For most of the 2000s, the tiny city of San Sebastian, Spain, was the must-go destination for food tourists. The birthplace of modern Spanish cooking, San Sebastian became a magnet for culinary adventurers seeking both the city’s experimental fare and the more traditional foods of its fabled pinxtos, or tapas bars. With more Michelin stars per capita than any European city, San Sebastian was widely regarded as the best food city on the planet. But then Spain’s economy crumbled in the wake of the global financial crisis, and suddenly, the city’s cuisine wasn’t so en fuego anymore.
As Spain’s star began to dim, the food world was busy anointing a successor: Tokyo. In 2007, as part of its rapid global expansion, Michelin published its first-ever guide to the Japanese capital’s eateries and awarded stars to all 14 featured restaurants. All-in, it awarded a total of 323 stars to 281 Tokyo restaurants. Overnight, Tokyo eclipsed Paris as the most starred city in the world. On a tour of Asia this week, President Obama made headlines not only with trade policy, but by eating dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at one of Tokyo’s top sushi restaurants, Sukibayashi Jiro.
Like Michelin, I arrived late to the Tokyo bandwagon. Until last year, my only experience of the city had been several layovers at Narita International Airport. But then I got to spend a week in the city on a rather delicious assignment: To test the proposition that Tokyo was the best place in the world to eat. And I left convinced that it is so.
The most important element of Tokyo’s unbeatable cuisine is the quality of the ingredients and the respect that its chefs show for even the smallest details. Georges Chef Auguste Escoffier, the godfather of modern French cooking, suggested that the unrivaled quality of his home country’s terroir is what made its cuisine so special. Had he tasted Japan’s fish, beef, chicken, and produce, he probably wouldn’t have made such a sweeping claim. If anything, the Japanese are more attuned to provenance than the French ever were. In Tokyo, I met a ramen genius who would only use dried kelp from one particular port on the northern island of Hokkaido to make the broth for his soups. He had tested dried kelp from other places, mind you, but only that one was good enough for his dashi. In Tokyo, I met a sushi master whose attention to detail was such that he knew the precise depth at which a certain fish he served was caught. If the fish was swimming below 150 meters (492 feet) when it was hooked, he said, its skin tended to be a little tough.
Another reason the food is so good: With rare exception, the finest chefs in Tokyo are in their kitchens every night. This distinguishes them from their counterparts in contemporary Paris, London, and New York, where celebrity chefs head business empires and spend more time on airplanes than they do cooking. In these cities, the chance of spotting a culinary superstar while dining in one of his or her restaurants is slim. Even then, the odds that he or she actually helped prepare the food are pretty much zero. In Tokyo, by contrast, the most lauded chefs are the ones slicing the fish and grilling the meat. How do you know? Because they often do it right in front of you. Open kitchens and counter seating is the norm in Tokyo, both at sushi houses and the kaiseki restaurants that offer traditional, multi-course Japanese meals.