Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Andre Simon Awards: conversation with Michael Booth, author of The Meaning of Rice

Michael Booth, The Meaning of Rice

I spoke to Michael Booth, author of The Meaning of Rice, over Skype. He lives in Copenhagen with his Danish wife and two boys. The book was shortlisted in the food section of the Andre Simon book awards.

I've been enjoying your book. It's very interesting. I've always wanted to go to Japan and I've never been, although I've been all over the world. But everytime I want to go, something happens like I have a baby or something.
I started to think today - going to Japan is a bit like meeting David Bowie. I would never have wanted to meet David Bowie, in case I was disappointed. And maybe Japan is like that for me. So perhaps I'm actually avoiding it.

I know what you mean. The only thing you don't have to impress Japan. That's the thing with meeting David Bowie you would feel like you wanted him to become your best friend and you had to do something original that he'd never heard of before.

I would feel that about Japan as well. I would want Japan to become my best friend and that I would have some special connection to Japan. But you've done it.

I agree there is a danger of it being overhyped and it can't possibly live up to the expectations. But it does really. I've been there maybe 25 times, and I still get excited at the prospect of it. I'm going in a couple of weeks time and even though I go two or three times a year, but I still get giddy and silly about it.

I'm not reading it consecutively but you can dip in and out of the chapters. Each chapter is quite self-contained and about a different food and drink. 

You don't need to read it as one narrative at all.

It's like a collection of short food stories. Was this all from one trip or several?

It was three trips with my family. Some of it was from previous trips, over the last five years.

It must have taken at least a year to do this.

The journey through Japan was done in at least 3 different legs.

I've read the purple potato, rice, yuzu and whisky chapters so far. I'm obsessed with yuzu. My first cookbook came out in 2011 with a yuzu recipe, and nobody had ever heard of it. You literally couldn't get it anywhere. I think it's important to include new ingredients in cookbooks, then supermarkets are more likely to stock them.

The big supermarkets have scouts who go to Japan. But they always are about five years behind.

We still haven't got fresh yuzu in the UK. Just ponzu from specialist Japanese shops. I've heard from a chef that they are growing it in France.

That'd be a good story.

It is difficult to grow, as you mentioned. I've had one a couple of years and it's looking very poorly. I haven't even had a flower.

It does take about ten years for a tree to flower.

I was interested in your growing tips. You mention you peeled a yuzu pip, and grew a seedling from it. 

I don't know what happened to them actually. I moved house and I don't think they survived the move. I got something that grew 10 to 15 cms. I will try again. It was so thrilling when it sprouted.

What's the season for harvesting?

End of November, December I think.

Citrus is the best thing about winter.

Your family is famous in Japan?

Yeah, kind of. A lot of people know the cartoon family from my book Sushi and Beyond.

Is that in Japanese or in English?

It's in English as well. It was strange to hear ourselves voiced by other people. 

Where can I see that? 

I think it's on YouTube. It's a surreal programme. It's very beautifully drawn and animated. 

Do you speak Japanese? 

No. I kind of know food words, enough to get by in a restaurant.

Do you think it's necessary for a visit?

No, absolutely not and it's becoming less necessary. If you make yourself a burden on Japanese people and corner them, then they can kind of understand you. They have this amazing hospitality and duty, they can't escape. Then they have to talk to you in English. They can understand it but are sometimes shy about speaking it.

They are sort of passive bilingual.

Yeah. All the signage, there are now these amazing apps, Google Translate app, which takes pictures of the signs and translates them. Put a menu in front of you and take a photo, it immediately translates it. It suddenly took a really big quantum leap last year. They did something with their algorithm.

When you travelled around Japan how have you done it? Train, boat, plane?

Every possible form of transport.
You've got to try the Shinkansen bullet train. It's not that cheap, but it's pretty quick. Tokyo to Kyoto is three hours. There is a lot of good cheap domestic airlines now, like Easyjet equivalents in Japan.

Going to visit the yuzu island, which I now want to do. 

To Shikoku, we flew, a connecting from Tokyo Narita airport, combine it with a visit to Osaka and Kyoto and take a bus across the bridge.
I've driven lots in Japan, it's very easy, you drive on the same side of the road as the UK. Japanese people drive everywhere at about 5mph. It's incredibly safe.They are really slow, very courteous, very law abiding. Now you can get English language GPS.
Me and my family went campervanning in Okaido, the northern island. Campervanning is really shit. It was awful. I realised we are a 5 star hotel family.

Oh I love everything like that.

I'm too old for that.

You are younger than me!

I always thought there were quite a lot of similarities between the Japanese and the British. We are both densely populated islands, that's why we are quite polite, we like to maintain our distance.

That's true, we are both monarchies and sea-faring nations, the manners, the etiquette. There is a whole stream of thought about that, comparing Brits to Japanese, yeah. I love it there because people are just so incredibly polite and kind. It's not just cos you are a tourist, they are incredible polite and kind to each other. Theres an appalling vlogger who went there and caused a scandal in Japan.
I saw some of that video and it caused me physical pain and he was being so rude and disrespectful to Japanese people. They are not used to it, they didn't know how to react to this oafish American youtube vlogger. I didn't see the suicide video, there was someone analysing his general oeuvre. He's just a tosser. They are open to that kind of abuse. I cringe when I see foreigners in Japan eating on the street or sitting down on the pavement. That's the downside of more and more tourism to Japan. They are having record tourism year on year at the moment.

Despite the nuclear accident?

Yeah, it's really bounced back since then. They had 20 million tourists last year. The thing I'm evangelical about is everyone should go to Tokyo, spend at least a week there, but no one goes anywhere else. Wherever you go in Japan, it's just strange and different and other. There is this huge great long island chain and there is so much diversity. Everywhere you go, you feel like you've discovered it. Outside Tokyo there are very few tourists.

I was thinking I'll go for a month and try and do the whole lot. I'll do a whistle stop tour from south to north.

If you go, drop me a line.

The Meaning of Rice is going to be my handbook. I was reading it and thinking what the fuck am I going to write - you've done it all.

There are 42 prefectures, and there are 100 stories in every one. It's just a bottomless mine. I could write ten more books about Japan.

How have you financed all of this? Obviously you got advances for the books.

I couldn't do it without that. The first book I didn't really make much money on.
I did one trip for three months. This new one, it's being published in Japan next month, so I'll get an advance from the Japanese publisher as well.

I imagine the first book opened a lot of doors for you. People were willing to talk to you.

I had a publisher in Japan who helped set a lot of stuff up, and for the first book I had a fixer who helped me to say, meet TV stars, have lunch with sumos. We went to this village with the oldest demographic in the world, all the centenarians. Japanese people are fairly open, they really like it when foreigners show interest. I wasn't that respectful. I think that's why the Japanese people read the first book, I was a bit cheeky, and they are interested in what foreigners think about them.

How do they treat women? I was talking to the Rare Tea Lady and she said she often goes to India and China to collect teas but she's had lots of problems in Japan because they don't respect women.

I'm not a woman so it's very difficult for me to pass judgment. I know it's an extremely unequal society. I live in Scandinavia so it's the antithesis of that. It's true there is a lot of chauvinism, particularly in the workplace.  Japan is one of the worst countries in the world for equality of opportunity and it's kind of biting them in the arse now, as they need women in the work force because their economy has stagnated for so long now. But it's a safe country to travel in.

She was trying to do business and they were sort of blanking her. 

That's amazing. That's a shame. I think she's got a double problem, being a foreigner and a woman.

She said in China, they are just all business. They don't care what you are, it's all about the money and the business.

Japanese tea culture is just incredible. I don't know if you like green tea. That's something really to look forward to when you go there. Many regions have their own type of tea. 

You are married to a Danish woman. How long have you lived in Copenhagen? 

On and off, about ten years. I moved there in 2000, was there for a few years, then I managed to escape to Paris for three years.

What were you doing in Paris?

I wrote a book there, I went to the Cordon Bleu cooking school where I trained as a chef. And then went to work in a couple of Michelin star restaurants.

How old are you?

I'm 46.

Since you were 30, you got married and then moved to Denmark. Do you speak Danish? And your kids are bilingual?


What was your background? How did you get into food writing?

I trained as a journalist. The long version is.... (deep breath)
Did a degree, worked in television, really hated it, ran away to Bangkok, where I found an English language magazine, rang them up and said 'do you need any writers?', wrote for them for a while, came back to the UK, did a graduate course at LCP in journalism. Worked as a freelancer since my late 20s, working for Time Out and The Independent and loads of different magazines and newspapers.
My wife, a bit like the Vikings a long time ago, she came across the North Sea and dragged me by the hair, to live in Denmark, kind of against my will. We moved to Copenhagen, I helped start  Time Out in Copenhagen. I bagged the restaurant section for myself. I really loved it. I became more and more interested in food. I realised I didn't really know what I was talking about. So I went to Paris to learn to cook without recipes.

Is that what you think being a chef is? Learning to cook without recipes?

No. I'd done all the Jamie Oliver and the Nigellas, and all the kind of bish-bosh, throw it at the plate, all the very cooking that was very popular at the turn of the century. It sounds so old. That was the style, it was great, it got a lot of people cooking and interested in food. I got very frustrated, I found it was too easy, I was looking to take cooking to another level. I thought who complicates food the best? Has to be the French. I wanted to learn the Grand Larousse stuff... 

...the mother sauces..

Learning the ground rules.
I thought it'd be an interesting book project. Going from a home cook to grand table, stuffing a quail with foie gras and truffle kind of cook.

One of the most inspirational food books I've read is Heat by Bill Buford. He did a similar thing.

We had the same publisher actually. He came out with that a bit after mine. Nearly scuppered my book actually.

You did it first!

It's a great book. Don't you think it's dated a bit now? Post Weinstein, it's all a bit...

That whole Anthony Bourdain macho..

I find that really tiresome. I'm the anti-Bourdain. I take my family with me.

I know what you mean. I'm permanently furious, about, literally if you turned on the TV you'd think that men do all the cooking in the world.

Right. How has Gordon Ramsay still have a career? How is he still a public figure? How is he still on tv?

He isn't so much here, more in America I think. I've been to Sweden a few times. That guy Niklas Ekstedt was on Saturday Kitchen, he's very good looking, very charming, very good on tv, easy way about him like Jamie Oliver, but the man can't cook for shit. His plate was just horrendous. It's all annoying. He's there because, I dunno....It's like everybody trusts men more than they trust women, but I find that ridiculous when it comes to food.

It is ridiculous. I get exactly the same feeling when I see all of these cliques of chefs, who roam the world, getting together, it's always the same bunch of... I always think that they overcompensate for the fact that their job involves tweezering coriander. Every photograph has to have them with the middle finger up, a desperate kind of rock n roll, the tattoos and all that shit, I just think oh grow up and move on. They so desperately need some women to just tell them to shut up. It's like a whole community of chefs that run the world without women and who have completely lost perspective on what food is, what cooking is. 

99.9 per cent of the world's cooking is by women. It's the classic thing, the minute there's money in it, men do it.

Yeah. It's more like traditionally because restaurant kitchens are such a toxic place to work and the hours are so ridiculous but that should have changed by now.

That's why I started the supper club movement.

All right, ok.

I hold up the laptop. 
This is my home restaurant, this is my living room.

Where are you based?

Kilburn. Beginning of 2009 I started a restaurant in my living room based on Cuban paladares.

Wow you must be mad. You must be absolutely bonkers to do that.

Why do you say that?

Ooh because, when I cooked in Paris, I went to work at the Joel Robuchon restaurant, the one with the big counter, there's one in London. It's an open kitchen and the first day I had to go out and start cooking and I wasn't told what I was supposed to do. Anyway I realised as I looked at this bunch of strangers that I was going to make lunch for, that I didn't give a shit about them. It suddenly dawned on me that I like cooking for my friends and family. It was my emotionally constipated English way of saying I loved them. When I was cooking for people I didn't know, I just didn't give a shit.

I'm a feeder. It's about love but it's also about control. I've realised I want to control what people eat.

We laugh.


In some twisted way, it's about dominance. 

Really? You could be right. Maybe I have the same thing myself?

Of course it is also about love, and food cooked with love is better, love is the secret ingredient.

I told myself in the book it was about showing my love for people but really it's just about my own sheer greed. That's really what motivates me to make nice food to cook. 

I'm a nightmare to go to restaurants because of that, because I always think I can do it better.

Michael Booth's The Meaning of Rice is available in bookshops and on amazon. 

My next post will run a competition to win all six food books shortlisted for the Andre Simon book awards. Read all the interviews to answer the questions in order to win.

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