready to fill the hungry maws of suited salarymen, who have little or no concern about quality and have little or no time to enjoy whatever they’re wolfing down.

Let me rattle off the reasons why Tokyo beats all other cities: 

Do your best, buddy!

It has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, should you choose to eat that kind of food. I’d argue that some of the best French food and some of the best Italian food is in Tokyo. All the great French chefs have outposts there. If I want to eat at L’Astrance, I can go to Tokyo and eat it with Japanese ingredients. The Japanese have been sending their best cooks to train in Europe for almost sixty years. If you look at the top kitchens around the world, there is at least one Japanese cook in nearly every one.

You undercut your argument in your first sentence – “if you should choose to eat that kind of food.” Why give the fact of Michelin stars a qualifier? Those of us who live and travel without expense accounts usually have to be a little more creative in where we go. And who would even want to go to Joel “let’s-just-add-more-foie-and edible-gold-leaf-to-that” Robuchon’s ridiculous chateau in Yebisu Garden Place or be condescendingly force-fed and rushed out to make way for some real Nipponjin at Jiro’s sushi joint? Best French food? No. The basic quality of things like vegetables in Japan leaves much to be desired. And sure, the 3 star French outposts import their provender, but … I rest my case. Best Italian food? Definitely not. There are some things that Japanese don’t understand, like bread and abbondanza.  By the way, there is no L’Astrance in Tokyo. And sure, there are many talented chefs here. Many French-trained. And many try to do their best with the limited resources here, but they can only go so far.

Japan has taken from everywhere, because that’s what Japanese culture does: they take and they polish and shine and they make it better. The rest of the world’s food cultures could disappear, and as long as Tokyo remains, everything will be okay. It’s the GenBank for food. Everything that is good in the world is there.

Since when has Japan polished and shined things to make them better? To make things more polished and shiny, yes, but better? No. Case in point, Chinese and Korean food. Pale imitations of the real thing in any and all Chugoku ryori and yakiniku places here. There’s a thing here known as Nihon no aji, the Japanese taste. It’s all about reducing the fire, reducing the spice, reducing the taste. It’s been defended as the subtlety of the Japanese palate. In reality it’s love of blandness. And as for everything that is good in the world being here, where are the artichokes? Where’s the cheese?

If I want to have sushi, there’s no better place on the planet. All of the best fish in the world is flown to Tokyo so the chefs there can have first pick of it—whether it’s Hokkaido sea urchin or bluefin tuna caught off of Long Island, it all moves through Tsukiji fish market before jokers in any other city get a crack at it.

Yes, the world market for fish is flash-frozen and international. It’s the same stuff you can get anywhere in the world. So what makes Japan special, huh? Sure they import a mess of seafood. It’s a hugely populated hungry nation that likes its fish. And sure, the best chef’s get the best picks. But, us hoi polio will never see it. And if you’re still eating Atlantic bluefin tuna David, you can go fuck yourself. Not happy until you can eat the last one? I could go on and on about the fish in Tokyo. It’s much better closer to the source, like in Kanazawa or Hakodate or Seattle or Portland or New York or Spain, Italy and France. 

If I want to have kaiseki, there are top Kyoto guys who have spots in Tokyo, and they’re pretty fucking good. If I want to visit places dedicated to singular food items, from tempura to tonkatsu to yakitori, they’ve got it all. They have street food, yakisoba, ramen. They have the best steakhouses in the world. They have the best fucking patisseries in the world. The best Pierre Hermé is in Tokyo, not in fucking Paris. You know why? Because of the fucking Japanese cooks. I can eat the best food in subways, I can eat the best food in the train station, I can eat the best food in the airport. It’s the one place in the world where I have to seek out bad food. It’s hard to find.

Pretty fuckin’ good kaiseki? Damning with faint praise. So what if Kyoto guys have kaiseki places in Tokyo. Go to Kyoto for the best. Most kaiseki is pretty much phoned in anyway. It’s one of the few styles where they give you a lot of stuff, most of it pretty forgettable. And yes, they’ve got tempura, tonkatsu, yakitori, yakisoba, ramen and stuff. Cool. So what. It’s all food, some better, some worse. Fried, grilled, made into soup, what’s not to like. It gets a little tiring after a while. Especially when there are so few other options. And could you tell me where to get a good steak in this town? I haven’t found one yet? And it’s rather stupid to say the best fucking patisseries in the world are here. You know there're not. Go into any small village in France and you’ll get something much better. And there is a lot of food at the train stations. Lots of chain restaurants pumping out the same old shit. And really, David, have you eaten at Narita airport? It’s one of the worst airports in the world for food.

They have no stupid importation laws; they get the best shit. Europe exports their best shit to Japan, because they know the Japanese have better palates than dumb Americans. It’s true. Go to the local department stores and buy cheese. It’s amazing.

This, as you well know, is complete bullshit. What’s considered the best cheese shop in Tokyo is the Tokyu Food Floor in Shibuya, where you’ll find Fermier, where they have limited selection of affined to ammoniated French cheese at ridiculous prices. It’s nearly a cheese desert here. It’s not Europe’s or anyone’s best shit that get imported here, it’s merely their shit. 

The produce is the best. It’s the best in the world, in my opinion. I’d argue Japanese produce is the best because it’s not the equivalent of a beautiful dumb blonde who just looks great. It looks great and it’s got brains. From root vegetables on up, somehow they just grow the best shit.

Again, let’s look at some facts. Some 60 percent of all the food consumed in Japan is imported. And that's a lot of vegetables. The things grown here are grown for looks, but really their quite jejune. And bland. And really sad. I would kill for a decent tomato. Or an artichoke, period.

The best chicken in the world, the best eggs in the world, the best beef in the world (if you like that kind of beef). Shit, the McDonald’s there still cooks their french fries in beef fat. It’s awesome.

Hey, the chicken here ain’t bad. As are the eggs. General quality is high, but I’ve had better elsewhere. As for the beef, again you undercut your argument with your qualifier. Can you tell me where to get that good beef, again? And what the fuck are you doing eating at McDonald’s. Nothing from McDonald’s is awesome. 

I can craft a great meal from convenience stores. A fantastic meal. From properly made bento boxes, to a variety of instant ramen, toonigiri, to salads, to sandwiches, it’s all really good. The egg-salad sandwiches at all the convenience stores are amazing. All the fried chicken, delicious. The chain restaurants, amazing. KFC, Pizza Hut, TGI Fridays, Tony Roma’s, you name it. I’ve been to all of them. Guess what? They’re all awesome. You know why? They care a little bit more. That’s it. They just make better fucking food than anywhere else. It’s awesome.

Convenience stores and chain restaurants. Sorry, buddy, they make food just as shitty, if not more so than in any convenience store or chain restaurant around the world.

Now let’s keep it interesting by switching and going over the cons. There really are only a few.
There’s no real Southeast Asian food that I know of. But guess what, I’m not looking for it. If it exists, it’s probably really good. That’s what you need to understand: generally, everything in Tokyo is better than what you can have anywhere else.

To confirm for you, Southeast Asian food is not all that available and what you get is pretty bad here. To clarify, things, generally are not better here than what you can have elsewhere. Things aspire to a certain standard of mediocrity. It’s a hamburger nation. Lots of food for lots of people, that’s safe, not too demanding and delivers the calories.

They don’t really have slices of pizza. But guess what New York doesn’t really have much of anymore, either? Slices of pizza. Tokyo does have pizza, though. Their Italian food is great.

A straw man argument. Now there’s no reason to take you seriously. And yes, Tokyo does have pizza. It’s odd and indefinable. Like most of the Italian food here.

Tokyo doesn’t really have Spanish food. But you know what I don’t ever really eat? Spanish food. I don’t have to eat paella ever again. Spain’s a country I like to visit, but we’re talking about foods that I generally eat or I want to eat on a day-to-day basis.

Now you’re just talkin’ out of your ass. Go to Spain, David. Paella? Even Spaniards don’t eat paella? Are you really that ignorant about one of the greatest cuisines of the world?

I genuinely don’t give a fuck about any other place on the planet. I just want to go to Tokyo to eat. Look at the other food cities in the world, such as Paris. Can’t live there, because I don’t want to eat only French food. It’s great for a week and then you know what I want? Anything but French food. Same thing with Italy and Italian food. I think it’s got to be the most boring food culture in the world. For fuck’s sake, can you eat anything besides fucking pasta?

I don’t know if you looked recently, but Paris has far too many Japanese restaurants. And North African. And Chinese. And Spanish. And… and they’ve even got fucking McDonalds. By your very own measure, it measures up.  For fuck’s sake, can you get a life?

You know what I eat in New York? Japanese food. And Japanese food that’s based on what’s in Tokyo. I save money to go to Masa. I don’t understand why this is even a question in the Versus Issue. Everyone else should just bow down. Tokyo is like the Borg, because they take from everyone else and they make it better.

Good for you. Glad you found a way to save money eating at a pretentious overpriced restaurant. I think you were trying to be funny, but I detect a serious sense of entitlement in everything you write.

Everyone who argues for anyplace that isn’t Tokyo is saying Salieri was a better composer than Mozart. No. Fucking. Way. It’s like arguing that there was a better basketball team in 1992 than the Dream Team. It’s not even worth anointing a second-place winner—it’s ridiculous.

Huh?

Maybe you’re wondering, If  you like it so much, why don’t you open a restaurant there? I’m scared. It would be like being the best basketball player on a European team. I’d feel like Toni Kukoč getting on the court with Pippen and Jordan and being like, Oh, this isn’t fun. I suck. That’s my great fear. It’s not like swimming with sharks. I’d probably be the shark coming to Tokyo. But little fish eat sharks in Tokyo.

Strange analogy to end a perfectly ridiculous piece of attitude presented as opinion.

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