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Japan, coffee becomes a star ingredient in land of the tea ceremony

TOKYO, Japan – Visitors to the land of the tea ceremony don’t usually go there for the coffee, but that’s why I’m in Japan, along with a host of top chefs, hoteliers and media from across Asia. We’re here for a three-day coffee extravaganza culminating in two gala dinners at Happo-en, a grand events venue set in extensive gardens in Tokyo.

Cooking for all these guests are two masters of Japanese cuisine – good friends and much awarded chefs Tetsuya Wakuda of Sydney and Yoshihiro Narisawa of Tokyo.

The dessert is the domain of Norihiko Terai, mastermind of the popular Tokyo patisserie Aigre Douce, while pioneer Japanese bartender Yuichi Hoshi is mixing the cocktails.

But coffee is the real star of the two dinners – the first for chefs including Shannon Bennett of Vue de monde in Melbourne and Josh Emett of Rata in Queenstown; the second for hoteliers.

It’s not the first time Wakuda and Narisawa have worked together. They’ve cooked together in Australia, and in 2104 they spontaneously whipped up a meal for 60 while on a tour of Brazil’s coffee plantations with Nespresso, also host of the Tokyo shindig. But it’s the first time they’ve cooked together using the stuff as an ingredient.

“It’s unusual to use coffee in savoury dishes. It was a real challenge,” admits Tetsuya, but he’s pleased with the result. “A cup of coffee is wonderful, but there are so many ways to enjoy it.”

For the dinners, Wakuda is serving langoustines roasted in coffee-infused sesame oil with endive confit (PICTURE).

Narisawa’s coffee contribution is charcoal-grilled wagyu sirloin glazed with a Ristretto Intenso-infused miso and served with daikon, autumn leaf vegetables and three sauces – one infused with, you guessed it, Ristretto Intenso.

Wakuda, who arrived in Sydney at the age of 22, is exhilarated to be cooking in Japan.

“There’s such a strong work ethic here. People are so focused. Even having to work with them is quite scary. And the precision! OK, I was born here, but I still can’t work out [how they do it]. The kitchens are so compact. Everything is so precise. That’s something very impressive.”

As for coffee, guests always remember the first and last course of a meal, he says, so it’s important to serve consistently fine coffees.

Narisawa, who draws foodie pilgrims from around the world with his reverence for sustainable locally grown and foraged ingredients, dismisses the notion that dining at his eponymous restaurant means highfalutin.

It’s about pursuing “tastier food. So, the same potatoes and the same tomatoes, but eaten when they have the best taste.”

Coffee, he says, is an “indulgence from different parts of the earth” that has become indispensable to the daily lives of the Japanese. Reverence is therefore required.

“I have visited plantations in Brazil where coffee is grown. Everyone is working hard in a hot environment to grow the beans. So it’s important to keep it in good condition when drinking it.”

The Swiss juggernaut hosting the Tokyo event, its first “atelier” in Asia, would agree. Having conquered the international market for domestic coffee-makers, it is out to dominate in the world of luxury hospitality.

From its own figures, it’s getting there: Nespresso is served by more than 780 star-rated chefs or equivalent around the world. It has partnerships with more than 15 international luxury hotel chains, is a recognised partner of prestigious associations such as Relais & Châteaux, and is served by 15 major airlines.

That’s a lot of aluminium pods, the individual Nespresso capsules containing one serving each of coffee. Neither the industry or home versions are biodegradable. But Nespresso has a plan for these, whether you are a home user, a hotel or a restaurant.

“It’s very easy for us to recycle the aluminium if we get the capsules back so we want people to bring them back,” Nespresso chief executive Jean-Marc Duvoisin told Life & Leisure on a visit here in March. “Each country is different so it’s a bit complicated, but we have systems in each place.”

As for Nespresso’s foray into Asia, the market is growing very nicely, he says. “We are strong in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but the mainland is still very small. We are not in India but we are big in South Korea.”

Nespresso is now in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, and has just opened in Bangkok, the next stop on Duvoisin’s trip.

Coffee unites the world, Narisawa notes. It is quite strange that, even in completely different food cultures, coffee always ends a meal. “Therefore I feel like I am connected by something. I think that is interesting.”

The writer travelled to Tokyo as a guest of Nespresso.

Charis Perkins