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Cultivating Relationships, Understanding Around Food’s Place in Nature

A unique partnership between a Japanese pizza chef and a CEO dedicated to regional revitalization created a ‘cook’s sanctuary,’ where cooks and the public can connect and learn about the importance of food sustainability.

Food is one of the most crucial elements in efforts to achieve societal sustainability; but there are a wide range of issues posing challenges to food sustainability — including deforestation, water resource depletion, abnormal weather due to climate change, and many kinds of environmental pollution. In light of this, eating and drinking establishments that understand the necessity of achieving food sustainability are now working to implement sustainable business practices.

We spoke with a chef who operates a sustainable restaurant in Japan and others working with him to help tackle challenges relating to food sustainability.

The first step: carefully selected pizza ingredients

Masakazu Iwasawa — owner and chef of Pizzeria Gtalia da Filippo, in Kamishakujii in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward — is a top chef who won the title of world’s best pizza maker at the World Pizza Championship in Naples, Italy, in 2006. He creates superb, unique pizzas using a domestically produced wheat variety that he developed himself and carefully selected ingredients sourced from producers around Japan. In addition to running the restaurant, he is involved in a variety of projects — including community partnerships and a project supporting healthcare professionals. His efforts have been recognized, with Pizzeria Gtalia da Filippo earning a three-star sustainability rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association Japan. The pizzeria also won the Procurement Award at the Food Made Good Japan Awards 2022.

“Currently, awareness of sustainability issues in Japan’s restaurant industry is unfortunately not as high as it should be,” Iwasawa said. “Of course, there are cooks and food producers who are strongly aware of such issues, but their numbers are still limited. Efforts by small numbers of people won't bring about societal change. It’s crucial to raise awareness among larger numbers of people and that we all work together on advancing sustainability initiatives.”

One of the sustainability issues that cannot be solved by chefs alone relates to ingredients. The use of agrochemicals and chemical fertilizers in agriculture has allowed humanity to produce high-yielding fruit and vegetables with dependable, unvarying flavors. However, Iwasawa emphasizes the importance of cooks learning more about fruit and vegetable production with more focus on harnessing the energy of nature.

“I'm not dismissing the value of stable agriculture facilitated through the use of chemical fertilizers and agrochemicals,” he said. “However, I’ve had opportunities to go and work in the fields, and I felt that the energy inherent in naturally grown vegetables was completely different to that of vegetables grown with agrochemicals. That’s something you can only truly understand by actually holding fresh vegetables in your hands. Having that kind of experience by going to the fields and touching vegetables is something I believe cooks need more of. It’s essential for food sustainability.”

Helping cooks experience the true essence of food

Supporting Iwasawa in his endeavors is Masayuki Hosoba, CEO of Sun-Crea Co, Ltd — a food producer and self-described “social re-generator” committed to regional revitalization.

In 2020, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hosoba and his family relocated to a tiny town in Ehime Prefecture called Matsuno (population: 270) on the banks of a tributary to the great Shimanto River. There, he has worked on a revitalization project for Mori-no-Kuni hotels operated by the town government, while also looking to revive aging village communities with a focus on forests, agriculture and food. He is also working to introduce regenerative-agriculture practices — such as no-till farming and agrochemical-free methods — to unleash the inherent energy of the local farmland’s water and soil.

“Iwasawa has been supervising a Mori-no-Kuni pizzeria called Selvaggio. We make every effort to use local ingredients. When thinking about sustainability, I believe it's crucial that we remain sufficiently conscious of the fact that all natural cycles are interconnected,” Hosoba commented. “Humans are also an integral part of the broader natural world, and the meal in front of us and the world of the distant future are all interconnected. However, as Iwasawa mentioned, it's not easy to understand these concepts without actually coming here and seeing and touching things for yourself.”

Regenerative agriculture is aimed at repairing the soil and contributing to environmental restoration. It is also expected to help curb climate change by promoting carbon capture, improving water circulation, and restoring biodiversity — which makes it a critical component of food sustainability.

“Properly understanding that the ingredients of our meals are a part of the Earth’s environment is crucial. Knowing the ‘origin of food’ is meaningful for the general public but holds even greater significance for cooks and chefs.”

A ‘cook’s sanctuary,’ where cooks and consumers can connect

One can't truly understand without going, seeing, and touching. So, let's create a place where people can do that.

To create a hands-on learning environment, Hosoba and Iwasawa are creating a “cook’s sanctuary” in Matsuno — a place where young cooks and chefs from around the world interested in Japanese ingredients, climate and culture can learn about and try out cooking while feeling for themselves the cycles of nature. They have already developed new recipes using local ingredients and hosted events where local residents can taste their dishes.

“Japan is fortunately a very peaceful land of gourmet cuisine. In this country, food is not merely about satisfying hunger,” Iwasawa said. “I would like Japanese cooks to give more consideration to their social responsibilities in using ingredients to create and serve dishes. There are many wonderful regional dishes and ingredients across the country that cooks should work to discover and pass on to future generations.”

Drawing on the experience he gained in Italy, Iwasawa provides pizzas brimming with the energy of their ingredients to the people of Matsuno. He hopes to inspire a wider world of food — including cooks, local culture, agriculture, and consumers; and beyond that, the future of food.

The Sustainable Restaurant Association Japan is also lending its support to the creation of the “cook’s sanctuary.” Executive director Takeshi Shimotaya emphasizes that the focus of the “cook’s sanctuary” shouldn’t only be on the activities of cooks and food producers but should also extend to raising awareness and generating demand among consumers.

“While regenerative agriculture is garnering attention around the world, it's not yet well understood in Japan,” Shimotaya explained. “Sharing the wonderful efforts of Iwasawa and Hosoba in the form of a story that will help consumers understand their aims and lead to consumers proactively selecting sustainable food will contribute to making the restaurant industry, food producers and food itself sustainable. To achieve this, we intend to collaborate in a range of areas, including planning and publicity.”

Food-related issues concern all of humanity. There is not a single person who is not connected to it. Whether as cooks, food producers or consumers, everyone needs to come together now to work towards achieving food sustainability.