Qantas Creative Director of Food, Beverage & Service Neil Perry explains why Japan is his favourite foodie destination and how it has inspired the Qantas inflight menus.
Food fans, we are going to let you in on a secret. Tokyo may have more Michelin stars than any other city – an astonishing 227 of them, compared with Paris’ 92 – but some of the city’s best restaurants can be enjoyed without a booking. In fact, many of Tokyo’s best-loved eateries – tiny outlets that offer just 20 or so seats and just one dish – don’t even take bookings.
So how do you get a seat? The old-fashioned way: by waiting in line. Which is why, when you’re walking through Tokyo and you see a queue outside a restaurant, the best thing to do is join the end of it.
“Ultimately, you will be so pleased you did, because the food tastes so great,” says restaurateur Neil Perry who has been designing the Qantas inflight and lounge menus for 20 years. Perry speaks from experience. “I’ve queued for nearly an hour to get a bowl of noodles in an eight-seater restaurant,” he says.
However, if queuing is not your style, Perry says that choosing a restaurant at random, will still deliver a memorable dining experience. “You can sit down at just about any restaurant, even a noodle joint in a busy station, and know that you are going to get a wonderful meal,” he says. “They don’t know how to do a bad dish.”
Perry is known as a champion of Asian cuisines, but says that Japan holds a special place in his heart. He has lost track of the number of times he has visited the country – “fifteen or sixteen times, I think” – and nominates Tokyo as one of his favourite food cities in the world, along with San Sebastian. What sets Japanese cuisine apart, he says, is its seasonality and its commitment to quality.
“There is an incredible focus on craft in Japan, even in the smallest places. You get people who do just ramen: they don’t do udon noodles, they don’t do soba noodles. They do the one thing their whole lives, and they aim to do it better every single time. It’s something that I am constantly trying to instil in my staff.”
Watching these culinary masters at work is part of the joy of dining out in Japan. Most Japanese restaurants are small-scale affairs with just a handful of people at work in the kitchen. In many cases, the kitchen is set up so that diners can keep an eye on the action
It is not just the chefs who shape the dining experience, however. Perry says that he has been impressed by the hospitality of the Japanese people since his first visit, and says that generosity can be encountered at the most unexpected of times.
“When you take a taxi, the taxi driver may get out and walk you to your restaurant if it’s hard to find. That would never happen in Australia,” he says.
Eating out is not the only memorable experience awaiting food fans in Japan. Neil Perry also sings the praises of the sprawling food halls, or depachika, which lie beneath Tokyo’s major department stores. These gourmet wonderlands sell everything from takeaway treats to beautifully-wrapped foodie presents to everyday groceries. Each depachika sells not just Japanese cuisine – from yakitori and sushi to bento boxes – but also Chinese, Korean and Western foods, including pastries and chocolates.
“Your eyes will pop out of your head,” promises Perry. “Everything in there is amazing.” Unsurprisingly, what really draws him in is the grocery section. “I walk in there and I see fish and fruit and vegetables and meat of the quality I would buy for my restaurant in Australia, and it’s available at a retail level.”
Also worth a visit is Kappabashi-dori, a street specialising in all sorts of kitchenware, from lacquer soup bowls to bamboo tea canisters and ceramic sake sets. Perry is a fan of Japanese crockery: the tableware on which his Qantas meals are served is made by Japanese company, Noritake.
Japanese influences are also evident in what’s served on those plates. Perry’s winter menu on Qantas flights in Business to Japan features dishes such as beef sukiyaki with mushroom, grilled leek and bamboo rice, toasted chicken katsu sandwich with tonkatsu sauce and pickled cucumber, and Japanese rice parcels.
Perry says, “Our menus reflect the destinations we fly to, but we have to make sure that we have something for everyone.” He always includes comfort food favourites on the menu. This month, it’s eggplant lasagne and a beef brisket sandwich.
“Listening to customer feedback, engaging with the crew who prepare the menu inflight and creating dishes that use the best seasonal produce across each destination that Qantas flies to, are the three vital components to creating a successful menu each season.”
When it comes to cooking at home, Perry’s go-to Japanese ingredient is togarashi spice mix. “It’s the complexity, the combination of flavours that sets it apart: the chilli, the Sansho pepper with that slightly numbing flavour like a Szechuan pepper; the citrus hit from the ground orange peel. Also in there are flavours such as ginger, nori and black and white sesame – I’m crazy for sesame.”
In Japan, togarashi is traditionally teamed with grilled meats, noodles, rice, and soups. You will often find the condiment sitting on the table in a ramen restaurant. Perry says that he uses it virtually every day.
“I use it on everything at home. I even sprinkle it over green salad. To me, it’s as important as sea salt.”
Neil Perry’s top Japan eating picks
You don’t have to have a hit list of restaurants when you visit Japan, Neil Perry says. “You can just duck into any little place and the food will be amazing,” he says. However, if you want a few tips to start, try these.
For tempura: Motoyoshi, near Aoyama Park in Tokyo; motoyoshi-1120.com
For yakitori: The 25-seater Fuku Yakitori in Shibuya; +81 3-3485-3234
For ramen: Ippudo in Roppongi; ippudo.com
For soba: Honmura An in Roppongi; honmuraantokyo.com
For sushi: Three Michelin-starred Sushi Saito in Roppongi, +81 3-3589-4412. “It is hellishly expensive, but the food is amazing.”
Qantas flies direct daily to Tokyo from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Book at qantas.com.
For more information on culinary experiences in Japan, visit Japan National Tourism Organization’s website: www.jnto.org.au