Meet Fumie Takeuchi, One of 31 Chefs Defining Japan's Next Generation
An excerpt from Andrea Fazzari's 'Tokyo New Wave.'
March 13, 2018
The result, TOKYO NEW WAVE, is more of an anthropological ode than a standard cookbook, with chef portraits and interviews that seek to capture the essence of such a dynamic culinary city. "So many people think of Tokyo or Japan as beyond reach or highly mysterious," says Fazzari. "[Tokyo New Wave] is approachable, familiar and joyful. I felt compelled to put it into this world, to express my love for a special place."
Below, read an excerpt fromTokyo New Wave, out now.
Words and photos by Andrea Fazzari | @tokyo_new_wave
I arrive fifteen minutes early to meet Fumie Takeuchi.
The door to Sushi Take is slightly ajar, and I spy her organizing, dashing to and fro behind the counter. Blaring pop music emanates from her laptop, which dominates the otherwise quiet third floor of this unremarkable Ginza building. I patiently wait. At five minutes to three, the music stops. I take that as my cue to present myself.
Takeuchi’s sleepy eyes are expressive; her face is makeup free. She sees me at the door and nods slightly, indicating that I can enter. Timid but welcoming with an infectious smile, Takeuchi is not only one of Japan’s few female chefs but also one of the only female sushi chefs, historically an exclusively male profession. As she greets me, I notice her raw, rough hands reflecting her years of hard work butchering fish.
Takeuchi is simultaneously reticent yet curious about my interest in her. She explains, in a mix of Japanese and English, that she chose to be a sushi chef because sushi is honest; it is impossible to hide anything. At eighteen years old, she left Japan, dissatisfied with her country. She waited tables and cleaned rooms at a London backpackers’ hotel, where she learned more about herself and the world. When she returned to Tokyo, she realized that she loved sushi even more than music and her other strong interest, mixology. After several serendipitous meetings with a sushi chef at Tsukiji Market, Takeuchi was accepted as an apprentice and mentored by an oyakata (master), someone she reveres to this day. She proudly declares that she did not inherit her sushi-ya (sushi restaurant) from her father, as many sushi chefs do. She opened it herself.
There are deeply entrenched beliefs and traditions in Japanese culture as to why women have never made good sushi chefs. It was said that the size and temperature of their hands negatively affects the fish and that their makeup (the assumption was that all women wear makeup) interferes with their sense of smell. Stereotypes and sexist views are slowly changing. Takeuchi’s male peers recognize her determination and disregard for sexist norms, and in large part consider her one of their own, a skilled Edo-style sushi chef. One of her colleagues marveled that she must have extremely strong character. This is not easy work, he told me.
Years ago, Takeuchi shaved off her long hair, partly for the dramatic change and partly to respect the hygienic standards expected of sushi chefs. It was also in keeping with the honesty behind sushi, the sense of not hiding anything. In a country where gender roles are entrenched and female chefs are rare, she is an anomaly and she knows it. This is not something she touts or asserts, it is just who she is. Takeuchi never wanted to do what is expected of girls. Only what she expects of herself is important. This is assertive and bold for an otherwise reticent role model who, despite her confidence as a chef, worries that she might not be able to live up to my expectations.
Instead, there is no doubt that she does. When I photograph her, I recognize that she is pleased with this new experience, and has somehow already been changed by it. While I have spent time with thirty-one chefs for this book, my interactions with her have been particularly meaningful. She is not just a notable female chef; she is a notable chef.